The Climate Crisis Is Here. Why Can't We Wrap Our Heads Around It? - The Years Project

The Climate Crisis Is Here. Why Can’t We Wrap Our Heads Around It?

By Josh Futtersak

A large majority of Americans now know climate change is occurring, but there is still a palpable disconnect between the facts scientists understand and what the American public believes. A large part of the blame can be put on how far behind the media has been covering on climate science, but there are also other forces at work. 

Today in the United States, about 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening. However, only 60 percent believe climate change will harm people in the United States. Only 44 percent believe it will harm them and only 23 percent are “very worried” about it. Only 17 percent understand there is a strong scientific consensus on climate change. 

While these stats may be a slight condemnation of climate change literacy efforts, what it really shows is that a large portion of Americans believe climate change is real, but believe everything will probably be okay regardless. 

Another interesting statistic is that while 44 percent believe it will harm them, a larger percentage believe members of their family and community who will be harmed more. 

This is called Optimism Bias. This bias causes us to underestimate the likelihood of potential harm and overestimate the potential for positive outcomes.

It’s the feeling of: “That bad thing won’t happen to me,” or “It won’t happen here.”  

It’s the reason why someone may decide skipping sunscreen is okay even though one in five Americans get skin cancer, but then take a chance on a lottery ticket where they have a one in a hundred million chance of winning. 

Studies show that up to 80 percent of all people have Optimism Bias for some aspect of their lives. That means that up to 80 percent of people who read about climate change may believe it is real, but not have any impulse to act. 

In the United States especially, we tend to believe that bad things won’t happen. We read about flooding in Bangladesh and don’t blink an eye, but when the Midwest floods, we can’t wrap our heads around the fact that it is all coming from the same source. 

Even those who do understand the realities of climate change may not believe we have the ability to do anything about it. 

We extend a certain level of control over our own lives and actions but many don’t extend that control to the climate. Many believe the climate is just a natural force beyond the domain of human impact. I personally feel that all it takes is a look out the window to see how we have already bent nature to our whims. We’ve harnessed electricity to turn night into day, turned microscopic atoms into weapons of mass destruction, and landed humans on the moon. It’s silly to believe that it’s the climate that is beyond reach, especially when the science say otherwise.

All of this leads to the thought pattern of: “It won’t affect where I live and even if it does, it probably won’t hurt me, and even if it does, I had no control over it anyway.” 

When you look at all these stats together, you start to get a picture of why climate action has historically been difficult. This is why it’s so important that the media cover climate change correctly. 

The media often gets away with painting climate change as a problem that will affect future generations without noting that it is already happening. 

You will often see a news segment discussing the deadly impacts of climate change starting in 2050 and then a story about current unprecedented heat waves while people are shown sunbathing on the beach.

It should be considered journalism malpractice to show sunbathers on a beach during a heat wave without also noting that heat waves are deadly, causing havoc worldwide, and are increasing in frequency due to climate change. 

If a tornado was approaching, journalists wouldn’t do a story about how the weather was great for kite flying. It should be the same with climate change. When extreme weather occurs, the media should be reminding their audience that this is climate change in action and it will only get worse.

Our brains are designed to take fears one day at a time. Displaying climate change incorrectly as a future problem allows those who would rally for the cause to instead put it off. It validates our Optimism Bias and assures us that everything is probably going to be okay. It’s part of the reason why 49% of Americans believe we don’t need to change our behaviors because Climate Change is a problem that will be solved by new technology. 

At the YEARS Project, we try to be honest and upfront about the realities of climate change. We want to show our audience that climate change is not a force out of our control and it is not a threat that only exists in the far future. Our recent video about unprecedented fires and heatwaves in the Arctic is just one of the many ways it’s here. By consistently showing viewers how climate change is happening now, and how it will impact their lives today, we hope to inspire action. It’s true that Climate Change has arrived, but it’s not out of our control to do something about it.