The Lack of Public Concern About Climate Change. How Much Do We Need to Care, How Much People Care?

             A lot of work on climate change these days is trying to address what seems to be a major part of the problem; people don’t care all that much. There are documentaries like the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously and NBC’s Our Year of Extremes. There are education efforts like the American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s What We Know campaign, websites like Climate Central and Real Climate,  and academic programs like Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. All these efforts share the belief that if people only know the facts about climate change and finally understand just how serious the problem is, they will surely raise their voices and demand that our governments and business leaders DO SOMETHING!

That is naive. It ignores ample research into the psychology of risk perception that finds that just knowing about something has little to do with how scary or not it FEELS, and that feelings matter more than facts. Climate change simply does not have the psychological and emotional characteristics that make it feel scary. It doesn’t feel “It can happen to ME” personal. It doesn’t feel immediate. It doesn’t feel…well…real. It’s more of an idea, a concept, an abstraction.

Many people have suggested that framing climate change in these ways might help make the threat more emotionally resonant. (The Importance of Risk Perception for Effective Climate Change Communication). Good risk and science communication practice argues against what Years of Living Dangerously and What We Know and most other programs are doing; broadly educating people about the full global long term breadth of the whole climate change problem (with sequences about deforestation in Borneo or civil war in Syria, or sweeping statements like "We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts") in a Deficit Model belief that if people just know all they need to know they’ll ‘get it’.

But these education efforts, and the Blab-o-Sphere punditry about whether they work, (the Breakthrough Institute’s Global Warming Scare Tactics and the predictable response from Think Progress/Joe Romm, The Brutally Dishonest Attacks on Showtime’s Landmark Series on Climate Change) miss a much more important question. Do we really need to care how much people care? How much does public concern really matter? A blasé public seems to be a problem, but just how big a problem is it, really?

 Consider that combating climate change requires nothing less than a radical restructuring of how the world makes and uses energy, and consider the overwhelming level of public concern it would take to impose such sweeping changes on the vested interests profiting by the status quo (and let’s be honest…to impose such changes on a public comfortable with the status quo). We’d have to feel we were at war…bullets flying and bombs dropping and buildings burning and body bags real, live, NOW “I am in Danger” war…before public concern about climate change would grow strong enough to drive those sorts of actions.

The effects of climate change will ultimately get that destructive (the damage has already begun but it will take hindsight before we fully realize it) but by then it will far too late. So senior policy makers in government and business have to act, now, even without the deep public concern that might make acting easier. And many are. Without a huge public mandate about climate change, the Obama administration is taking a wide range of meaningful steps, including putting a cost on carbon emissions by regulating emissions from power plants. States and local governments across America are subsidizing commercial and residential renewable energy. (Which got me to do this to my house!)


Germany is undergoing a radical energy transformation called Energiewiende  (not without difficulties German Energy Runs Into Problems). The Chinese and Indian governments are investing billions in nuclear energy. Feed-in tariffs, that give a cost advantage to renewable energy fed by independent producers into the power grid, are effectively putting a price on and reducing carbon emissions in nations around the world.

            Businesses are acting, and not just to sell ‘green’ to consumers. Major corporations, including some oil companies, are making long term plans that factor in a cost on carbon emissions. Most of the biggest companies in the world, like Walmart, are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. IKEA just bought a 98 megawatt wind farm in Illinois as part of a program to be come a net zero energy consumer, producing as much renewable energy as it uses. Apple is among many companies spending millions to achieve the same goal, and their CEO recently told investors at the annual shareholder meeting to get out – to sell their stock – if they don’t believe that it is in the company’s best interest to take climate change and sustainability seriously.

            There are many more examples of how governments and businesses are doing the sweeping things necessary to start addressing climate change. Too little, certainly, and too late to prevent serious damage from emissions already in the system. (And there are far more examples of governments and business that AREN’T doing what needs to be done.) But it wasn’t public concern that drove these actions. It was prudence and common sense by decision makers who, despite a blasé public, are taking the problem seriously.                                               

            Would more be happening, faster, with more public pressure? Certainly. Everyone engaged in combating climate change needs to help raise that pressure. I do with my own work. But the scope and complexity and urgency of what needs to be done are so much greater than anything that public support will ever truly push for. So a more aware and concerned and engaged public may be (IS) a laudable goal, but we ought to be cautious about how much we think it will ever do to actually address the problem.

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There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, though recently announced plans to open one inspired some residents to say there should be.

The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.

On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn't call his business a 'sex robot brothel' but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.

"I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, 'Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don't go out and say you are operating a brothel,'" Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. "He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.

Sex dolls and toys may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what's essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel's plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled 'Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston'.

"As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children," reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.

Elijah Rising's argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.

"I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," Richardson argues in the paper. "If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with."

How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?

One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would lower the demand for human prostitutes. It's an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.

In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could lower prostitution or even someday render it obsolete.

But that's "highly speculative philosophy," according to Richardson.

"The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. "If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade."

A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.

Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.

"...studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry," she wrote. "Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent."

However, those rates aren't necessarily causally linked.

Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but "no such correlation is found."

Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.

An illusion of companionship

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'

Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men's minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.

Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:

"There's kids around here and it's a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross."

Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.

"My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy," McMullen told CNET. "There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It's really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship."