Why don’t we do anything about climate change?

Lack of action on climate change will especially impact our children
Lack of action on climate change will especially impact our children

News: Our climate–Earth’s climate–is changing. It’s a fact, not a theory, not a guess. Overall, our climate is getting warmer; we will see fewer periods of “normal weather”, there will be longer stretches of extreme temperatures (hot and cold), longer periods of drought interspersed with sporadic episodes of torrential rain or heavy snow. Ice at the Poles is melting rapidly; sea levels are rising. We will see more frequent and more powerful storms, more and larger wildfires, more climate refugees fleeing areas that will become virtually uninhabitable. The areas of the Earth without enough fresh water will grow, large numbers of animal and plant species are declining or becoming extinct, the impacts of climate stress on people will grow including a likely increase in the number of suicides … all of this and more is happening right now and will continue. Our children, our children’s children, and future generations will pay the price of our collective inaction, greed, and folly.

So, why don’t we do something about it? Why didn’t we do something about it? There was research back in the 1970’s and 1980’s that pointed clearly at what was going to happen if we did not act. But, we–collectively–have done almost nothing.

Why?

Because, humans are strange creatures. Psychologically, “humans are naturally prone to making short-term decisions as opposed to pursuing longer-term collective interests.” Short-termism may be one of the greatest threats today to humankind. People are impacted much more by the concrete rather than the abstract. And, climate change is often presented in a very abstract way. Charts, graphs, text–it will impact us but we don’t know exactly how much and only sometime in the hazy future. In contrast, “concrete information tends to convey greater urgency, triggering the belief that we need to act now.” Concrete information is also more likely to trigger strong emotions. “And, concrete experiences can have powerful effects.”

Missouri River flooding in Iowa 2019
Missouri River flooding in Iowa 2019

For example, watching unprecedented spring flooding in the midwestern U.S. on TV or your computer from the comfort of your (dry) living room makes the event seem abstract. It’s happening over there, somewhere else; it’s not happening to me or in my town. But, having your own house flooded, your possessions destroyed, your town submerged, your life upended–that is very concrete and may cause you to move away from the river and start a new life, or at least to buy flood insurance, etc.; it may cause you to take immediate, real action.

Flood damage inside a home
Flood damage inside a home

So, what does this mean for climate change? Is there a lesson here that can assist long-term beneficial collective action to reduce, mitigate, and adapt to climate change?

Make climate change concrete, make it personal, show the impact on children, our children, especially. Make it real enough that we extend our default, selfish human self-interest from the short-term to the future, even extend it to a concern for other species … that may drive action and make us collectively more mindful of our impact on the future.

Learn more: Read the article (Paul A.M. Van Lange and Brock Bastian, Scientific American, 23 April 2019).