Polar bear activist for climate change
Climate Change,  Psychology

Why America Isn’t Unified in the Fight against Climate Change

 

Since its introduction to popular culture, climate change has been an issue divided on party-lines. This division appears to be growing, as according to a Gallup poll by EcoWatch, the number of democrats who believe in man-made global warming has risen from 87 to 89 percent in the past year, while the rate for republicans has dropped from 40 to 35 percent in that same time frame. This partisan divide makes climate change an excellent campaign platform for democratic politicians…but it also renders it completely ineffective at achieving any real environmental progress.

This partisan divide makes climate change an excellent campaign platform for democratic politicians…but it also renders it completely ineffective at achieving any real environmental progress.

Even to those that believe the science supporting man-made global warming is incontrovertible, it must be clear by now that it is too controversial an issue in the United States to elicit mass support of green efforts by Americans, let alone to evoke lasting federal policies on the subject. Case in point, on August 29th of 2016, President Obama entered into the Paris Agreement in which more than 190 countries promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of slowing the rate of global warming. Less than one year later, President Trump would announce the U.S.’s decision to withdraw from these accords.

While partisan distrust certainly played a role in this decision, human psychology suggests more deep-seeded reasons why climate change cannot lead to unified environmental action.

The first of these has to do with the magnitude of global warming’s potential effect on the population. Essentially, people won’t act because climate change is predicted to affect too many people. If this seems counterintuitive, consider results of this 2014 study.

In it, researchers showed volunteers a picture of a little girl and told them that she was starving, then asked them how much they would be willing to donate to help her. They repeated this process with a second group of volunteers, but in this case, they also told the volunteers about the millions of others suffering from starvation before proceeding to ask how much they would donate. Strangely enough, the people in this second group gave only about half as much money as those who were simply told about the girl.

The research suggested that people gave more when only shown the one child because they felt that their money could make a difference. But when confronted with the thought of millions suffering from starvation, their thoughts took a turn for the hopeless, as any money they donated would make only the smallest of dents in that number. In other words, it was too big of a problem.

While partisan distrust certainly played a role in this decision, human psychology suggests more deep-seeded reasons why climate change cannot lead to unified environmental action.

Now compare these figures to the posited effects of climate change: National Geographic reported in 2017 that climate change had already cost the U.S. over $240 billion, and The Nature Conservancy suggests that hundreds of millions of people could be displaced by rising waters caused by rising temperatures. Though alarming, gaudy numbers such as these only serve to detach people from the issue; there is no bigger problem than a global catastrophe.

The next problem with people’s perceptions of climate change has to do with another fundamental oddity of human behavior: we are notoriously bad at considering the future. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes the numerous flaws in our predictions for and expectations of the future. Among these is our tendency to consider our future selves as a person almost entirely separate and different from our present selves.

This leads to what has become known as temporal discounting – the tendency to value smaller rewards in the present over greater rewards, (and in this case, consequences), in the future. Research has shown that this tendency is particularly strong when it comes to decisions that might impact our future health. This rends predictions of global warming’s most alarming effects – which often span anywhere from 25 to 100 years in the future – all but useless at influencing the public.

To someone who stands behind the idea that climate change is the “defining issue of our time,” all of this is surely disheartening, and maybe even a bit frightening. But this does not mean that all hope is lost for those who are environmentally-conscious. What this does mean is that it’s time to stop focusing all of our attention on climate change, and to start focusing on the multitude of environmental issues that are too obvious and present to be controversial.

(Source: Rolex dela Peña, EPA)

For example, it isn’t necessary to rely on future models of CO2’s potential effects to demonstrate the dangers of unchecked industrialism; instead, one only needs to look at what’s happening in China right now. According to research published in 2015, air pollution in China plays a role in 4,400 deaths per day. Another study published in 2017 showed that air pollution is causing the residents of northern China to die an average of three years earlier than those living in the less-polluted southern region. While none of America’s cities suffer from the same levels of pollution as a city like Beijing, anyone who has been to Los Angeles or San Francisco and has seen the heavy smog hovering forebodingly over the city knows that the U.S. is not without its own problems in this regard.

Another current issue that has seemingly taken a backseat to media coverage of climate change is water contamination. Ask the residents of Charleston, SC, or Savannah, GA, why they tend to avoid the local beaches, choosing instead to drive a couple of hours down the coast for a dip in the ocean. A 2014 survey found that these communities are not alone, as one out of every ten beaches in the U.S. contains bacteria levels deemed unsafe by the EPA, mostly due to water pollution caused by storm-water runoff and sewage overflow.

When treated as a separate topic not under the umbrella of global warming, each of these environmental issues represents a problem that is more current, more tangible, and less politically controversial than climate change.

Remember hearing about Flint, MI, and its problems with contaminated drinking water? That’s still happening. So is deforestation, as 2017 yielded a loss of tropical rainforests roughly equivalent to the size of Washington State, a total beat only by 2016’s record of 41.7 million acres lost.

The interesting thing about each of these examples is that any policies enacted to address them would mirror those advocated by climate scientists: reduction of air pollution would mean a reduction in greenhouse emissions; cutting down water pollution would require, among other things, regulations on industrial waste; and reforestation would introduce more carbon-reducing trees to the environment.

However, when treated as a separate topic not under the umbrella of global warming, each of these environmental issues represents a problem that is more current, more tangible, and less politically controversial than climate change. (While all environmental issues seem to be at least somewhat divisive political topics, each of these is far less partisan.) Of course, this makes them less useful in terms of irritating “climate deniers” and securing democratic votes, but that’s not really the goal, is it?

The goal is to find a means to make progress towards a more environmentally-friendly world. To do so, we must find those subjects on which the most people are likely to agree. And even this is not enough, as they must also be the subjects which are most likely to evoke a tangible response. In America at least, climate change is not that issue.

For this reason, the best method of fighting climate change might just be to stop talking about it, and to refocus our environmental efforts by addressing the individual sources of the problem. In doing so, we may be able to find enough common ground to make real progress.

 

(Cover photo by Grant Neufeld exists under creative commons license)

 

Tyler Watkins received his BA in psychology from the University of Iowa and has since worked in the fields of medical and psychological research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Iowa. He is currently pursuing a career as an independent writer and journalist and has been featured in Areo Magazine and Quillette. You can follow him on Twitter @WatkinsDoOp.

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