A day after 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a warning to all of humanity about the dire consequences of climate change, many of us woke up as we usually do, and went about our day with little or no concern for the future of the human race.
“We don’t see exactly what we can do personally. The problem is huge,” says Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
From a decline in freshwater supply, to ocean dead zones, to forest decimation, the scientists raising the alarm say we’re on course for a mass extinction event. This century, 50 to 75 percent of the species on earth could die off completely. If that happens, the scientists say we will not be able to reverse the damage.
The effects of climate change are already being felt close to home. This year, the Toronto Islands were washed out after high water levels in Lake Ontario. But it won’t just be the city’s geography that will be affected, climate experts believe we’ll start to see the impacts to personal health soon.
“We’re looking at illness for sure, as the temperature gets hotter,” says Gideon Forman, climate change analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. “We’re going to see more ticks that transmit Lyme disease, for example. We’re going to see more illness, and we’re going to see more heat-connected illnesses, especially for older people and kids.”
Despite the dangers, by and large the human race has sat idle while the planet has been pushed to the brink. Some psychologists believe citizens are in a state of learned helplessness.
“It requires literally governments of countries to band together in things like the Paris Accord,” says Joordens, “and when that doesn’t even happen. …I think a lot of people reach that learned helplessness point where [they think] yeah it’s coming but our species simply does not have what it takes to respond to this challenge.”
In June, the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It is now the only country in the world not committed to reducing carbon emissions. Joordens says it’s decisions like those that cause people to lose faith that significant progress will be made on the issue.
One environmental psychologist has created website listing the 40 biggest things that hinder our desire to take collective action against climate change.
“One of the big ones of course, that’s usually number one, is lack of perceived control,” says Robert Gifford, of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. He says people think, “there’s not much I can do about it, even if I change my life completely, there’s 7 billion other people, so what’s the point?”
It goes even deeper, Gifford adds, explaining the human brain is fundamentally wired to ignore climate change.
“Our physiological brain hasn’t changed since we were wandering around on the Savanna,” says Gifford. “Our species is about 300,000 years old; during that time, our species didn’t care what was happening 10 km away, or five years from now. We cared about today: getting the hunt today, feeding our kids today.
“This core of our brain, this ancient brain, is still wired to the here and now. Climate change, we’re capable of course of thinking about it, but it’s over there and later.”
Despite the human brain’s bias, the David Suzuki Foundation’s Forman believes if we can get past the mental barriers, simple individual changes in habits can have a profound impact.
“Think of your grandchildren,” he says. “Think of the life that they’re going to have to live. If you care about your kids and your grandchildren, you have to be concerned about climate change.”