I want to scream “You’re not helping!” every time I read a story like this one, which recently ran in USA Today: “End of civilization: climate change apocalypse could start by 2050 if we don’t act, report warns.”
I certainly worry about what might befall us and our children by 2030, 2050 and 2100—three often cited milestones (such as here, here and here). But, I want to scream because I fear that such warnings about far-in-the-future calamities make it much less likely that what we do anything today to mitigate or adapt to the challenges we face.
That’s because, ironically, while such climate scenarios are intended to mobilize public opinion towards urgent action, they likely hurt that very cause.
To understand why, consider the pessimism of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral scientist: “I really see no path to success on climate change,” he told George Marshall in Marshall’s bracing book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.”
Kahneman fears that climate change is a hopeless problem for three reasons:
First, it lacks salience. It is too “abstract, distant, invisible and disputed” to capture our attention. Without attention, there is no action.
Second, dealing with climate change is typically thought to require people to accept short-term costs and reductions on living standard in order to address higher but uncertain future losses. Such sacrifice is not in our nature. One University of Chicago poll found that while 72% of respondents believed that climate change is happening, half were unwilling pay even $1 each month to help address it.
Third, climate change seems uncertain and contested—“even if there is a National Academy on one side and some cranks on the other.”