For many years scientists have been bringing to light undeniable data regarding the dangers of climate change; yet, despite the warnings, society seems to be stuck in its old habits. From ignorance stemmed in misinformation, to a flawed value system, there seems to be a disconnect between our actions and the severity of our situation. But why should it incite panic, and how have we been able to put it off for so long?
How do members of society respond to climate change?
Various attitudes and responses can be observed in different social groups. There are those who accept that climate change is real and understand its gravity, taking any form of action to help, and those who either ignore it or worse, deny its existence. For instance, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication identified “Six Americas” (Goldberg et al., 2020), which were six subsets of Americans with different views on climate change. It was found that around 57% of Americans constituted “The Alarmed” and “The Concerned”, who understand that climate change is occurring and take, or support action being taken to reduce the threat, while 16% accept that climate change is happening, but question its causes. However, the rest of the population (27%) either question the overall existence of climate change, have given little thought to it (mostly people possessing the lowest level of education), or even believe that climate change is a conspiracy or a hoax (https://www.theclimatechat.org/americans-on-climate-change).
These results showing a considerable proportion of Americans ignoring or dismissing the existence of climate change may be shocking considering the fact that its effects are increasingly more evident. A recent example shows Texas being greatly affected by a severe winter storm which brought snow, ice, and dangerously low temperatures. This unusual weather event led to a state of emergency in the US, as they were unprepared and did not have the means to deal with the situation, while massive power cuts left at least 4.5 million Texans without electricity, and unable to meet their basic needs. (https://oberlinreview.org/22876/opinions/the-texas-snow-storm-another-deadly-wake-up-call/)
Factors influencing public opinion
These figures from the Yale Project can be explained if we consider certain factors that influence public opinion or the social groups that accept or reject climate change. For instance, in social media there are many celebrities and influencers who try to raise awareness about climate change, but there are also other famous people with influence that might not believe it or dismiss the severity of the situation. Moreover, politicians can have a great effect on public opinion, and considering that for the past years America has been under Donald Trump’s presidency, who has denied the existence of climate change (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46351940), and even withdrew America from the Paris Agreement, it is expected that a percentage of the American population might follow these examples. In addition, it was found that men are less likely to feel concerned about climate change (Ballew, Marlon, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2018), with climate deniers mostly being white and male (Leiserowitz, 2005). This could be a result of the stereotypical concept that eco-friendly behaviours are more feminine (Brough, Wilkie, Ma, Isaac, & Gal, 2016).
Consequences of climate change for society
Many people also think that climate change is not a social problem and that it does not affect society as a whole, but this view is vastly flawed, since as a society, we have structured our day-to-day lives around current and historical climate conditions. We are also accustomed to a certain range of these conditions and may be sensitive to extremes.
Climate change can have a range of effects and influence on individual lives by impacting human health, everyday activities, as well as infrastructure and basic amenities such as energy, and water. It is expected that certain groups in society will be more at risk, such as the elderly (e.g., they are particularly prone to heat stress), and younger children, seeing as their bodily systems (such as the immune system) are still developing, and they rely on others to care for them. In addition, people who live in poverty will be severely affected, as there will be limited financial resources to deal with heat, evacuations, or increases in the cost of food. People who live in coastal areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather events such as coastal storms, drought, or sea level rise will also face greater challenges. Cities and urban infrastructure will have to deal with different types of problems: heat waves may be amplified in cities as they absorb more heat during the day, and city residents will be left vulnerable to such increases in temperature, or violent storms, which could affect the cost of energy and water quality, human comfort, as well as aging infrastructure (drainage and sewer systems, transportation systems).
|Source: https://www.wired.com/story/climate-change-is-turning-cities-into-ovens/||Source : https://web.whoi.edu/coastal-group/research/climate-impacts/|
It is also expected that different types of professions and industries will face considerable challenges due to climate change, while people’s jobs and livelihoods will be threatened. Professions that are connected to weather and climate, such as commerce, outdoor tourism, and agriculture, will be particularly affected. Tourism and recreational activities will need to change. Warmer temperatures and shifts in precipitation patterns will impact winter tourism by decreasing the number of days when snow activities can take place, while an increase in the occurrence of wildfires could affect activities like hiking and recreation in parks. Moreover, beaches may suffer erosion because of sea level rise, and changes in the migration patterns of fish or animals will impact fishing and hunting. Consequently, communities that depend on these recreational activities will experience significant economic impacts. Additionally, the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will likely cause losses to property and crops, creating costly disruptions in society. Communities that have developed around the production of different agricultural crops depend on the climate to support their way of life, while the production of certain products might decline in different areas.
The GDP as an indicator of happiness and its impact on the environment
Despite the dangers we are facing in real time, as well as the impending catastrophes of climate change, we seem to be experiencing a period of calm before the storm. There appears to be a wilful ignorance among the population regarding how immediate these disastrous predictions will become if ignored for much longer. With the statistics, solutions and gravity of the situation clearly conveyed in many forums, one might say that we have stopped caring. But what if it is not a lack of care that has provoked this disregard, but a fear of losing what we hold dear?
“GDP measures everything,” as Senator Robert Kennedy famously said, “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
One of the first things we learn about in economics is the GDP: to put it simply, anything that has monetary value, from a croissant at a bakery to an investment in GameStop stocks, is included in the calculation. The countries that create the greatest value of goods and services are said to be flourishing and prosperous, while those who rely on imported goods from outside their borders are denoted as poor. On the surface this appears to be a sane and logical way of calculating economic growth: the more goods are exchanged, the more people are employed in making these goods, the more they earn and thus the more they can spend- it is a fantastic cycle that makes everyone richer and happier, right?
Let us confirm this by turning our attention to the countries with the highest GDP in 2019, calculated over the period of one year. In descending order they are: the United States ($21.43 trillion), China ($14.34 trillion) and Japan ($5.082 trillion). Using the US as an example, we can see in the figure below that 70% of the GDP is composed of personal consumption- which makes perfect sense: they embody the American dream with brands like Amazon, Google, and Starbucks- a lifestyle of overconsumption and luxury.
Yet, can we truly say that this society is composed of happy individuals? Let us take a look at The World Happiness Report of 2019, a survey which tracks the quality of lives as they are being lived in more than 150 countries. The same year in which the US dominated global GDP rankings it toppled under 17 other countries when ranked in Happiness, none of which even had comparable GDPs to their monstrous opponent. This blows a hole in the mentality certain rankings convey- that of a country’s prosperity being an accurate measure of welfare. Even Simon Kuznets himself, the inventor of the GDP, was adamant that his measure had nothing to do with wellbeing. Perhaps the GDP fails to value that which makes life worthwhile.
Nonetheless, what is presented here is up to interpretation. We cannot measure happiness in the same way we can measure the length of a shelf or a sum of money, for happiness is not a shared commodity like money. But, what is absolutely certain is that we need the environment. We need it not only for our happiness, but also for our existence. In the words of David Attenborough, “Once, nature determined how we survived. Now, it is we who determine how nature survives.” Yet, if we continue using indicators like the GDP to measure growth and prosperity, we are bound to lose sight of the things that make us prosperous as individuals: the environment. Nature and peace cannot be sold or exchanged, so they lose value in such calculations despite being the source of everything we produce. And so, it is our duty to show how valuable they truly are.
This shift in mentality is made unnecessarily difficult when society is enthralled by the latest fashions, cheapest goods, and overconsumption. Yet, the beauty of our system is that it is shaped by us: while one or two people asking for more sustainable practices makes little difference, it is when we come together that we can start to see a change. And this is what happened when thousands of individuals took to the streets to protest against climate change. We might not have seen the planet become carbon neutral overnight, but we did see the young challenging age-old mentalities on such a wide spectrum that it was impossible to ignore.
Many of the problems we are facing today, from extreme weather such as that encountered in Texas, to entire ecosystems being modified due to global warming, are caused by our distorted perception of what we need to be fulfilled. While we can point fingers at individuals for buying those plastic wrapped strawberries in December, we will not see true change in society until we realise that economic growth can align with sustainable development. But, to do that, we must change the way we see this transition: not as a roadblock to prosperity, but as the key to wellbeing.
By: Marta Strama and Chrysseida Syrri,
European School of Varese,