Something weird is happening around climate change. Republicans are deciding it’s real. Three years ago, only 49 percent of Republicans thought so, but by last December it was 64 percent, as a Monmouth University poll found. That’s a huge jump in a short time and is all the more astonishing given that the Republican president and many of his party’s politicians pooh-pooh the global emergency. Meanwhile, other parts of the electorate are really freaking out. Last year, the percentage of those who say they’re “very worried” about global warming shot up from 21 percent to 29 percent, according to a poll by Yale’s and George Mason University’s programs on climate change communication.
Those who’ve studied this shift say it’s because of the recent waves of unsettling, climate-related news. The problem is now knocking on everyone’s front door: record-breaking heat and cold, ravaging hurricanes, rampaging wildfires in overdry forests. “It’s not distant,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, head of the Yale program.
There’s a phrase I like that describes what’s happening, and it helps us grasp what might be next: “peak indifference.” It refers to the psychology of problems that become too big to ignore.
Peak indifference is a coinage of the sci-fi writer, blogger, and activist Cory Doctorow (who is, full disclosure, a friend). You can think of it this way: Often, when society is facing a problem that’s terrible but slow-growing, we ignore it. We’re indifferent to the problem. Climate change isn’t the only example (think of digital privacy or income inequality), but it’s perhaps the toughest to crack.
The psychologist Robert Gifford once enumerated the “seven dragons of inaction” on climate, from ingrained habits (car culture) to lack of trust (in, say, scientists) to numbness (statistics overload). As the crisis grows, our indifference grows too.
“You divert your energy from convincing people there’s a problem to convincing them there’s a solution.”
But at some point, a crisis gets so bad that it becomes unignorable. Our indifference reaches a peak, begins to decline—and panic emerges. This could describe what we’re now seeing in the climate polling. Media coverage and real-life events have finally broken through to folks: “Increasingly they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is happening right here, right now,’ ” Leiserowitz says.
This is great for anyone who wants to fix the problem, yes? Society is finally ready!
But Doctorow’s theory also predicts another psychological hazard: When we ignore trouble for so long, we can slip quickly into nihilism. It’s too late. We missed our chance to take action.
That means the current political moment is incredibly interesting. Anyone who wants to deal with climate change may have only a brief window to sell the public on a plan. In his new book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, the writer David Wallace-Wells talks about the value of panic to pushing collective action; Doctorow says it’s the point “where you divert your energy from convincing people there’s a problem to convincing them there’s a solution.”
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This is why the stakes are so high in the debate over the Green New Deal that Democrats recently introduced in Congress. The young environmental activists of the Sunrise Movement flooded DC this winter to push for a resolution. Six Democratic presidential candidates now support it in principle. And the Yale–George Mason survey found 81 percent of all Americans support the general concept, including—remarkably—57 percent of conservative Republicans. Clean energy policy “has a huge social consensus,” Leiserowitz notes.
Still, barriers to action loom. More Republicans may believe in climate change, but they don’t think it’s caused by humans. And the Yale survey question about the Green New Deal was vague and upbeat, and didn’t pose the tough-to-sell policy specifics (zero-emission transportation, job guarantees) or financial costs that the public might dislike. And even people terrified about climate change don’t always agree on what policies to pursue. But the Sunrise activists, and all of us who want action on this, have to push hard now. It’s only when you reach the peak that you can see where you need to go.
Getty Images (Fire and Lawn)
Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) is a WIRED contributing editor. Write to him at email@example.com.
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