Why Is Climate Change So Easy to Ignore?

NASA ice Melt photos
CC BY 2.0. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC BY 2.0

Way back when the "climategate" conspiracy theories were swirling, I remember one particularly adamant denier commenting that he would believe in climate change once Al Gore and other environmentalists abandoned the luxuries of electricity and fossil fuels and really put their money where their mouths were.

After all, he argued, if the crisis was as bad as we were making it out to be, why hadn't we all slashed our carbon footprints to zero to save the human race?

At the time, I thought it was a pretty lame shot.

Read The Science. Not the Lifestyle
I tend to base my reading of science on expert opinion and peer reviewed research—not the consumption habits of Democratic politicians or left leaning liberals. Yet there was a kernel of truth to our friend's jibe.

Given that climate change is already killing people and the death toll is only set to rise, the efforts most of us make to cut back our meat consumption, drive the speed limit or bike to work a few days a week seem like pitiful responses to a global crisis of almost unimaginable proportions.

Al Gore photo

Steve Jurvetson/CC BY 2.0

Where Is the Outrage?
Similarly, while many of us may fire off the occasional email to a senator or turn up to a protest from time-to-time, you'd think that the prospect of humankind radically altering the ecosystem it depends on for survival would merit a little more protest than the national deficit, or a poor-taste blasphemous YouTube video for that matter.

With US elections looming, and with new research underlining how we are underestimating the costs of this crisis, I got to mulling this over again.

Why is climate change so damn easy to ignore? Why aren't we all manning the barricades or searching for lifeboats 24/7? Why is it that I—who has chosen a career that allows me to fight this issue and changed a fair few lightbulbs in my time—find myself worrying at least as much about paying the bills or pleasing my latest clients as I do fretting over the future my children will inherit?

Climate Change protests photo

Takver/CC BY-SA 2.0

There are, I suspect, a few different things going on.

This Time It's Personal. It Just Doesn't Feel That Way.
Number one, as Simran Sethi argued in her recent TED talk, we just aren't programmed to absorb and act on huge amounts of data or global-level threats. We act when things are brought closer to home and when they are made relevant to our daily lives.

We're In This Together
Number two, we must recognize that systemic problems require systemic solutions. For all the moneyless men and extreme minimalists out there who are doubtless shifting our culture toward a less destructive paradigm, green lifestyle choices will never save us. We must bring everyone along for the ride.

An Abundance of Issues
And number three, there are simply so many other issues that can—and should—command our attention. Climate change may be the Big Daddy of all crises, but we can't afford to ignore all the other issues out there that we have to face. From biodiversity loss to labor rights and human trafficking, making the world better doesn't just mean stabilizing the climate so we can keep being mean to each other and the species we share this earth with.

Who Doesn't Get Discouraged?
Finally, I suspect, many of us are simply overwhelmed by the scale and speed with which this whole drama is unfolding. Even those of us who do try to green our lifestyles and raise a stink to the powers-that-be find it hard to see a path from where we are to where we want to be as a species. Yes, 100% renewable energy is possible. Yes, large scale reforestation should be pursued relentlessly. And yes, recent progress in dematerializing our economy is encouraging and exciting.

But when the popular culture focuses more on the Jersey Shore than our disappearing shorelines, it's astoundingly hard to remain focused and not be discouraged. But as Guy Dauncey argued recently, it's not really about whether you feel optimistic or pessimistic. It's about whether you want to fight, or simply accept defeat.

This isn't intended as some simple aren't-I-a-bad-TreeHugger confession for not living and breathing the climate change struggle. Rather, It is imperative that we recognize that even committed environmentalists don't always wake up worrying about the collapse of the Arctic sea ice.

Only then will we be able to formulate strategies that actually change minds, win hearts, and generate lasting, sustainable change.