Since 1950, humans have manufactured more goods than have ever existed in history. Our consumption of those goods – a highly inefficient use of our natural capital – has wrought a long list of environmental consequences. Staggering deforestation, check. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions, check. Rising heat, sea level, and incidence of extreme weather events – check, check and check.
To environmental experts, such evidence is the proverbial writing on the wall: we must transition to a low-carbon economy, stat, in order to avoid irrevocable damage. As President Obama affirmed, upon accepting his party's nomination for president, no less:
"Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future."
The president's choice of words seemed a pointed response to Republican Senator James Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax and, it's worth noting, recipient of $1.3m in campaign contributions from the oil and gas lobby.
Political maneuvering aside, why are Americans so disengaged from climate change – arguably, one of the most critical problems of our time?
Denial ain't just a river in Egypt; it's also in places like North Carolina and perhaps even embedded into America's cultural DNA. According to the latest study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the American public's concern about global warming can be sorted into six categories, ranging from alarmed (13%) and concerned (26%), to cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive (that's the other 61% of us). Among the many explanations offered for the knowledge gap are clashing worldviews, varying education levels, demographics, and the media's handling of the issue.
Even as evidence for climate change mounts and the consequences of the phenomenon become more severe, the amount of climate coverage on broadcast networks has plummeted. According to a stunning analysis by Media Matters, the Sunday morning current affairs shows averaged about one hour each on climate change in 2009, compared to averaging 21 minutes apiece in 2010 and only 9 minutes per program in 2011. In 2011, Fox News Sunday covered climate change the most (just under an hour), "but much of the coverage promoted the 'Climategate' controversy and downplayed the threat of climate change," reports Media Matters.
At the other end of the spectrum, CBS had the least climate change coverage, devoting four minutes to the topic in three years. Altogether, in 2011, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox spent twice as much time discussing Donald Trump's "will he, won't he" run for president rather than climate change. In fact, NBC's Meet the Press devoted 23 minutes to Trump that year – but not a single minute to climate change.
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While there is virtually no mention of climate change in the local news, reporters have turned the weather into a national pastime. Perhaps this is because storms, hurricanes and tornadoes ignite a primal reaction, whereas climate change requires an intellectual one. There is also a perception of trust that grows from constant visibility on television – although we poke fun at the weatherman, we still hide in our closets during tornado warnings. On the other hand, we regard PhD-level climate scientists with suspicion, even though their work must hold up to rigorous peer review. The weather versus climate conflict illustrates what behavioral economists have said for years:
"We base our decisions on emotion far more than reason."
Flawed climate risk perception may also explain why meteorologists have an advantage over climate scientists in making immediate weather more urgent than climate change. Although hard data do influence thinking, the psychology of risk perception is complicated. Often, our fears defy reason and statistics. For instance, blood-curdling events like shark attacks and plane crashes scare the living daylights out of us, when we have more reason to be afraid of climbing into our cars each morning: sharks claim about 12 lives per year, while car crash fatalities average around 93 per day. In the case of climate change, fear over problems that will affect us 50 years from now cannot compare with fear of challenges we face today. What people don't understand is that climate change is, in fact, already affecting our economy.
It's understandable that our perception of risk may lead us to focus on surviving an immediate disaster more than preventing a future one. But it defies logic that so many would fall prey to "infotainers" such as Glenn Beck, who uses sustainable development as fodder for jokes. From McKinney, Texas to Trenton, New Jersey, sustainable development projects are being held up due to aggressive pushback and fear-mongering over Agenda 21, a voluntary initiative that some suspect to be diabolical attempt on the part of the UN to force a one-world government.
Fortunately, most folks are not held back by reactionary ideology so much as basic lack of exposure to the problem. More than 1 billion people live in low-lying coastal areas, and most live in poverty. Already, at least 25 million climate refugees and counting are facing the consequences. For them, climate change is no longer an abstract concept to get their minds around; they are literally wading through it.
Seeing is believing. If weak perception of risk is our blind spot, we needn't let the media keep us in the dark. Instead, we can use media – pictures, videos and websites such as National Geographic – to confront the challenges, and so mobilize citizens and students toward solutions. Weather may fade, but pictures of post-drought west Texas, hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and submerging countries such as Tuvalu are a stark reminder that climate change carries not only an economic or environmental toll, but also a human one.
Sure, we can always evacuate, but we cannot get around paying a price for avoiding climate change. And the price – like the sea level – keeps rising.