Has climate change become too scary to act?

Has climate change become too scary to act?
© getty: A home burns during the Bear fire, part of the North Lightning Complex fires in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, California on September 9, 2020.

The IPCC released a report this week outlining the current state of knowledge about climate change. For those paying attention, the report is frightening. In brief, it describes the overwhelming evidence that human behavior has led to unprecedented climate change, some changes are inevitable and irreversible, and these changes will put billions of people at risk from things like extreme weather and sea-level rise. But while the evidence is stronger, and the sense of urgency is more powerful, than in previous IPCC reports, the core message has not changed: We knew these fundamental facts before, even if we now know them more precisely. Why do most people and governments continue to function as if climate change were not happening? Why have we not been shocked into action?

Is it that people don’t trust the information? The IPCC report is the joint product of hundreds of scientists, based on an assessment of thousands of scientific research reports. It is reviewed multiple times by experts and must be approved by national governments. Those who have any faith in science — and, admittedly, there are those who don’t — will recognize the legitimacy of the report’s findings.

Is it that it seems personally irrelevant? This summer’s heatwaves and wildfires should have taught us that climate change is relevant: It is affecting our jobs, our homes, our vacations and our health. In fact, most Americans are concerned about climate change, recognize that it may affect them personally, and want the government to do something about it.

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There are many reasons why people have not yet embraced fundamental lifestyle change, not the least of which is inertia. But ironically, one of the reasons may be that climate change is too scary.

Fear and anxiety can be useful emotional signposts, warning us that there is a problem that needs our attention and inspiring attempts to solve the problem. But too much fear, in the absence of an easy solution, can provoke a different response: denial.

When something is so scary that even thinking about it makes our heart start to pound, and we don’t know what we can do about it, we learn not to think about it. So, although fear can motivate behavior if the behavioral solution is clear, it can also lead to avoiding the issue, or to paralysis in the face of what seems to be an insoluble crisis.

Fear can also be used as an excuse for inaction: If the problem is truly insoluble, there is no need for individuals to change their behavior because it won’t make any difference.

We have plenty of fear about climate change. To change behavior, we need to add hope.  Hope is not blind optimism, a faith that everything will work out. Hope is a feeling that positive change is possible. It can co-exist with worry, but not with despair.

Whereas some hope is based on an assessment of probability (“I hope it will be nice tomorrow”), there is also hope that reflects only, perhaps, a slim possibility (“We can only hope that the climate crisis will be solved”). This hope-against-hope is a motivator of action, and hope can provide young people who are concerned about climate change with a sense that it is worth taking action and there is meaning in the struggle. In a recently-published study of almost 5,000 zoo visitors in the U.S., which looked at the emotions that people experience when they think about climate action, intentions to take pro-environmental action were much more strongly predicted by feelings of hope than by feelings of anxiety.

The emotional response to climate change is more than an outcome. It is part of a process that determines our behavioral response, first as individuals but ultimately as communities and societies. Instead of focusing only on the frightening parts of the IPCC report, we need to also remember the parts that give hope: There are actions we can take now to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions that will make a difference. It is not the case that there is nothing meaningful we can do — the difference between the amount of warming that will occur if we make drastic changes now, and the amount that will occur if we continue on our current path, is enormous.

And it is not the case that no one cares. People all over the world are trying to raise awareness, to develop new technologies and to advocate for government actions. Knowing how hard people are working to address this crisis gives me hope.

Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She has published a number of papers on the mental health implications of climate change and is a lead author on the forthcoming sixth assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter: @sdclaytonphd