This Article's About the Environment, Here's Why You Don't Care


When PolicyMic's Michael McCutcheon pitched this story to me, I felt a bit like Douglass Adams' cow that wants to be eaten. It seems a little twisted to get asked to write about why nobody cares about what you write about, no?

But when it comes down to it, people's relative apathy on environmental issues is pretty striking. It's a point that has been made over and over, a dead horse which I too have now beaten. Anyway, even though a majority of people recognize that the world has gotten noticeably hotter over the past 100 years, and a majority of people either think that global warming is a problem now or will be in the future ... people are significantly more likely to get into Harvard than to pick the environment as the most pressing issue facing the country, much to the chagrin of environmental organizers like this pundit.

Also, as it turns out, this relative apathy is neither new nor isolated to the good old U.S.A. A study recently released by my proudly masochistic alma mater indicated that over a 13-year study, at no point did even one of the thirty-three countries surveys rank the environment as their highest concern, though Scandinavia cares most about it, presumably because those countries are melting. Take that, American exceptionalism!

So why is it that the environment ranks so low in people's minds? That may seem a bit of a tough answer to suss out, but I have some ideas.

The Secret of NIMBY:

In the environmental community, perhaps no acronym is more annoying than NIMBY: not in my backyard (sorry if you were expecting the classic 1980's animated film, but that's about NIHM and lab rats). What makes NIMBY so pesky from the climate change standpoint is that when asked, people either don't see effects of global warming where they live, don't want the policy solutions to affect their daily lives, or don't feel like they can do anything about it. That collective action problem is well known; climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally and it's hard to get behind fossil fuel reductions in the U.S. when China, for instance, burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world.

Even though climate change threatens to eventually submerge lower Manhattan, home to not only the mega-rich but thousands of public housing residents who can't afford to move to higher ground, and even though current air quality in parts of the U.S. is still bad enough to cause and worsen lung diseases like asthma, we don't see the environment as an issue that has to be addressed.  I mean, come on, how bad could it possibly be here when China's air is so bad that dust masks are fashion accessories?

Nobody like the idea of solutions to "other people's" problems causing problems at home, which brings me to my next point.

It's the economy, stupid:

In those surveys that place environmental issues as least important, the economy is always first. See, when you're so paranoid that anti-climate change policy designed to keep the global temperature from rising a few degrees might make your electricity prices go up, or worse yet, make you lose your job, you really couldn't care about polar bears, droughts, hurricanes, or anything else we know climate change will drastically affect.  You care about feeding your family here and now.

This economic NIMBY is essentially why the U.S. refused to ratify the first major international treaty to address climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, and it still dominates our federal environmental politics.  I've had the distinctly unpleasant experience of lobbying congressmen and senators about federal environmental issues, and even when they agreed with me, I always got brushed off because of the economic paranoia.  Environmentalists are just not seen as credible when it comes to anything related to the economy. Why is that, you (probably don't) ask? Well...

It's Science!

Environmental issues are, undeniably, inextricably linked to science, and even though 12 percent of students say it's their favorite subject, science doesn't play too well in the national discourse. A number of states have recently come to ideological blows with their scientists about letting politics color what gets taught in schools, including climate change. And even though Neil deGrasse Tyson is certifiably the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive, I just don't see Tyson's NOVA ScienceNow overtaking fellow PBS staple Downton Abbey as water cooler talk ("OMG, did you see when the simulated supernova killed the simulated planet? That's not FAIR! That was my favorite simulated planet! I can't believe they did that!"). And seriously, do you really want to put the time into understanding science when you could be reading about fiscal cliffs, crazy people with guns, or Honey Boo Boo?

Environmental policy is just not all that easy to understand or to talk about. It's an alphabet soup of laws with awkward acronyms (NEPA, ESA, CAA, CWA, AEA, RCRA, CERCLA, TSCA), and which have lots to do with a whole bunch of chemicals (CO2, O3, NOx, SOx, are you bored yet?).  Even the terms "global warming" and "climate change" don't have the same ring as "toxic waste," which, by the way, could fall under the control of the TSCA, CWA, RCRA, or even CERCLA if you're not careful. Confused yet? It's little wonder that we organizers are obsessed with finding the right way to get our message across to the otherwise disinterested masses.

So how do we do it? The most successful strategy, which resonates the most, is to talk about the issue that motivated environmental laws in the first place: public health. People used to dump so much pollution into our waterways that rivers actually burned. Isn't water supposed to put out fires? Don't we drink it? Fossil-fueled power plants belch smog, which causes and worsens asthma and other heart and lung diseases.

Unfortunately, climate change doesn't have that immediate health angle. As a certain PolicyMic contributor was quick to say when I last wrote about climate change, carbon dioxide (the main contributor to global warming) isn't particularly toxic, unlike, say, mercury, which also gets spewed by power plants.

This lack of urgency regarding climate change should really be alarming, since climate change will be especially in the long run a massive problem in massively obvious ways. We'll see more extreme weather and more frequent droughts. Potential cascade feedback within the carbon cycle could widely disrupt plant and therefore animal life.  These effects wouldn't be isolated to the fringe societies of the world, either; they would be very much in your backyard.

It's time people decided to turn NIMBY on its head and to tell climate change to GTFO but I'm guessing you aren't even reading this sentence. I guess I should go put the soapbox back in the closet now.