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Why aren’t we more afraid of global warming? The psychology of procrastinating on climate change

Natasha Preskey
·8-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“I don’t expect to die from old age,” Margaret Klein Salamon tells me matter-of-factly. The clinical psychologist-turned-climate-activist is talking to me over the phone from a New York City park, where she is walking her dog. “It’s hard to know exactly how things are going to play out,” the 35-year-old continues. Salamon is certain, though, that she won’t be around to succumb to natural causes, thanks to the escalating climate emergency. “Fifty years from now, when I would be 85? No, I do not expect that.”

Salamon’s day job involves helping connect those who are feeling grief, fear and anxiety about the climate crisis with likeminded people through online guided group sessions - such is the weight of emotion they are experiencing. But many people in the general population, outside of these therapy groups, can struggle to conjure strong emotions about climate change - even if they believe the science and do not deny what is happening. In fact, for vast numbers of people, “the environment” is just another phrase in a headline that isn’t enticing enough to click on.

Research by YouGov published in 2019 found that just 27 per cent of Brits ranked the environment among the top three issues facing the country, with Brexit coming top (67 per cent) and health second (32 per cent). A 26-nation survey by the Pew Research Center also found that people in eight countries including France, Italy and Russia saw terrorism as the most pressing international threat, ahead of climate change. In the US and Japan, cyberattacks from other countries were seen as the biggest cause for concern.

Why, though? 2020 tied for the hottest year on record. The previous year, 33 people died in the Australian bushfires, which also killed or harmed over three billion animals. The destruction of natural habitats is poised to cause more and more pandemics.

According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we don’t meet the aims of the Paris Agreement and keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees, 10 million more people will lose their homes to rising seas. This month alone, almost 80 people have died in a winter storm in Texas, a freak weather event scientists say is linked to heating in the Arctic, as it pushes cold air from the north pole further south. What is it about the demise of humanity as a result of the climate crisis that, somehow, doesn’t sufficiently frighten us?

It’s not that we’re actually not scared, Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and social work teaching fellow at the University of Bath, tells The Independent. In fact, she says those who believe in climate change - but just aren’t feeling the fear - are likely being defended by an automatic response in their brain.

“When we face a threat, it triggers a defense against the anxiety that that threat will generate in us,” she explains. “It happens automatically, and it happens outside of awareness, unconsciously. And then we go into a defensive mode of fundamentally fight, flight or freeze.”

We go into a defensive mode of fundamentally fight, flight or freeze

Caroline Hickman

“People who appear to not be frightened are very defended, they’re not allowing that anxiety to penetrate,” Hickman, who is part of the Climate Psychology Alliance, continues.

As well as suppressing difficult emotions about climate change, Salamon says many people aren’t aware of the “stakes” and human cost attached to the climate emergency.

“I don’t mean to sound heartless but people can’t get too worked up about polar bears,” she says, adding that it can be difficult for people to be emotionally affected by things happening geographically far from them, or due to happen in the future. Instead, we are hardwired to react to events right in front of us - like a terror incident unfolding or someone being attacked.

Our brains are programmed to look for “evidence of threat”, says Hickman, using the example of a cave man being faced with a saber-toothed tiger or a man with a spear and making a snap assessment about which he could fight off more easily. “We’re still fundamentally fairly basic animals psychologically,” she explains. “Which way are you going to run?”

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

People can engage with a “fighting narrative” around something like Covid-19, which has solutions we can observe taking effect, she says. “‘When we beat this, when we get back to normal, the vaccine will defeat this, we can fight this’,” Hickman says, invoking the language politicians use to talk about the pandemic. “That gives us this sense that we have agency, we have power, we can do something about this. And it’s immediate.”

For example, people witness coronavirus case numbers falling after following restrictions - there is a direct action and consequence in real time - but are unlikely to see immediate rewards from making lifestyle choices around sustainability, she explains. “If you stop flying, or stop driving, or recycle your plastic, you don’t see the immediate feedback of the impact that’s having on the bigger threat, which is climate emergency,” Hickman says. “So the whole feedback loop gives us information that says you’re not making any difference.”

Our perception of the threat posed by climate change is also skewed by how it’s presented to us, says Salamon, who points out that climate stories often aren’t written in such a “visceral” way as news stories about stabbings or cases of coronavirus.

People just aren’t getting the full story

Margaret Klein Salamon

“People just aren’t getting the full story, which is that the food system is going to collapse. civilisation is going to collapse,” she says. “Billions of people are going to die, you could very well die, your family could die, the stakes could not be higher. But we just don’t hear that.”

While the consequences are likely to be “absolutely horrifying”, Salamon continues, two degrees of global warming and the loss of polar bears can sound “distant” in a way that doesn’t evoke the justified response.

Rare events like terrorism, which present a lightning-strike risk to most people, inspire far more emotional responses in many of us. Ideas of proximity are key here, says Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist and co-director of Climate Psychologists.

“Terrorism, by its very nature, is designed to create a widespread, yet highly personal impact on people. You are supposed to think, ‘that could be me, that could be my kid’,” he explains. “The problem with climate change is the distance of its direct impacts on most of us is still too abstract to engage with.”

As well as making an individual assessment of personal risk, we also use the reactions of our peers to gauge how scared we should be feeling. Salamon says this can lead to what is known as pluralistic ignorance.

“Humans evaluate risk socially, not rationally,” she tells me. “Why did we know coronavirus was serious? Well, the media told us and also everyone started to act differently. And people are very influenced by that. If your friends and family are taking it seriously, you’ll probably take it seriously. If they aren’t, you probably won’t.”

According to Dr Kennedy-Williams, the likelihood of your peers taking environmental issues seriously, and of you feeling proximate to the threat of climate change, can be affected by factors such as your age and whether you’ve been directly affected by it already (for example, as the result of a natural disaster).

For some, there are simply other issues that require urgent action, like ‘Where is my child’s next meal going to come from?

The other threats and pressures that already exist elsewhere in your life are also a factor, says Megan Kennedy-Woodard, climate coaching psychologist and co-director of Climate Psychologists. Socio-economics, culture and education are all important factors to consider when observing how people engage with ecological issues.

“We are dealing with a variety of audiences who are receiving information about climate change,” she says. “For some, there are simply other issues that require urgent action, like ‘Where is my child’s next meal going to come from?’ or ‘Will we make rent this month?’”

While recognising the reality of the threat we face is key to taking action, the psychologist notes that, at a certain point, climate anxiety can become “too big” to allow us to act usefully.

“We really want people to strike the balance between their mental wellbeing and committed sustainable action,” she explains. “There is a saying, ‘When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time’, and this is the mentality we need.”

Being the right degree of scared is a tricky balance. Tackling climate apathy is a non-negotiable requirement but, if we allow ourselves to constantly feel the high-adrenaline type of fear we’d experience, for example, while witnessing a crime, we may end up being little use in the fight against climate change.

This article was amended on 17 March, 2021, to change a reference from ‘climate change’ to ‘the environment’ in relation to the 2019 YouGov survey.

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