Understanding Complacency About Climate Change

In Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter, John Sterman and Linda Sweeney examine reasons for complacency about climate change; in doing so they illustrate how human intelligence might be insufficient to cope with complex modern problems.

From the Abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions. Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident.... We report experiments with highly educated adults – graduate students at MIT – showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships... that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it.

From the article:

Critical public policy issues increasingly involve complex physical and natural systems. Policies for such systems should be based on the best available scientific knowledge. In democracies, however, the beliefs of the public, not only those of experts, affect government policy and citizen adoption of policies. If widely held mental models of complex systems are faulty, people may inadvertently favor policies that yield outcomes they neither intend nor desire. Climate change is such an issue. Opinion surveys show an apparent contradiction in public attitudes on climate change. Most Americans... believe human activity contributes to climate change, and desire to limit the risk of harm from it.... Yet large majorities oppose mitigation policies such as energy taxes.... Many advocate a “wait and see strategy.” ...

Even if policies to mitigate climate change caused GHG emissions to fall, atmospheric GHG concentrations would continue to rise until emissions fell to the removal rate. ... Why do people underestimate the time delays in the response of climate to GHG emissions? Obviously the average person is not trained in climatology, and studies document low levels of public understanding of climate processes.... We hypothesize, however, that widespread underestimation of climate inertia arises from a more fundamental limitation of people’s mental models: weak intuitive understanding of stocks and flows – the concept of accumulation in general, including principles of mass and energy balance.

- Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter, Climatic Change (2007) 80:213–238, http://scripts.mit.edu/~jsterman/docs/Sterman-2007-UnderstandingPublicComplacency.pdf

Lack of focus on climate change by Japanese youth:

She said that in her focus groups with Japanese millennials, she “always felt a kind of hopelessness” toward their everyday lives, their careers and social issues, possibly a result of having grown up during a prolonged period of economic stagnation known as the lost decades.

Interviews with several Japanese students and office workers ages 22 to 26 elicited similar responses to arguments for the need for urgency on fighting climate change. The young cited the huge scale and timeline of the problem, a feeling of powerlessness, silence from the media, and preoccupation with more important issues.

Several said other issues seemed more pressing for Japan than climate change: a stagnating economy, a declining population and tensions in East Asia, to name a few. Many worried about energy security — only three of the country’s 45 nuclear reactors are now operational, a result of safety concerns after Fukushima — and expressed hope that Japan would invest more in renewable energy. ...
An inherent tension between the seeming ineffectiveness of immediate and individual action and the long view the government is trying to take here may be common to every society trying to reduce emissions and to encourage participation. ...
“This issue is too big,” he [Shota Kanai, a young Japanese analyst] wrote in an email, “and I feel my actions cannot make any difference.”
- Tatiana Schlossberg, Japan Is Obsessed With Climate Change. Young People Don’t Get It., NYT, Dec. 5, 2016

American voters — even many Republicans — recognize that climate change is starting to affect their lives. About 70 percent think global warming is happening, and about 53 percent think it is caused by human activities, according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. About 69 percent support limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But most public opinion polls find that voters rank the environment last or nearly last among the issues that they vote on.
- CORAL DAVENPORT and ERIC LIPTON, How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science, NYT, JUNE 3, 2017

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