Climate Change Is a Slow-Moving Threat

Humans are wired to respond to immediate, personal threats. We have not evolved to deal with a slow-moving threat like climate change. We respond to four key triggers you can easily remember with the acronym PAIN.

We respond to immediate, personal threats like crime and terrorism.

We respond to immediate, personal threats like crime and terrorism.

Personal - We respond to threats from other people. Climate change doesn't have a face. There is no one person to blame.

Abrupt - We are sensitive to abrupt changes, like a fire starting in the kitchen. Climate change is happening too slowly to detect.

Immoral - We pay attention when we see something indecent or disgusting. Climate change does not excite these feelings.

Now - We respond to immediate threats, like someone trying to rob our home. For many people, it's not clear how climate change is impacting them right now. (See Marshall, 2014).

Climate change feels neither immediate nor personal, and yet climate change kills more people each year than terrorism ( Leber, 2015 ).

Climate change feels neither immediate nor personal, and yet climate change kills more people each year than terrorism (Leber, 2015).

The biggest problem with climate change may be that it's not happening fast enough. Americans see climate change as a distant threat, and people underestimate the odds that seemingly distant threats like climate change will hurt any of us personally (Kahneman & Lovallo, 1993).

Because climate change does not feel urgent, we focus on other problems instead. We can only worry about so many things at one time (Weber, 2006). And we are more concerned with our present pain than our future agony (Jacquet et al., 2013).

If we’re not here in 10,000 years, it’s going to be because... we underestimated the odds of our future pains and overestimated the value of our present pleasures.
— Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University


We Defend the Status Quo


Climate change presents unpredictable, catastrophic risks. It challenges our core belief that the world is a just, orderly and stable place (Feinberg & Willer, 2010), and so we respond with skepticism to climate science. When faced with our own mortality, we become more firm in our views (Greenberg & Arndt, 2011), even if that means doubting climate change. And, when faced with our own contribution to climate change (driving, flying, eating meat), we feel guilty and we disengage (Stoknes, 2015). Many of us, conservatives in particular, will go to great lengths to defend the status quo (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010), in some cases denying the reality of climate change altogether.

One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion
— Voltaire

Extreme Weather Isn’t Changing Minds

Extreme weather may make people feel more concerned about climate change for a short time, but the effect wears off. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts won’t shift attitudes over the long term (Lyons, Hasell, & Stroud, 2018). Severe heat may lead people to worry more over the long term, but the effect is small (Bergquist & Warshaw, 2018). The challenge is that we are growing accustomed to climate change, finding unusual weather to be less and less remarkable over time (Moore, Obradovich, Lehner, & Baylis, 2019).



Meet the Naysayers

The naysayers are the climate deniers. They tend to be white, male, religious and conservative (Leiserowitz, 2005), and they are given to conspiratorial thinking (Uscinski, Douglas, & Lewandowsky, 2017). Most dismiss evidence of climate change (Hart & Nisbet, 2012). Paradoxically, those who understand what scientists think about climate change are actually more likely to deny climate science (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). How could this be?

Denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.
— Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University

Really, what conservatives object to is not the science but the solutions. If they acknowledge the need to place limits on industry, then they must also acknowledge the failure of the free market to ensure a just and orderly world. Accepting this fact may invite the scorn of their peers (Kahan, 2010). Thus, reluctant to support more regulation and more government spending, they dismiss the facts of climate change (Campbell & Kay, 2014).

To be clear, this sort of thing is not just a conservative problem. Both liberals and conservatives are prone dismiss scientific evidence when it conflicts with their values. For liberals, that could mean denying evidence that vaccines pose no threat to children. For conservatives, that could mean denying evidence that humans are causing climate change. In both instances, the deniers lose trust in scientists (Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015).