Why 'pretty helpless' Americans are not panicking about climate change
Editor's Note: This story, which includes personal commentary, originally appeared in our news section instead of our Opinion section. AlterNet regrets the error.
This past Friday, July 21st, 2023, meteorologist Azure Prior predicted in The Guardian that the unprecedented heatwave scorching Earth's surface and oceans is likely to extend into the foreseeable future. The conditions are especially dangerous in Europe, where much of the population lacks air conditioning, as the mercury rises into the triple digits.
"Extreme heat has lingered over southern Europe throughout the past week, with all-time records broken in a number of locations. Just a few places that recorded their highest-ever temperature on 19 July include: Decimomannu in Sardinia at 46.2C [116.16F], Malaga airport in Spain at 44.2C [115.56F], and Durrës in Albania at 40.4C [104.72F]," wrote Prior.
"The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe was 48.8C [119.84F] in Sicily in 2021, possibly spurred on by the risk of this week's heatwave breaking records," Prior reported. "Throughout the coming week much of Spain and France will have a respite from the highest temperatures. However, from Italy eastwards into the Balkans the heat will linger and the worst may be yet to come."
North America, and particularly the United States, is sweltering under searing temperatures, which in some regions is exacerbating other crises like droughts, flooding, poor air quality from Canadian wildfires, excessive burdens on an already strained power grid, and decreases in crop yields, leaving farmers little to no "wiggle room" for disruptions in food production.
These emergencies are not occurring in a vacuum. For decades, scientists have almost unanimously and vociferously warned that the relentless accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels will cause Earth to warm and that time is rapidly running out to solve the problem.
Notwithstanding the unambiguous data, non-binding international agreements, political campaign pledges, and real-time events, humanity has failed to collectively make sufficient enough changes — namely snapping its addiction to petrochemicals — to prevent an irreversible global catastrophe. A growing number of researchers now believe that the impacts of runaway climate change other than those that align with their models are underway years ahead of schedule.
Thus, given the grim business-as-usual prognosis, why are people, broadly speaking, not panicking? This intriguing topic was explored by independent journalist Maggie in The Guardian on Saturday.
"Despite the fact that we're living through a climate disaster, most Americans aren't cowering in fear every day about the future of our planet. There's a psychological reason for that," Mertens said.
One of the biggest reasons identified by Merten is that humans have typically viewed climate change as a gradual process that would have greater effects on later generations than on those alive today.
"Because of the nature of the way that many humans experience fear, connecting this emotion to something as vast and complex as the climate crisis is difficult," Mertens explained, based on her conversation with social scientist Brian Lickel. "The emotional response to the climate crisis – even if we feel fearful during an episode of wildfire smoke or flooding – is similar to what many people who live in war zones may experience, Lickel said. While at first, the threat of bombs and attacks are imminent and extremely frightening, eventually those who remain in these areas adapt somewhat to a life in which the threat becomes just another thing to deal with daily."
Mertens also consulted psychologist Susan Clayton, who pointed out "that there are two things we can address: the situation or our reaction to the situation. Since the climate crisis is not something we can deal with in the moment, and most people don't even understand it fully, we often choose to ignore it as a way to protect our emotional selves."
Clayton cautioned, though, that "as more of the weather events we are seeing this summer affect a larger number of people, that denial might be harder to maintain."
Lickel, meanwhile, told Mertens that "the question of whether humans are scared enough of the climate crisis might be the wrong one to ask altogether," noting that "fear isn't always the best motivating factor for action. The changes we need to make as a species to address the climate crisis are huge and logistical, so they probably have nothing to do with any one person's individual fear response."
Unfortunately, Mertens stressed, "The huge, slow-moving, complex issue of the climate crisis doesn't have a lot of answers on the individual level. Most of us feel – and really are – pretty helpless."
Mertens concluded that incremental personal lifestyle adjustments can help ease mental anguish. Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach provided a similar assessment in her June 25th, 2023 Guardian opinion column titled, We don't have to be overwhelmed by climate anxiety. Feel the pain, then act.
Mitigating climate change is akin to "beating a dead horse," Machinicia conceded to PBS last year. "There's nothing we can do to fix it."
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