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For the past five years, ever since my second child was born, I've been asking why we don't take climate change more seriously.
The easy answer, of course, is that it's just too much to think about, especially with more immediate economic concerns. This week's poll from the Pew Research Center on the People & the Press made that abundantly clear: Only 57 percent of Americans now believe the Earth is warming, down from 77 percent in 2006.
Given growing reports that the effects of climate change are actually occurring faster than predicted, it's not surprising that Andrew Kohut, director of the research center, called the results "implausible." So what is the bigger answer to why we're ignoring the biggest threat in human history--or, as a future generation might put it, fiddling while Rome burns?
Through my interviews with ordinary Americans and dozens of experts in a wide range of fields, I have found that there are five key reasons:
First, from an evolutionary perspective, we are not programmed to take future threats as seriously as immediate ones; and though ice caps are melting and storms worldwide are intensifying, for most of us, this is still going on somewhere out there. It's not yet happening where we can feel it and see it. And that can't compare to worrying about paying this month's bills.
Second, it costs money to do some of the right green things. Much to my children's embarrassment, for example, I still drive an SUV. I bought it 130,000 miles ago when we lived where snow could fall four feet in a weekend, and I thought an SUV was the safest way to get around. Now that I live in a place where it never snows (to my children's chagrin) I have no reason to drive it, except the fact that I can't afford a hybrid.
Third, we have become so distanced from nature, after centuries of trying to wield our power over it and generations of relegating our children to spending more time indoors, we have lost some of our innate ability to care about the natural world.
Fourth, many of us no longer believe we can make a difference in the world. During the past 50 years, America's population has doubled and industries from banking to cat food have been supersized. In comparison, we feel increasingly small and powerless and imagining that we could actually do something about a problem as momentous as global warming seems Quixotic at best.
Finally, we think we never have enough time--and, in some ways, we're right. In recent decades, the rise of families composed of two working parents (or a single working parent) has created a lifestyle that ill-equips us to address issues outside our own personal, immediate concerns. Given the increasingly frantic pace of life, we are moreover encouraged to do the things we can do quickly and postpone (or simply ignore) the rest. And thanks to our shortened attention span, we even cast aside the knowledge that big things have a way of catching up with us.
So is it hopeless?
Nine out of ten experts I interviewed about this ultimately admitted to being pessimistic about whether we will rise to the global warming challenge in time to avert the predicted disasters. There has been progress, they acknowledge, but incremental progress in the face of exponential change simply won't cut it.
Then again, most somewhat quietly add, one never truly knows. Surprising, unexpected things do happen. And sometimes people suddenly wake up and focus on that which once seemed dismissible.
I believe this. In fact, I've experienced it. So I'm putting my money on parents. After all, we know (or should know) that by the middle of the century--when our young children are the age many of us are now--low-lying cities, such as New York, Boston, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, are predicted to experience the greatest rise in sea levels on the planet. Millions of people worldwide are expected be displaced or worse; and storms, droughts, famine, disease, and warfare are all projected to intensify.
Reflect on that with a parent's heart and it becomes near impossible to look into your children's eyes and not take this threat to their future more seriously.