Climate Corner: Easy to ignore big picture
Sep 10, 2022
A man opens a newspaper and reads the headline: “Climate endgame: Risk of human extinction ‘dangerously underexplored.’”
He reads a paragraph into the story before folding the paper and skipping to the next article below the fold.
“Scientists Say It’s ‘Fatally Foolish’ To Not Study Catastrophic Climate Outcomes,” it begins.
He unfolds the paper and scans the headlines, before turning each page in disgust.
“Major sea-level rise caused by melting of Greenland ice cap is ‘now inevitable’”
“Revealed: How climate breakdown is supercharging toll of extreme weather”
“Climate impacts have worsened vast range of human diseases”
“The Arctic is heating up nearly four times faster than the whole planet, study finds”
“U.S. Sets Record for High Overnight Temperatures in July, Giving Little Relief to Hot Days”
“Climate Crisis Is Killing Off Key Insects and Spreading Insect-Borne Diseases”
“Antarctica’s Ice Shelves Could be Melting Faster than We Thought”
At last the man can’t stand it. He snaps the paper shut and wads it into a pile in his lap, eventually tossing it into the garbage.
He steps onto his front porch into the dreary grayness of a new day. He reads his front porch thermometer, then straightens up with a triumphant smile on his face. The temperature has gone down nearly 20 degrees overnight, and the day is unseasonably cold.
“Ha!” he exclaims. “Where’s you’re global warming now, liberals?!”
The scenario I’ve described is obviously a composite, but every headline is real, as is the man and his reaction to them.
A study in “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes” has found humans are often more inclined to rely on anecdotal, non-scientific/fact-based evidence, particularly in situations involving stressful and/or highly emotional circumstances.
It makes sense, to a degree, that we might be designed to process information this way. Throughout the majority of our existence, we’ve had no particular reason or incentive to take the entire world or any scientific body of evidence into consideration. Until the last few hundred years or so, we really haven’t had the ability to consider how our actions might impact someone living on the other side of the world, or how events around the globe might have a deep and unexpected impact on our own lives.
We’ve gotten through life by reacting to what was happening in our immediate surroundings, without having to take the abstract behemoth of a wider world into consideration. It isn’t surprising, then, that we in our isolated little pockets of existence should struggle to comprehend the hydra-like tangle of global complexities that is the anthropogenic climate crisis.
A few weeks ago I happened across a letter to the editor in another newspaper, which essentially made the argument: “If sea levels are really rising like the climate people all say, then how come when I watch Wheel of Fortune they give away all these prize getaway packages to beautiful islands, when they should all be under water by now?”
The question is so absurd I’m not going to bother with addressing it, but I feel it perfectly encapsulates the idea I’ve been describing. This person may be completely unaffected by the 99% of scientific papers agreeing about the dangers of the anthropogenic climate crisis, but this small window into the wider world, which has likely been beamed into their home every weekday evening since the 1980s, is enough to nullify the threat of one of the greatest crises ever faced by humanity. They simply trust what they know.
It isn’t hard to understand why an average person might feel an unseasonably cold day in their neighborhood is evidence against global warming. Or why they feel deadly famines in a part of the world they’ve never heard of have nothing to do with them. Or why, as in a case like Kentucky’s deadly summer flooding, even those climate catastrophes which directly harm us and our immediate neighbors don’t necessarily correlate with global warming.
At the end of the day, we’re simply better at understanding things that are close to home. The mind-bending complexity of the climate crisis, coupled with the well documented, decades-long efforts of the fossil fuel industry to obfuscate the truth and spread misinformation, can make it seem easier to shut it out of our minds and deny there’s a threat.
But it IS a threat that grows larger and closer to our doorstep each day. For far too many, the threat has already arrived. And it is critical we begin to challenge how we think about the world around us, and learn how to engage directly with the facts of the climate crisis, however difficult or inconvenient. Only then can we take the steps needed to overcome the many challenges ahead and have some hope of surviving this crisis, together.
Aaron Dunbar is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.