We’re bored with climate change

The BBC suggests today that we’ve moved on from caring about climate change because we’re tired of it.

Are we tired of climate change?” the BBC asks.

“Yes,” all four experts consulted answered.

Max Boykoff, who founded the Media Climate Change Observatory, says the number of stories about climate change has ebbed, noting that NPR has reduced its environmental team from three reporters to just one.

But environmental psychologist Robert Gifford has the most fascinating observation. We don’t have the brains to consider climate change in a sustainable way.

“Our brain physically hasn’t developed much for about 30,000 years. At that time we were mostly wandering around on the Savannah, and our main concerns were very immediate: feeding ourselves right now, worrying about anybody who might try to take our territory. There was very little thinking about what might happen in five years, 10 years, or 100km away.

“We still have this same brain. Obviously we’re capable of planning, but the kind of default is to stick into the here and now, which is not very good for thinking about climate change, which is a problem that, for many people, is more in the future and farther away, or at least we think it is.

“[And] as any advertiser knows, if you don’t change your message people will just tune out. And so environmental numbness is ‘yes, I’ve heard that message before’. We’re always open to new messages, and paying more attention to new messages. So if governments or policymakers repeat the same message too often, people just tune out after a while.”

“‘What can I do about this global problem? I’m just one person, and there’s 7+ billion people on the planet. I just don’t have much control over this, so therefore I’m not going to do much about it, because my contribution, even if I did everything, wouldn’t make much difference.’

“Most of us who are trying to do something about this have realised, for example, that the polar bear metaphor is not
a great one. Yes, we have some sympathy for this poor polar bear, but it’s not close enough to our own lives.

“Uncertainty is a really big problem. We’ve learned in my own laboratory from experimental evidence that when people feel a bit uncertain about an environmental problem – if the future temperature might vary from a half a degree increase to a one and a half degrees increase – people will say ‘well, it’s probably only going to be a half a degree increase, so I’ll keep flying to some tropical place’.

“It’s a natural human tendency to interpret information in a way that suits our personal interests.

“Talking about climate change doesn’t have to involve ‘talking about climate change’,” says another.

Related: Berkeley and San Francisco Are Pushing to Put Climate Change Warning Labels on Gas Pumps (CityLab).