Can we really ignore climate change now?

When talking about climate change one would think that the end of the world would be enough to get us scared. We have always been an exceedingly risk-averse species—which is also one of the reasons we survived as a species. If there are lions on one part of the savannah, we go to another. If crocodiles keep coming out of the river, we fish somewhere else. So why is it that when it comes to take action to prevent the loss of life on the entire planet we don’t do anything at all.

This behaviour is on display again, in the wake of an announcement by United Nations Inter-governmental panel on climate change, that a catastrophe is near—and the distant future of an Earth ravaged by floods, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes and cyclones isn’t far anymore, but as close as mere 12 years away. According to the report if we don’t act fast the temperatures are expected to rise by a staggering 1.5 C above the average pre-industrial era – and has been touted as a tipping point for a calamity. Hearing this there has been a wide uproar amongst the members of the public and people have started to take action against climate change, big oil companies have started to commit to prevent climate change and….we wish all of it were true. As always the public reaction towards the climate change has been – meh.

Why are we like this? Research published over the decaes have shown us that we are masters at miscalculating risk – over prepare for things that are low in imminent danger and ignoring things that are. Climate change represents everything that is wrong with our thinking towards the planet and calls of environmental scientists and policy makers to wake people from the perils we are going to face are getting ignored. For starters, it lacks the absolutely critical component—the “me” component. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and looks at the longterm climate forecast,” says David Ropeik, an international consultant on risk perception and communication, formerly with the Harvard School of Public Health. “They ask what the weather is today, where I live, and how it’s going to affect me.”

That’s sensible as far as it goes. One of the main reasons behind this is the way humans think- immediate concerns will always trump eventual concerns. Even if try to think about climate change, we will not be able to see changes right away – not in a day, in a week, in a month or even a year. Change comes gradually and if one thing that past has shown us, is that humans lack one thing called as ‘patience’. Also to change the things in the future we would need to sacrifice a lot in the present which most countries aren’t willing to do so.

Advancements in technologies have become so fast that our comfort levels have risen dramatically and today comfort has become a paramount wall between us and a greener Earth. Paul Slovic, Psychologist – University of Oregon said, “When it comes to acting on problems, the lure of our current comforts and conveniences will often cause us to act contrary to our values. If we think the consequences are far in the future, we tend to discount the risk. People just aren’t going to inconvenience themselves unless they’re forced to.”

Indeed, even when the risk is not far in the future—when, say, a hurricane is cannonballing toward the coast and the government orders an evacuation—plenty of people still don’t budge. Here, what’s known as the optimism bias is at work. Other people may need to make tracks, but your storm windows are top-of-the-line or your house is on slightly higher ground, so why get off the couch? If we find it so easy to talk ourselves out of acting in the face of a storm that’s just days away, a disaster that’s many years away doesn’t stand a chance.

We establish that kind of distance from risk not just temporally but geographically and culturally. If you live in an inland region, well, the floods are going to inundate the suckers on the coast, not you. If you live on the coast, it’s the south coast that’s going to get hit and you live north. And developed nations like the U.S. are typically going to be able to deal with climate instability better than developing ones, which allows us to conclude that while disasters happen elsewhere they don’t happen here.

“The question is often, ‘Do I feel vulnerable?’” says Slovic. “For the most part we don’t and that shapes our behavior.”

Even when we do try to personalize things, we have a hard time doing it. We can picture what it would be like to get eaten by a shark, Ropeik says, or die in a mass shooting or an airplane crash. That leads us to over-prepare for those risks—arming teachers, avoiding the beach, driving instead of flying even though driving is manifestly more dangerous.

“But if you ask even the most devout climate change believers how they think it’s going to affect them, they often can’t quite describe it,” he says. If it’s hard to picture, it’s easy to ignore.

Finally, there’s a sense of futility—the inefficacy factor, as risk experts put it. Climate change is a huge problem—arguably the biggest of all problems—and that makes individual action seem awfully pointless. “We reason that we can curtail things we want to do—like driving or flying,” says Slovic, “but if other people aren’t going to do it, it’s not going to make any difference.”

Of course, every great human enterprise has called on people not to do things they want to do or to do things they don’t—paying taxes, volunteering for military service, tolerating rationing in time of war. None of it is fun, none of it is easy, but all of it has helped ensure the success of the larger human project and the survival of the next generations. If we can’t bestir ourselves now, in the face of yet another alarming report from the climate change scientists, we’re going to owe those generations an explanation—and an apology.