America’s Apathy for Climate Change

My generation (or maybe just people in general these days) seems to be highly susceptible to apathy. A recent Gallup poll revealed that Americans' concern for the environment is at a 20-year low. Of the eight environmental problems Gallup listed in the March survey (including issues like air and water pollution and the loss of tropical rainforests), "global warming" remained at the very bottom of people's environmental concerns?with only 28 percent of those polled considering it a legitimate problem.

Even more shocking, perhaps, is another recent poll that shows American's belief that climate change even exists has sunk to an all-time low, despite mounting evidence and scientific consensus. Of course, as the Gallup poll's conclusion cites, there could be many reasons for the decline in concern: Some people view the environment's conditions in the US to have improved over the past decades, making it a lower priority issue.

Giant ferns
photo via

Another factor to note is that other matters, such as economic prosperity and stability, have moved to the top of many American's concerns. Still, other reasons for this propensity toward apathy may be a bit more difficult to see at first blush. It's easy to scapegoat ill-informed media megaphones (eh-hem, Glenn Beck) and propagandizing anti-science organization like the Heartland Institute (who's heavily endorsed by Exxon). But it's rarely taken into consideration what we may be doing wrong within our own movement: How might the people who are promoting climate change awareness unintentionally be contributing to America's apathy and demise in concern for climate change? Here are a few possibilities:

  • By bombarding people with catastrophic images

Nothing will induce a state of paralysis like the threat of the apocalypse (think "An Inconvenient Truth"). Though the 2006 film is full of accurate information and likely scenarios, the method used to promote climate awareness is fear, and while fear might inspire some, it instills helplessness in many. The film's blockbuster-style effects (even the trailer touts the movie is "the most terrifying film you will ever see") may be one reason 48 percent of Americans now believe that the global consequences of climate change have been embellished. This film by Martin Durkin, made in direct response to "An Inconvenient Truth," accuses Gore of "intimidating people in to believing climate change is a problem." Although Gore's aim with the film was to catalyze a positive response in the masses, too much fire and brimstone and not enough solutions is a sure way to make people throw up their hands and disassociate themselves with the movement.

  • By telling people to "save the polar bears"

This tactic might work for getting first graders to care about the consequences of climate change, but when it comes to most adults (and voters) it has little effect. How is an image of a polar bear on a dwindling icecap supposed to make an adult understand the impacts climate change will have on things they care about?their family, their job, their standard of living? More than likely, it won't. The "save the polar bears" campaign puts a wedge between climate change and the individual. Essentially, it isolates the problem to one specific species and location, failing to illustrate how it will impact all species and areas of the planet. Images of climate change in the arctic, and not in your own city, makes it seem like an ever-distant threat. A more effective approach, though, would be to show how climate change is already affecting people. For instance, meet the world's first climate refugees in this well reported Mother Jones article "What Happens When Your Country Drowns?"

  • By being an environmental elitist

A December 2008 study by Earthjustice points out that "Having the time and money to be green seems out of reach for many? The perception that environmentalists are willing to sacrifice all self-interest to save the earth sets an unattainable standard." The Prius instead of the used '98 Camry, the home solar panels, the double paned windows, the organic produce instead of conventional, even the cost of CFL bulbs and Sigg bottles adds up. The idea that you need to have money and own certain products to be part of the solution can make people who don't have the means to be "green enough" feel that they can't do their part to help, compared to their more affluent counterparts. A 2007 survey that appeared in The New York Times revealed that 57 percent of Prius owners bought the car for its eco-friendly image, while only 36 percent said they bought it because it emits less carbon. Expensive "green" products, like the Prius, have become status symbols rather than effective tools to combat climate change. It gives the people who own "eco-friendly" products a false sense of accomplishment, and makes the people who don't have the latest green toys feel that they don't have the power to help.

So fear not, those of you who can't "afford to be green," didn't watch "An Inconvenient Truth" and for whatever reason just don't find a connection between you and our polar bear friends. Because this isn't how we are going to catalyze the change we need anyway. The real ways we will have an impact in fighting climate change isn't going to come from being terrified, feeling sympathy just for the polar bears or even driving a Prius. The real impacts are going to come from strong nonpartisan climate legislation, clean technology developments and investments in renewable energy. But none of this will happen without the most important thing: a consensus from the majority of people that climate change is an issue we all must address. If we keep polarizing people on this issue, we will continue to make people who were once concerned about climate change increasingly apathetic. Or whatever.

Jenna Scatena

Learn more about Jenna.

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