Why we're turned off and tuned out to environmental crises

Proof Points

Why we're turned off and tuned out to environmental crises

Environmental concern among the global public is on the wane across a whole range of issues, GlobeScan’s most recent polling finds. But, with no sign that the problems facing the planet are any less severe – quite the reverse – how do we explain this increase in apathy?

The trend is certainly stark. GlobeScan tracks public concern on six environmental issues in its annual Radar global poll. Across eighteen countries, public concern about all six issues – water pollution, fresh water shortages, natural resource depletion, air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss – is way down from its peak in 2009, with double-digit falls in the proportion of the public considering them "very serious."

When it comes to climate change, the fall in concern since 2009 has eroded the head of steam that appeared to be building around this issue over the course of more than a decade. Now, barely half of those polled consider it a “very serious” problem.

The timing of this fall in concern is no coincidence. The period since 2009 has witnessed the most sustained period of economic strife in most of the world’s major economies for the better part of a century. All our polling suggests that, while alarm about the economic situation and jobs has retreated from the stratospheric levels it reached in 2008, it has stabilized at a much higher level than before the crisis. The full ramifications of the banking collapses, ensuing government bailouts and cripplingly high levels of public indebtedness that have resulted have only slowly become apparent. And bluntly, for many citizens, these appear to pose a much clearer and more present threat to their well-being than environmental jeopardy, which for most people remains hidden from view.

What's more, the environmental threat is complex, abstract and contested. When it comes to natural resource depletion, concern about dwindling oil reserves has coincided with the shale gas boom, blurring the debate about sustainable energy sources. Leading scientists have maintained that the widely reported rate of species loss has been vastly exaggerated. And missteps from those attempting to engage public attention, such as the faulty figures on glacier melt in the Himalayas issued by the IPCC, have presented an open target for those looking to discredit the entire field of climate science.

While the examples above may well be the exceptions rather than the norm, there is a sizeable body of opinion that is ready to seize on these developments in order to sow doubt in the public mind. Conservative commentators in particular appear unwilling to countenance the increased role for government and multilateral organizations that engaging with the environmental threat seems to require. Arguably, the energy that environmental skeptics put into discrediting their opponents is testament to the potency of the arguments – but their views find a ready audience in many sections of the media.  

What is urgently required is a genuine attempt to reinvigorate a sterile debate. For those already convinced by the magnitude of the environmental threat and passionate in their desire to convince others, doom-laden pronouncements about impending planetary catastrophe may seem like the only responsible course of action.

But our figures suggest people are starting to tune these messages out. Ultimately, the challenge for the environmental movement is to articulate an alternative to our current economic model that empowers people rather than constrains them, and that is politically achievable in difficult times.

It’s time, in other words, for a real alternative.

Head-in-sand image by James Steidl via Shutterstock