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Climate change apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet
(The Guardian, 5 Oct 2018) The easy way to cut emissions – closing coal power stations – is exhausted. Now the public has to be convinced to make sacrifices.
Three years after world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement, we’re about to better understand what that deal means for how we live our lives. On Monday, a major report from the UN’s climate science panel will set out what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5C, the key Paris target.
There are reasons to think the world is, finally, getting to grips with climate change. Carbon emissions are still rising but more slowly than before, and in many countries they’re falling. The UK has slashed its emissions to 19th-century levels, and we’re not alone – plenty of other countries, including the US, are making progress as well. Crucially, that’s happened without many people noticing, suggesting the world might be able to deal with the problem without having to persuade the public to change their polluting lifestyles.
But this is wishful thinking. The UK’s recent emissions cuts have mostly come from shutting coal power stations, which had few friends, and there aren’t many left to close. And that only happened after years of campaigning, but it was still much easier than what is to come. Cutting emissions further to stop dangerous warming will depend on people changing how they live: flying less and eating less meat and dairy, for example. There’s no way this can be done as quietly as what’s been achieved so far.
Persuading people to cut down on things they enjoy for the sake of the climate might seem impossible. In most European countries, about three-quarters of the public say they’re worried about climate change, yet less than a third would accept higher taxes on fossil fuels to cut emissions.
But this climate apathy can be overcome if it’s tackled in the right way. The first step is to understand the psychology behind apathy. Climate change is exactly the kind of threat our minds aren’t equipped to worry about. It seems distant, happening mostly in the future and to other people. The widespread tendency to think “I’ll be OK”, known as optimism bias, makes it easier for people to assume such distant problems won’t affect them.
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