The Psychology of Climate Change: Eminent But Not Imminent

March 5, 2021

This is an editorial that was originally published in The U Post of University High School.

Now that we are moving towards an administration that has expressed its desire to confront the issue of climate change, as the whole world experiences the consuming event that is COVID-19 together, it is a better time than ever to revisit exactly what makes climate change, and pandemics, such challenging issues to face.

They are challenging because they are intangible. They are eminent without being imminent. Much like climate change, the scale of COVID-19 is incomprehensible. Where do we even begin? The stakes are so daunting, is it worth trying to combat at all? A problem that’s hard to see is difficult to solve not only because it limits our ability to act strategically (how does one plan for the unknown?), but also because it makes the prospect of failing all the more terrifying.

Disparities and confusion in information do not indicate incompetence. Nor do they indicate hopelessness. Although most deaths from COVID-19 seem to be attributed to elderly populations, the confusion that comes with the whirlwind of information regarding COVID-19 should not be discredited. It affects us all. Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Is it safe to care for elderly family members? A clear answer is hard to come by, but perhaps more disturbingly, everyone seems to have a different one.

The reality we are facing is that individuals each have different levels of comfort when it comes to risk, but their decisions potentially affect us all. But this doesn’t mean we stop trusting. Conflicting information doesn’t necessarily indicate that something’s wrong. Our understanding of something like a pandemic or climate change will inevitably shift as time goes on and as we continue to learn. Given that it’s inevitable for our understanding to change, I trust leaders who correct themselves. One thousand times over. Therefore, conflicting information is inevitable, and it means something’s going right. It is a result of transparency.

So how does this relate to climate change? Like COVID-19, the choices of individuals affect us all, and every person has a differing level of comfort in inconveniencing themselves in order to reduce their carbon footprint.
Because that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take deliberately adjusting our lifestyle towards inconvenience to make a significant change. Like social distancing, we’re going to have to become comfortable with the choices of others even if we don’t agree with them. We’re going to have to accept that prioritizing one’s family or health or career over climate science is not a wrong choice. Being concerned about the environment doesn’t look the same for everyone. This is an individual thing. Each of us is going to have to set out and forge our own path and strike a balance we’re comfortable with.

Image courtesy of Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center

That doesn’t mean bringing awareness to climate change becomes any less of a priority. That doesn’t mean that we hold ourselves any less accountable for making a difference, as small as it may be. It just means that someone’s environmental choices do not belie anything about one’s character. It doesn’t say anything about one’s worthiness of being concerned.

The question of climate change is a particularly mind-twisting one. I go back and forth, sometimes within instants of each other. Climate change is not the most important thing in the world. It is not more important than my family. It is not more important than how we treat one another. But it also is. It is the largest challenge humankind has ever faced. These big-picture problems — pandemics, rising sea levels — they don’t fit within our lives the way they’re supposed to. I don’t know how to be a single drop in an entire ocean and just trust that the rest of the world will pitch in — to just hope, fingers crossed, maybe even praying, that things will be alright.

Against the odds, fighting against our human psychology that tells us the biggest threats are the imminent ones, staring us in the face, humans are working to combat climate change. However, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams said, “Private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city’s disinherited.” She was talking about homelessness and the inability for individuals to truly make a difference. She was passionate about it, of course, and had spent her life working at private organizations to combat homelessness, so it’s not a question of whether she believed it was worth it. But simultaneously, she calls for something more, recognizes that the federal government would be able to do so much more. She will do all she can, will toil away for the rest of her life, do her best, and let it be. All in the hope that she can call for the government to do the same.

Climate change is another one of these overwhelming problems that is going to take more than private beneficence to solve, and the truth is, it’s a problem that’s both eminent and imminent. We are seeing the effects today. With that in mind, although none of us will be able to participate in climate strikes this Earth Day, I encourage you to take part in a Digital Climate Strike by writing to your public officials. There are a lot of things that are out of our control, but I don’t believe this is one of them.

As always, stay healthy, and stay safe!

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The Psychology of Climate Change: Eminent But Not Imminent