Avoiding apocalypse fatigue

[Corrrection: In my last blog I referred to Myron Thompson, former Reform Party MP and Conservative MP under Harper as one of the backbenchers the PM has managed to keep from making embarrassing statements. It turns out he didn’t run in the 2008 election. Just shows you how successful Harper was. On duty or retired, who can tell the difference?]

We need to keep reminding ourselves that if we want to inspire people to change the world we have to do more than scare the hell out of them.  The issue of global warming is becoming less and less important to Americans (I haven’t seen recent polling regarding Canadians) and the reason, according to a couple of prominent environmental analysts, is what they call apocalypse fatigue.

The numbers are not encouraging. The major increase in public attention and concern brought about by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth film, and his media blitz, seemed to promise a permanent change in attitude. But according to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that concern is rapidly decreasing. “Belief that global warming is occurring had declined from 71 percent in April of 2008 to 56 percent in October [2009] — an astonishing drop in just 18 months. The belief that global warming is human-caused declined from 47 percent to 36 percent.”

But those numbers aren’t the bad news. According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger the actual support for government action on climate change has been very consistent over the past 20 years – regardless of new science or other developments that play to the issue. “Roughly two-thirds of Americans have consistently told pollsters that global warming is occurring. By about the same majority, most Americans agree that global warming is at least in part human-caused…”

No, the bad news is that although people express support for action, that support is very weak. “Looking back over 20 years, only about 35 to 40 percent of the U.S. public worry about global warming ‘a great deal,’ and only about one-third consider it a ‘serious personal threat.’ Moreover, when asked in open-ended formats to name the most serious problems facing the country, virtually no Americans volunteer global warming.”  Other environmental problems – like pollution and air quality – get mentioned more often.

Why do only half of those who support action on climate change say it’s a priority for them? Nordhaus and Shellenberger turn to political psychology for the answers and find some in the notion of “system justification” which they describe as the fact that“…many people have a psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be. This need manifests itself, not surprisingly, in the strong tendency to perceive existing social relations as fair, legitimate, and desirable, even in contexts in which those relations substantively disadvantage the person involved.”

The other factor making commitment to action weak is that the threat seems far off and is connected to very ordinary daily activities – not some specific, looming event. In response to this low level of commitment, some climate activists emphasize the worst case scenarios as if they were the most likely – hoping to push people to greater commitment.  But it isn’t working – it is driving moderates and conservatives, climate fence sitters away rather than getting them to make a greater commitment.

I have written before that what we are really talking about regarding climate change (combined with the limits of growth and the finite nature of energy and other natural resources) is a cultural revolution. While Nordhaus and Shellenberger aren’t calling for such change they make the point that implied in the demands of climate activists are changes most Americans (and Canadians, I expect) are not prepared to make – at least not to prevent a far-off apocalypse. “Having been told that climate science demands that we fundamentally change our way of life, many Americans have, not surprisingly, concluded that the problem is not with their lifestyles but with what they’ve been told about the science.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger are focused narrowly on the issue of climate change and try to end their article on an optimistic note saying most Americans will support action on climate change: “…so long as the costs are reasonable and the benefits, both economic and environmental, are well-defined.”

But that optimism contradicts their own analysis. In fact, the costs are not “reasonable” if we accept uncritically as a basic assumption the continued existence of  a perverse consumer society based on continued unlimited economic growth around the world. To make the demands of climate change action “reasonable” we have to redefine what reasonable means – and that calls for a for a revolutionary change in the way we see ourselves, the way we live our lives, our relationship to nature and what actually makes us happy.

Until we integrate the demands of climate change into a positive vision of the future – until we quit organizing for progressive change by  trying to address a whole list of single issues, only vaguely connected to each other, real change will remain elusive.

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