Climate Change Makes News! But Does It Matter?
Big News! Climate change makes news! There's sustained, high-profile coverage in the major media this week, prompted by the UN Climate summit in New York. It's great news that climate change is making news. But it’s also sad, because as soon as the events are over, coverage will fade away, at least until the next meeting, or the next violent weather event, or the next political controversy stirred up by those still trying to promote doubt.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Big News! Climate change makes news! There's sustained, high-profile coverage in the major media this week, prompted by the UN Climate summit in New York at which 120 heads of state will try to reach some agreements about how to address the problem, and all the public marches and think tank press conferences and celebrity appearances that go along with those meetings. (A full agenda is at Climate Week NY°C)
It's great news that climate change, probably the biggest single threat to life on the planet as we know it, is making news. Coverage raises awareness and concern. But it’s also sad news, because as soon as the events of the week are over, the coverage of this incredibly important issue will fade away, at least until the next meeting, or the next violent weather event, or the next political controversy stirred up by those still trying to promote doubt. In between sporadic bursts of coverage, this huge threat is largely absent from our radar screens, and the study of the psychology of risk perception has found that we worry more about what is on our radar screen, than what isn’t.
How worried we are is important, because popular political support will make it easier for governments to make the major changes to the energy system necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Telling people they may have to pay more for electricity isn’t going to be easy if they’re not worried about climate change.
Popular support will help governments make the huge investments necessary to adapt our infrastructure to deal with rising sea levels and changing temperature and precipitation patterns and more extreme weather events, the impacts of climate change that are already underway and which are going to get much worse. Telling some people who live in particularly vulnerable coastal areas that they may have to move away isn’t going to be easy if those people don’t feel worried about rising sea levels.
And deeper and broader public concern about global warming can drive major companies to change how they operate; the raw materials they use, their energy consumption, the products they sell. How worried we are about climate change will also determine how we act as individuals; what we consume, our personal energy use, what we’re willing to pay for electricity.
A more concerned public is important, and a more aware public is likely to be more concerned. The worry, however, born out by survey after survey of public opinion regarding global warming, is that the concern that may rise during climate week is not wide nor deep enough to last when the news cameras turn elsewhere. Though majorities of the public in many western nations have for some time believed that human activity is causing global warming, only a minority of people believe that they are personally at risk, or that the danger of climate change is imminent, or already underway. Most say it’s a problem for the future, and to somebody else. and a risk to somebody else, that won’t happen until later, is just not as worrying as if we think it could happen to us, soon.
No matter how many stories Climate Week may generate, then, most of the additional concern those headlines raise probably won’t last. It’s a safe bet that public opinion polls following Climate Week will show a spike in concern, and then a drop back down to previous levels.
So it remains unlikely, even with all the high-profile activities in New York and around the world in conjunction with the UN Climate Summit, that public concern will rise high enough, fast enough, to drive the kinds of changes necessary to deal with this huge problem. The bold actions and big solutions will have to come from enlightened leadership; from political and business leaders wise and brave enough to take serious steps even without serious public support. Like the action President Obama has taken to try to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants. Like the actions major corporations are taking to reduce their energy consumption. Like the actions governors and mayors in states and cities across the United States are taking to encourage cleaner energy, and to start rebuilding critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to rising sea levels or floods, droughts, or forest fires.
While there will be higher-than-normal attention to climate change this week, we ought not take too much heart in all that extra attention. It probably won’t matter much. What will matter is how much courage and wisdom the heads of government can bring to their one-day summit, and to the ongoing challenge of finding real solutions…and how much courage and wisdom the heads of corporations can bring in the weeks and months and next several years to the decisions they make. Headlines -- even lots of headlines -- won’t be nearly enough to matter much for a problem this profound, a problem we say we care about, but which doesn’t scare us nearly as much as it needs to.