Public apathy on climate change is a cause for celebration, not concern
Source: London Telegraph
by Brendan O’Neill
The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, has said scientists and UN officials should stop using “weirdo words” when talking about climate change. By talking in scientific jargon and using acronyms that fly over the heads of Joe and Josephine Public, the climate-change lobby is bamboozling rather than enlightening the masses, she said. Panicked that the public switches off ? or more likely sinks into a coma ? whenever an expert with more PhDs than sense holds forth on climate change, Ms Figueres says climate-change folk are “just not communicating properly”.
This alleged crisis of eco-communication, the failure of enviro-experts to make a connection with, far less fire up, the man in the street, weighs heavily on green-leaning minds. In the Guardian this week, an eco-worrier says climate-change activists must try harder to bridge the gap between “the abstruse nature of expert discourse” and people’s “ordinary lives” (shortened version: let’s find a way to make really complicated stuff understandable to ill-educated folk more used to reading Heat the celebrity magazine than Heat the George Monbiot book).
All sorts of green groups have come up with communication strategies to address what they view as the public’s apathy (“indolence of mind”: OED) on all matters climatic. Some of the strategies are gob-droppingly patronising. One, titled Communicating Climate Change to Mass Public Audiences, published by the Climate Change Advisory Group, says the masses are likely to feel “sad or angry” when told the economy and their own personal wealth cannot keep growing forever. They will experience “painful emotions of grief for a society that must undergo changes” and they might even adopt “maladaptive coping strategies”, such as “denial of responsibility, blaming others, or becoming apathetic”. And it falls to the eco-enlightened to help the moronic masses through these feelings and encourage them to shift towards “pro-environmental behaviour”. In this reading, the green lobby is Oprah and the dumb public are just so many basket cases plonked on its couch, waiting to have their frazzled minds re-educated with eco-conscious ideas.
It’s not surprising that greenies are racking their brains over how best to communicate with the public, because even though they’ve been banging on about climate-change disaster for 20-plus years now, most people just aren’t interested. We’re certainly not very moved. Last year, a survey of people in 22 countries, including Britain, found that . “The public are starting to tune out”, said the poll overseer. Greens have come up with some quite offensive explanations for this tuning out. Al Gore says the public response to climate change is no longer “modulated by logic, reason or reflective thought” ? that is, we’re irrational. The Ecologist magazine says the public has responded to warnings of climate change with “self-deception and mass denial” ? in short, we’re irrational. Leo Hickman of the World Wide Fund for Nature has said that too much of the public is now a “baying and growing crowd? resistant to the prospect of ever having to alter their lifestyle” ? yep, we’re irrational.
All this talk about how to prise open the public’s eyes to the dangers of climate change ? and to their own idiocy and greed ? exposes the elitism of the eco-brigade. For all the climate-change lobby’s claims to be rationalist, what we really have here is a new priestly caste convinced that it knows The Truth and that it must endeavour to communicate that truth in dumbed-down lingo, free of “weirdo words”, to the sinning little people. But has the public really tuned out from eco matters because it doesn’t understand them, because it is perplexed by “expert discourse”? I don’t think so. I think the reason people are switching off from the enviro-agenda is because they disagree with it. They just don’t buy the idea that capping carbon emissions is the most important thing in the world, more important than growing the economy, increasing wealth, and being free to choose to live in a big house with the heaters permanently switched on and Tesco just a short 4×4 drive away. They see the mean-minded, sacrifice-demanding politics of being green as a challenge to the thing that has motored human communities for millennia ? the desire to create a world of plenty, an overflowing “land of milk and honey”, a utopia filled with stuff and comfort ? and they don’t like it.
Environmentalism is, by its own admission, a campaign against the public and our historic desire for more things and freedom. George Monbiot has stated this baldly. Environmentalism is “a campaign not for abundance but for austerity”, he says. “It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less? it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.” And that is precisely how most people experience environmentalism ? as an extraordinarily elitist drive to reprimand and possibly even punish the people for daring to want more; as a top-down, hectoring effort to make us acclimatise to austerity and give up on that age-old dream of a “great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume” (). If environmentalism is a “campaign against people”, then it makes perfect sense that the people bristle at it, even hate it and deny its “truths”.
People want wealth and comfort, not only for themselves but for others, too. They are unmoved by the campaign against climate change not because of its “weirdo words” or complicated ideas, but because it is at root an elitist mission to convince us that our material desires are destroying the planet. Far from being irrational, the mass public apathy towards climate change that so freaks out eco-experts is entirely sensible and logical; in fact, it renews my faith in humankind.