Climate change has arrived. Greenhouse gases are accumulating. The planet and its oceans are warming. Glaciers and Arctic ice are retreating. The seas are rising. Extreme weather is becoming ever costlier—in money and in lives. The warming Arctic and its wavier jet stream even help explain the recent polar vortex. If such threats came from a looming alien invasion, our response would be bipartisan and robust, notes Farhad Manjoo.
Even so, the U.S. government has
- pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change,
- plans to lift CO2 restrictions on coal-generated power,
- weakened auto fuel-economy and emissions standards,
- cut NASA climate monitoring,
- increased off-shore oil and gas drilling, and
- reduced clean-energy research and development.
So why, given the accumulating science, is the Trump administration apparently unconcerned about climate change as a weapon of mass destruction?
Surely the availability heuristic—the coloring of our judgments by mentally available events and images—is partly to blame. Climate change is imperceptibly slow, without a just noticeable difference from one month to the next. What’s cognitively more available is our recent local weather.
Thus, hot days increase people’s beliefs in global warming—as Australians understand after their recent scorching hot summer. And cold weather decreases concern—as vividly illustrated when U.S. Senator James Inhofe, during a 2015 cold spell, ridiculed global warming claims by bringing a snowball to the U.S. Senate. (Is it really so hard to grasp the distinction between local weather and global climate? We do manage, when feeling cold air on opening our refrigerator, not to misjudge our whole-house temperature.)
(C-Span [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)
President Trump has echoed Inhofe with dozens of tweets that similarly generalize from local weather:
Such wisdom brings to mind my favorite Stephen Colbert tweet:
The availability heuristic’s upside is that extreme weather experiences, as well as climate science, are driving growing public concern. Drought-caused wildfires, floods, and brutal heat waves have a silver lining. After surviving Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey residents expressed increased environmentalism. And today, 74 percent of Americans say that the last five years’ extreme weather has influenced their climate change opinions.
Ergo, Americans by a 5-to-1 margin now agree that global warming is happening. By a 3-to-1 margin they believe it is human-caused. Seven in 10 now say that they are at least “somewhat worried” about climate change. And globally, across 26 countries, two-thirds of people see it as a “major threat” to their country. “The evidence the climate is changing is becoming so overwhelming people are seeing it in their regions and in their lives,” says the Obama science advisor, John Holdren. “We are really to the point where we’re seeing bodies in the street from severe flooding and severe wildfires.”
With vivid and mentally available weather tragedies occurring more often, more folks are noticing and caring. Last month, 3300 economists—including 27 Nobel laureates and all former Federal Reserve Board chairs—signed a consensus statement supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most effective climate change solution. Although the Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats may be more aspirational than achievable, its existence—together with the increasing climate concern of youth and young adults, and the growth in low-carbon energy sources—gives hope for a greener future.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com.)