Why Don't People Care About Climate Change?

They have other things on their mind, like being hit by a car.

car crash
People fear this more than climate change.

Halfpoint/ Getty Images

Treehugger was founded by Graham Hill as "a green lifestyle website dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream." Sustainability is often defined as "meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," and doesn't seem to be much more mainstream now than it was then. Here we are, 18 years later, and key sustainability issues like climate change are not top of mind for most people, and Treehugger is not the world's biggest website.

One reason might be because of people's perception of risk. The Lloyd's Register Foundation is a charity that "helps to protect life and property at sea, on land, and in the air." It hired Gallup to do a World Risk Poll in 2020, using 2019 data, and just published its latest 2022 poll with 2021 data, after polling 125,911 people in 121 countries, mostly by telephone. One poll was pre-pandemic, and the other during it. Chief executive Dr. Ruth Boumphrey compares the two:

"Looking at this first report of the 2021 World Risk Poll, what strikes me most about the findings is what hasn’t changed, as much as what has. People globally still worry about perennial threats such as road crashes, crime, and violence more than any other risks, including Covid-19, and this has important implications for how policymakers work with communities to manage emerging public health challenges in the context of their everyday lives."

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that North Americans believe that their greatest daily source of risk is from road-related accidents and injuries at 29%, followed by crime and violence at 11%. Australia and New Zealand put road risk at 33%, weirdly followed by cooking and household accidents at 11%.

At first, I thought this is terrible; we have been writing about road safety for years, and nothing gets fixed, and yet it is North Americans' biggest worry! And what's wrong with Australian kitchens? But when you look at the numbers, you realize that this is a result of rich countries not suffering as much from many of the things other countries worry about, such as Latin America with crime and violence at 43%, Africa worrying about not having money, and North Africa worried about disease.

Covid-19 was considered a major risk in some parts of the world, but "its impact was moderate overall, and day-to-day risks such as road-related injuries, crime and violence, and economic concerns remained top-of-mind for most people."

This has been the perennial sustainability story; day-to-day issues and worries have higher priority. Climate change gets its own special section of the risk report and it comes to much the same conclusion. The authors start by noting that "the global risk posed by climate change is widely recognised, and warnings about its effects are increasingly dire. A recent joint statement by more than 200 medical journals called the rapidly warming climate the 'greatest threat to global public health.'"

But then they dig into the data and find that, while 67% of respondents consider climate change a threat, only 41% deem it serious. It varies by education:

"The likelihood of people viewing climate change as a very serious threat to their country was much lower among those with primary education or less (32%) than among those with secondary (47%) or post-secondary (50%) education. More than a quarter of people in the lowest education group (28%) said they ‘don’t know,’ compared to 13% among those with secondary education and 7% with at least some post-secondary education."

Logically, people who had experienced severe weather events were more likely to consider climate change to be a serious threat, although even then, there is a correlation with education. So university grads in Fort Myers are probably pretty convinced that climate change is a problem right now. The conclusion:

"As in 2019, the 2021 World Risk Poll findings demonstrate the powerful influence of education on global perceptions of climate change. The data highlight the challenge of reaching people who may be vulnerable to risk from extreme weather but have low average education levels, such as agricultural communities in low- and middle-income countries and territories... Spreading awareness of how climate change may directly impact people’s lives may be crucial in broadening local efforts to reduce carbon emissions and build resilience to the effects of rising temperatures."

Education has always been a problem because, as climate journalist Amy Westervelt noted after the latest IPCC report, there are powerful forces interested in downplaying the importance of climate change. She wrote, "The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests." Education would have a lot to do with how susceptible people are to their stories.

In many ways, we have seen this movie before, in the Great Recession of 2008. When people are worrying about whether they can heat or they can eat, or apparently whether they will survive crossing the street, then climate change is something they can worry about later.

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