Climate apathy

Tamara Pearson
Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

Society is organized around a consumerism lifestyle, and this means that many people may want to do better for the environment, but are unable to imagine life without fossil fuels or the over-production of unnecessary goods. Plastic production (usually from crude oil or gas) has doubled in the past two decades, but most people can’t get by without supermarkets and shops and their single-use packaging and plastic goods.

People want to believe that EVs and recycling are solutions, because they don’t involve moving away from these addictions or much sacrifice. In the US, passenger cars are responsible for 58 per cent of emissions, but cars there also represent status and mobility, so people find it hard to demand we move on to functioning public transport instead.

Climate research and reports often focus on the statistics, and what will happen in the distant future, without exact dates. While this sort of research is powerful and important, for a mother in Mexico looking for her disappeared child, it can seem abstract and removed from her reality and daily life. Even people in Somalia, suffering four years of drought and a lack of food, may find data about the next month and next year and the causes of their situation more relevant.

Though most people realize the enormity of climate change, they are often dealing with other issues that feel more pressing, because they are more immediate, like financial concerns or health issues. Short term interests prevail over existential crises, Noam Chomsky has noted.

The current immoral economic system can seem too amorphous and overwhelming to take on. Abstract information about the distant past or future, can lead us to think, but more concrete information tends to trigger a sense of urgency and the need to act.

People prefer to focus on what feels doable. Further, we live in an economic system that encourages competition and individual self interest. With privatized and inaccessible basic social services, as well as racism, sexism, and classism, most people feel abandoned by the society they live in, while families or other small social groups do often seem to be supportive. So, for busy and exploited people, dedicating what little free time they have to family rather than risky causes and the needs of society, may be an understandable choice.

Climate change is complex, borderless, with its causes and impacts often taking place in different parts of the world. So there is some ambiguity about who is responsible for solutions. Common people are already dis-empowered and exhausted and may feel like this is the job of governments and international organizations rather than theirs. Alienated from politics and economic decision making, most people don’t believe they are capable of doing anything significant, and that this catastrophe is out of their hands.

Most people don’t understand the intricacies of how global economics and power works, or how industry, inequality, and imperialism factor in to climate change. A lot of people would love to change things, but don’t know how to. And other very well-intentioned people believe that a few basil plants, recycling, or living off-grid is enough. Information deprivation – largely a product of a mainstream media industry that defends the status quo and avoids context – makes it hard for people to take more serious action.

Vanuatu has called for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, which is so far endorsed by over 60 cities. Youth recently held relatively small protests in 450 locations around the world, and other activists are pushing to make ecocide a crime. We are capable of being bold and of coordinating, but movements are also fragmented, small, disconnected from the most vulnerable sectors of society, or arising from them but isolated, unsure how to go beyond marches, forums, and symbolic strikes. There is a lack of preparedness for bigger actions that challenge the power structures promoting environmental destruction.

Because big companies are causing the problem and most governments’ climate measures are non-existent or pathetic, demanding they act feels hopeless, yet taking away their power seems impossible. Based on its track record, few people believe the COP27 coming up in November will reach significant or binding agreements.

At the same time, life experience has bestowed heavy amounts of apathy on most oppressed peoples. Many have fought, but few have won. There is a permanent emergency of injustice and inequality, but the suffering of the majority world has been normalized, and climate change is quickly joining the long list of things that are tolerated.

Really confronting the powers that are causing the damage, when they are the ones with the money, guns, and prisons, is hard, especially when people are dealing with income and job insecurity, undocumented status, violence at home, and other unsafe situations. That climate scientists are arrested, but criminal corporations are given tax breaks, is a strong message.

So what can we do to get to the point where people are emboldened and empowered enough to shut down genocidal corporations?

The first thing is remembering and reminding others that there are realistic, practical things that can be done to slow down, and stop climate destruction. Protecting the environment is completely feasible and realistic. In the US, for example, it would only actually take 2 to 3 per cent of GDP to meet the International Panel on Climate Change’s conditions for reducing emissions by 2030. Spending on and planning sustainable energy, as well as reducing oil, coal, and natural gas consumption would involve less money and work than the World War Two effort, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin argue.

Already, activism has led to significant gains, and these should be broadcast more and emphasized. Before the pandemic, global protests put climate change measures on the top of the media agenda, movements in the US have applied enough pressure that climate legislation is now a serious measure rather than on the fringe. Here in Mexico, Indigenous peoples shut down a water bottling plant and ran it as a community center. We don’t always see the impact of a single march on the day it happens, but sustaining the pro-environment movement will be worth it.

Excerpted: ‘The Urgent Global Climate Revolt That Isn’t Happening’. Courtesy: