Climate Change Is A Major Threat To Us All, But Here’s Why You Might Not Care

The fatigue is real.
Woods Wheatcroft via Getty Images

When it comes to communicating the dangers of climate change -- a pretty pressing task when fewer than 1 in 4 Americans say they're extremely worried about it -- it's not so simple as reminding people how bad the outlook for the planet is.

In fact, scientists in the burgeoning field of conservation psychology warn, there may be a limit to how much bad news about the climate people can handle before they become numb to it.

It's a concern that even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is grappling with. Tasked with announcing last month that global temperatures had shattered heat records for the eleventh month in a row, the agency said they were sharing the news "at the risk of sounding like a broken record."

NOAA didn't return requests to elaborate on that unusual lead-in, but experts at the intersection of psychology and conservation say climate change fatigue is a real concern as increasingly alarming data about the state of the planet emerges.

"Reporting our environmental realities is critical for maintaining a sense of urgency," said Elise Amel, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas and the president of the American Psychological Association's Society of Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology. "However, people do get overwhelmed by too much gloom and doom if they can’t see a way out."

And there has been a lot of gloom and doom lately: NOAA and NASA declared 2015 the hottest year on record -- previously 2014 had been. The global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history last year, and we're already halfway to the 2 degrees of warming threshold, the point at which scientists believe global warming will cause irreparable damage to the planet.

But there is evidence of a "finite pool of worry," or a limit to the amount of concern a person can feel about a crisis, Amel explained. Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions also points to that concept as something to consider when raising climate awareness.

"Studies also show that the effects of worry can lead, paradoxically, to emotional numbing," CRED writes in its guide on the psychology of climate change communication. "This occurs after repeated exposures to emotionally draining situations and is a commonly observed reaction in individuals living in war zones or dealing with repeated hurricane threats in a short period."

Several studies, the APA notes, have found that apathy about climate change may stem from overexposure to the news or emotional paralysis due to the size of the problem, which prevents people from "learning about the threat and forming a more informed reaction."

It's just like any response to unpleasant information, explained Craig Chalquist, an eco-psychologist and department chair of East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

"We tend to defend ourselves in different ways against intolerable knowledge, so when you’re telling people this end of the world news, their defenses kick in and they start numbing unconsciously," he said.

Chalquist said he even observed the phenomenon in a room full of scientists, educators and therapists a few years ago after a presentation revealing new information about the poor outlook of the climate.

"There was so much bad news that everybody felt numb and hopeless in the end," he said. "It turned their feelings off all together. The presenters asked people what they thought and they said, 'I feel hopeless and I feel helpless to do anything.'"

Leaving people with an attitude like that, Chalquist argues, is "totally counterproductive" and evidence of the need to consider human behavior when discussing dire environmental issues. He'd like to see climate activists and the media highlight more solutions and hopeful news about the climate.

"We’re pretty good as a society of saying what we’re against, but I see hardly anything about what we’re for," he said. "I'd like to see stories and images and anecdotes about how beautiful the Earth could be if we lived on it sustainably,
and more about successful experiments in sustainability, especially about communities that are getting this right all over the world. People can look at that and say, 'That inspires me; it’s not just doom.'"

Suzanne Shaw, the director of communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that's an important part of her organization's messaging.

"When you give people information about solutions, they’re much more willing to engage in the kind of action because it actually feels actionable rather than, 'Oh God, more bad news,'" she said.

"It is important for people to hear frequently about climate change, but it’s really not about having them understand more and more and more about the threats," she added. "It’s really more having them understand what it is that we can do."

An integral part of that is scaling the problem to feel more personal, Amel says.

"Linking climate change to people’s experience, special places and close relationships can remind people of its relevance and importance, elevating it to a position within the finite pool of worry," she explained.

Shaw endorses that tactic.

"Talking about polar bears in the Arctic resonates with some people, but for most people that has very little to do with their day-to-day lives." Pointing to king tides and rising sea levels, increased flooding, droughts in the west and anything people see as having an impact on their families, health and property is more effective, she argues.

And framing climate change as a more local issue and focusing on the nature at stake may be especially impactful when communicating with climate change deniers. Semantics, environmental psychologists like Chalquist and Amel emphasize, are important.

"I’ve talked to farmers and people involved in agriculture, some of whom are very conservative politically, and if I start talking about the environment, they’re not going hear me," Chalquist said. "But if I say, 'Boy you’ve got this ranch here; this is beautiful country,' they get that, because they love their country. So some of it is a matter of vocabulary and using terminology that people feel at home with."

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