I was recently reminded of a common but worrisome mental phenomenon, when it comes to how people react psychologically to the challenge of climate change. They have a strong understanding of the basic political dynamics at work – short term versus long term, special interests versus the general interest, money talks, etc – but lack an appreciation for just how bad unmitigated climate change would be. They are cynical about the prospects for an appropriate political response, but not seized with the importance of producing one despite the difficulties.
As mentioned before, the business-as-usual case is 5.5Â°C to 7.1Â°C of temperature increase by 2100, with more to follow. Accompanying this would be ocean acidification, changes in precipitation patterns, and other impacts. This is a more significant difference than exists between our present climate and that of the last ice age, when much of North America was covered with kilometres of ice. In the somewhat understated language typical of scientists, the head of the Met Office has said that warming of this scale would “lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts.” That isn’t a worst-case scenario, but rather their best guess about where we will end up unless we change course. It should also be noted that there are positive feedbacks not incorporated into models such as that of the Hadley Centre: notable among them methane from permafrost. With such feedbacks factored in, a significantly worse business-as-usual warming profile is possible.
In practical terms, it is challenging to converse with people who have this pair of outlooks. Their cynicism about politics is largely justified, and they are right to see climate change as a problem of unprecedented complexity and difficulty. Trying to make them aware of just how dangerous climate change could be is challenging, because it is easy to come off sounding like you are exaggerating things. People just aren’t psychologically prepared to accept what 5Â°C of warming could plausible do to human civilization, even within what are now rich states.
What communication strategies have the most promise for getting people to accept the dangerousness of climate change, and subsequently the need to push hard against the political status quo, so as to produce timely change? This isn’t an issue where we can roll over and let special interest politics win. The future of the human race is quite literally at stake.