Why do we only care about climate change when we see it?

Climate headlines might grab your attention, cause you to pause for a moment, shake your head in disbelief, and then prompt you to check your phone, overwhelmed by the constant stream of bad news. It’s easy to chalk this up to modern indifference, but science suggests there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The dynamics of climate perception

How others perceive climate change depends, in part, on how we present it. The scientific community describes it as a result of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, posing a serious threat to both ecosystems and human life. 

In the media, journalists sometimes sensationalise and catastrophize it, to the point where it might even serve as a dramatic backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters, where humanity faces a ticking time bomb.  

Regardless of its presentation, the call for help still has a long way to go before it can inspire politicians to take serious action.

This begs the question: What can we do to understand the severity of the world’s current situation before it worsens? 

From ‘distant’ to ‘present

Why do we tend to avoid taking action about climate change? The answer might lie in how our brains are wired.

Our evolutionary history has led us to respond strongly to immediate threats — a hungry predator in the wild, for example. However, it hasn’t prepared us to react as intensely to slow, creeping threats such as climate change. 

Researchers call this phenomenon psychological distance, which describes how each individual perceives the severity of a threat. 

According to Nurit Carmi’s team, who coined the term in their study, we tend to perceive environmental threats as more “distant” compared to economic and security threats, which, in turn, makes us feel less motivated to take action.

Surprisingly, a person’s education level or familiarity with environmental issues doesn’t necessarily correlate with how they perceive the severity of environmental threats, either. This suggests that perception is an instinctive element rooted deep within us, independent of how “modern” we may feel. 

However, our psychological distance from climate change is shrinking. In fact, increasing awareness of the issue has been a growing cause of the decline in mental health globally

So, with both the perceived and physical threat of climate change moving ever closer, how can we communicate positively and effectively to inspire action?

The power of visualising climate change

One of the most helpful ways to connect climate change to our present is visualisation

Visual representations of climate-related events, impacts and data help break down barriers of doubt and apathy, connecting the abstract concept of climate change to our everyday lives. 

This approach is useful in fiction, news and even marketing. For example, when we see images of polar bears on melting glaciers or people fleeing wildfires, our brain interprets these visuals as “real threats,” encouraging us to pay attention and take action. 

In another study, a campaign in the French Pyrenees called “Que la montagne est belle!”, created well-designed graphs to increase engagement with the environmental issues at tourist hotspots. These effectively influenced the locals and guests to preserve the area’s natural environment.

Such an approach has been useful in science communication as well. The striking graph, “Global Warming Stripes” by climate scientist Ed Hawkins, shows how fast the world has been heating from 1850 to 2022. 

A graph with vertical bars representing a year from 1850 to 2022. The colour goes from dark blue to red on the right, signifying the warming of global temperatures.

(Ed Hawkins/University of Reading)

Few people with access to the internet haven’t seen these stripes, a testament to their effectiveness as a communication tool.

Recently, researchers published a follow-up study under the name “Show Your Stripes” to demonstrate the continuation of global warming. You can visit their website, enter your region, and look at the current temperature rise. Let’s look at the data for Europe.

Temperature change in Europe. Bars go from majority blue and below average on the left to all red and above average on the right.

(Ed Hawkins/University of Reading)

Moving forward, let’s shift our focus from understanding the psychology and perception of climate change to exploring practical steps and engaging in the climate change conversation.

Taking the next step: Your role in the climate change conversation

The first step in tackling any problem is to be informed about our situation. So, in the upcoming series of articles, we will take an in-depth look at the research findings on climate change and how these findings are communicated to society.

We will explore the gaps in findings, misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the data and look for the most impactful ways of media portrayal that can help us to make a change starting today. 

Stay tuned.