High concern, but low priority

A question that I have been asking myself over the last posts was how it was possible that the climate change topic could get such high scores. In almost half of the countries surveyed, more than 50% of the respondents were very concerned about Climate Change and some countries even had a score as high as 79% on climate change worries. It gives the impression that climate change is high at the list of worries of the public.

This in stark contrast with what other polls show, for example the MY World global survey 2015:

MY World 2015 overview

It shows action on climate change dead last. So what is the catch?

Part of this is explainable by the lack of definition of “Climate Change”. Even people skeptical of anthropogenic climate change can have high scores. Especially if they live in a vulnerable area, the score could be really high. But I think a vague definition is not the whole story.

I think one needs to see this in perspective. In the pew survey, the surveyed threats were some international and some global issues, but many, if not all, were outside the direct experience of the people. Although we are living in a “globalized world”, the focus of the public is on issues in their direct surroundings. Things like education, job, health care, food, protection, environment,…

“Global” climate change is a more abstract threat. We can’t just smell the air and conclude that CO2 levels increased by 100 ppm, let alone whether this is going to have catastrophic effects. Climate changes so slowly that I would hardly notice it and if I do, it is not necessarily something that is global. It is much bigger than us. We have to accept on faith that it is the case. If nobody had said that there might be some global problem with CO2, we wouldn’t even notice. A lot of people have the media as their information source and that media is reporting in a one-sided, non-critical, misleading way on the issue. Politicians, NGOs, film makers,… telling us how bad it will get and that we need action to avert things going bad in the future.

If we don’t search for ourselves, but just take in that message unchallenged, then that is the perception we get. That is where I was about seven years ago. When someone would ask me then the question of how I thought about “global climate change”, I surely would have told that I was concerned. Which is not hard to understand. I heard the same message everywhere, so there was no reason not to be concerned. On the other hand, in the half of a century that I have been around, I didn’t notice any worrying trend in my direct surroundings. On the contrary. Many things did improve. Although I believed that the (abstract) fear was basically justified, I also believed that it was exaggerated.

Anyhow, I went from the assumption that I did my share in respecting the planet and that was that. Life went on.

There is no contradiction between the pew survey (in which climate change seemed to be high profile) and the MY World survey (in which climate change is at the bottom of our concerns). In isolation we could give climate change a high score, because that is the repeating message around us. But when we compare “global” climate change with other down-to-earth concerns, it will get a lower priority. If we focus on something, even an abstract problem, it is getting bigger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is at the top of our concerns.

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