Pew research from 2019 found that over 80% of Americans see climate change as a threat—60% see it as a significant threat to their way of life, and two-thirds of US adults say the government is not doing enough to mitigate climate change. But voting priorities don’t reflect this concern because, as of late 2019, climate change rated as the 11th most important voting priority among registered American voters. So, we have another climate change conundrum. Why does a recognized existential threat draw such low attention as a worthy voting issue? The answer is probably that time dampens the urgency of climate change. Climate change is a long-term concern, and its position on the voting priority list reflects a range of other problems seen as more immediate.
We are aware of global warming because of scientific research. Without a long-term perspective, individuals are hard-pressed to recognize that the world’s average temperature has risen a bit since their birth. A one-degree long-term change gets lost in our daily experience where the temperature between breakfast and dinner commonly changes by ten degrees. Intellectual acknowledgment of the crisis is there, but the time scale on which climate change unfolds dampens the urgency. Issues like rising healthcare expenses take on more emotional expediency and rise higher on our voting priority lists.
Frogs in water
Drop a frog in hot water, and he will react and try to escape. But place him in cool but slowly heating water, and he will calmly remain until he boils to death. The first of these incidents reflects the poor creature’s immediate knowledge of the change in his environment and recognition of the new hostile environment into which he falls. However, in the second scenario, our protagonist’s placement in a hospitable but slowly changing environment lulls him into believing nothing is happening until it’s too late. Unfortunately, this story is a myth for frogs—they jump out of the heating water— but perhaps it applies to Homo sapiens inability to absorb the climate change threat.
The frog, bless its heart, has zero capacity for abstract thinking. When conditions in the frog’s immediate environment become inhospitable, its neurological circuitry demands a change of scenery, lest our amphibian friend starts sunbathing one fine morning and then burns to a crisp later that day from overheating in the afternoon sun. Humans, however, are good abstract thinkers. But unfortunately, abstract thinking and logical thinking are not the same.
Humans, faced with some aspects of reality, have the uncanny capability of denying the evidence and perceiving an alternate reality. Healthcare provides a benign example. An older acquaintance was expounding on the evils of socialized medicine during the heat of a national healthcare debate. I pointed out that he was on Medicare. The response was quick off the tip of his tongue, “That’s not socialized medicine because I paid for it all my working life.” When I pointed out that paying taxes to receive government-administered healthcare is the definition of socialized medicine, he staunchly held his position that Medicare was a different case and irrelevant to arguments about socialized healthcare in the USA.
A matter of time
Psychologists tell us that people’s ability to rationalize a situation and make it fit into their ideological world view is part of our primal origins and tribe mentality. Communal security and solidarity strengthen when everyone in the community believes in the same version of events. Take this concept to its extreme, and it is not a far step imagining someone creating a world view contrary to the facts and then proceeding to live happily ever after. This situation is particularly likely when the facts unfold slowly. Rapid change, like the frog dropped in hot water, shocks them back to reality. However, slow change lets people gradually rationalize the action to fit their worldview until they are boiled alive.
Humans are wired for worrying about the near-term, not about events 100 years away. Every day we incorporate new information into our world views. If you plant a sapling in the back yard, then leave your house and return 20 years later, the change will be shocking when you see the full-grown tree shading your lawn. However, if you live in the same house for 20 years and look out the back door, all you see is unchanged scenery. You don’t process the change from sapling to a tree every time you look at it.
It’s hard to take notice
Climate change happens slowly, and thus we either fail to notice it, or the slow change dampens the urgency for quick action. Humans often need clear markers to see the change. This need for visible change is why coastal communities are often the first to embrace the new reality of a changing world. They notice as their homes and communities flood more often. They live on the active margins of climate change.
Perhaps this is why the Florida GOP recently broke the Republican code of silence and used the term “climate change” in recent legislative discussions. Florida has much to lose, and therefore its residents, already living at sea level, notice the changes.
Climate change at the margins (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2019/12/16/climate-change-at-the-margins/ Also:
A look at how people around the world view climate change (By MOIRA FAGAN AND CHRISTINE HUANG; Pew Research Center) – https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/ Also:
As the 2020 election heats up, climate change becomes a bigger priority (By Justine Calma; The Verge) – https://www.theverge.com/2020/2/6/21125006/climate-change-election-2020-priority-voters-iowa-president-primaries Also:
Feature Image: Strand on the Green (Modified) – By Pointillist – Own work. Note: a previous (lower resolution) public domain version of this file was deleted