Comprehending the Climate Crisis: It’s Personal

We have all heard “Climate Change isn’t real” or “I can’t do anything about global warming” or “It’s on your generation to fix this planet.” All of these statements either reject or brush off personal responsibility in the fight against climate change. However, even those who accept a role in the environmentalism movement have trouble figuring out how to help. We are often overwhelmed by the enormity of the task —  saving the planet. Despair, depression and inactivity are the byproducts of this seemingly hopeless mission. Why does how we discuss and think about fixing climate change produce feelings of detachment, rather than proactive connectedness? I decided to do a little reading to answer this question for myself. 

First off, there are some psychological reasons behind why people find it hard to respond to the dangers and challenges of climate change. I listened to a NPR podcast featuring reporter Alisa Chang and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert explained that individuals don’t treat the climate crisis as the emergency it is because the situation lacks four fundamental characteristics that typically induce an immediate response. These four features are:

  • Intention (Global warming isn’t trying to kill us.)
  • Immoral (Climate change does not violate our moral sensibilities.) 
    • However, activists like Greta Thunberg are making inactivity in regard to sustainability a moral issue, which is why we are talking about her. 
  • Imminent (The effects of climate change seem distant to us.)
  • Instantaneous (We accept gradual changes more than we do abrupt changes. Since the effects of climate change are not alway immediately tangible, we have a hard time responding to them.)

The climate change crisis’s lack of those four characteristics makes it difficult for the human brain to see immediate change as a necessity. And it is a necessity. Chang ends the interview by asking how we can fix the way we are comprehending and responding to news about environmentalism. Gilbert’s suggestion: Talk about climate change as the terrible threat it is. If Greta Thunberg can do it, so can everyone else. 

I continued to research more, and found other sources that emphasize Gilbert’s points.  Here are the most important points:

  • Climate change is a nonlinear problem. (Discrete instances of pollution don’t affect the environment much. However, the accumulation of pollutants will have a major effect on our climate.)
  • We don’t see the long-term benefits as adequate enough reasons for the short-term sacrifices. (Due to our inability to comprehend the gravity of the crisis, we deem it unworthy of response. Biking to work is not worth giving up our cars.)
  • Our “optimism bias” irrationally makes us believe everything will be okay, whether or not we fight for change. 
  • Humans also have a cognitive bias to “instant gratification”. (Since we don’t see immediate benefits from our sustainability efforts, it is hard to maintain them.) 
  • Lastly, there is the futility bias. (What is the point of increasing sustainability measures if the planet is doomed anyway?)

Now, that was a lot of information but now you know some of the reasoning behind the lack of proactivity the whole world is exhibiting toward the climate crisis. However, knowing the reasoning behind it doesn’t fix the issue. The solution lies in acknowledging and addressing the reasons and forming solutions to better discuss and think about climate change. So, how can we change how we think and discuss climate change for the better? Here are ways to be a more productive and healthy member of the sustainability movement (which I believe every human should consider themselves to be a part of):

  • Join activist groups or support groups that discuss and take measures to positively influence the sustainability movement. (The CEC is an example of one of these!) These communities can be especially helpful for support and inspiration if you feel yourself expressing anxiety or depression related to climate change.
  • Think about the future impacts of climate change on your life as if they were affecting you today. (Then you will be more motivated to change your daily habits.)
  • Stay educated on the environmentalism movement and find the ways you can help. (Even if you can’t make a big change, you can make some change. And hey, that’s enough.)

Although your brain (and others) may be telling you that the climate crisis is not in need of our immediate attention, I assure you it is. While the effects of climate change might seem far off and irrelevant, you have already lived through some disastrous consequences⁠ — Hurricane Harvey being one. But, as we saw during Hurricane Harvey and as we are seeing during the COVID-19 crisis, communities are capable of coming together to create tremendous change. 

If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: Your actions ​are ​important, and we will get through this time, together.

Written by: Samara Zuckerbrod

Graphic by: Rania Agrawal


2 thoughts on “Comprehending the Climate Crisis: It’s Personal

  1. Can’t stress how important these points are. It is precisely the reason the world has responded so proactively to the COVID crisis but continues to drag its feet when it comes to climate change.


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