Complacency on Climate Change Is Killing Us

Panic may be the best and most logical reaction.

Posted Feb 16, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

David Wallace-Wells, in an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, writes that it's time to add energy to our logical, reasoned climate-change debate. How? Let's focus more on the very real terror of what might come for our planet. We need motivation, he says, and he looks to behavioral economics for direction. 

For reasons largely political, but also economic and psychological, the United States has shrugged off the biggest threat to its future. Why? Wallace-Wells lists multiple factors, but the bottom line is that we cannot envision the destruction we might face—even those of us who fully believe in climate science imagine a future much like our past. He acknowledges his own wishful thinking, even in the face of the massive changes he outlines in his recently published book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The world his daughter will live in, he wants to believe, is not that dystopian future that comes with increased warming, but more like the world he has enjoyed so far.

That, he says, is a reasonable response to a problem that stretches the boundaries of our emotions.

Some signs that we only partially believe the threat to our planet come in a recent poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change. Wallace-Wells writes:

In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.

Plus there's evidence from recent elections:

Last fall, voters in Washington, a green state in a blue-wave election, rejected even a modest carbon-tax plan. Are those people unwilling to pay that money because they think the game is over or because they don’t think it’s necessary yet?

Only 44 percent of those polled by the Pew Research Center said that climate change is a top political priority. Yet, unless we address it, all other priorities are moot.

The problem comes in the way we choose to see and react to threats, Wallace-Wells says: 

We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species. We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception.

Climate scientists and journalists must continue presenting science-based facts, but it may be time for us all to consider fear-based appeals, he says. If we have any hope of keeping warming between 2 and 3 degrees, we need "catastrophic thinking." Maybe that will make us see the issue clearly.