Monthly Archives: March 2014

How worried should you be about climate change?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil... and evil will go away?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil… and evil will go away?

Most people nowadays have climate change on the brain. But should you really be worried? Or are people exaggerating the threat?

The function of worry is to help you cope with threat; worrying is the thing that prompts you to plan ahead. It’s totally normal to worry about climate change. That being said, people don’t want to think about climate change because it brings up questions of life and death, as well as profound change. Thinking about these things is threatening and anxiety provoking, thus people may feel that a topic that arouses such deep fears is exaggerated, hysterical, and not rooted in reality. But there is nothing wrong with thinking about death, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that it provokes anxiety. The more you think about it, as morbid as that is a) the better prepared you are for the fact that it is inevitable, and b) the more likely you are to put your anxious energy to productive use – motivation for action to lessen the impact on your life and the lives of others.

According to Langford (2002)  and Maiteny (2002) (who have done their classifications independently of one another and are put together here) people tend fall into four camps in their response to climate change risk:


These are the people who actively deny that climate change is happening, or that humans have anything to do with it. They tend to rely strongly on rationality, and have a low tolerance for scientific uncertainty. While rationality is a positive attribute that is needed for problem solving, in this situation it is not aiding in problem solving, it is rationalizing inaction. Their desire for scientific certainty is unrealistic, because their threshold is way too high. The analogy that I’ve seen others use and I think is quite effective is this: If you went to 10 doctors, and 9 told you that you have cancer, and one told you that you are fine, would you listen to the one because his diagnosis puts all the other ones in doubt? Or do you assume he is an outlier because the other 9 independently converged on a diagnosis?  According to Maiteny (2002) these people are likely to stave off their anxiety by increasing their consumption.


These are the folks who don’t care. They are disinterested in the topic of climate change, and are likely disproportionately low income. People in this category feel that they have more pressing things to worry about, they have less free time to worry about nebulous threats, when they have more immediate needs to focus on. They may be less educated and thus have a harder time understanding the nature of the problem at hand, and can’t parse the truth from the jargon and exaggerations that pepper the discourse. People in this category believe that climate change is completely out of their control, that whatever happens, happens and there is nothing they can do.

Some people can experience despair and hopelessness, or feel very overwhelmed by the thought of climate change, which may also lead to inertia. Unfortunately, because people can be looked down upon as hysterical, morbid, and even unpatriotic, few readily admit these feelings.


These are the people who show their concern for the environment by shopping more thoughtfully, but without major changes in lifestyle. This is probably the category I would fall into, and I would say is probably a good place to start for others. Making more thoughtful choices about what you buy is a process – you have to find better products to replace the products you currently use. Through this process you discover that some products cannot be replaced with an “eco-friendly” version, at which point you may decide to live without it or continue using it. Hopefully, the journey leads one to become better informed and engaged in the issue, but not necessarily. Many people who fall into this camp run the risk of patting themselves on the back without putting in enough effort (e.g. not researching purchases enough and falling prey to “green-washing”), or reducing their consumption.


These people are engaged, feel a sense of empowerment from the changes that they have made, and a sense of personal responsibility to spread the word, the joy, and the wisdom. The folks in this category share a belief in “communal efficacy” or the idea that we can come together and solve this complex problem effectively. There are many of these people on the internet running wonderful and informative blogs, encouraging others, educating through film and other media, building sustainable communities, and growing organic food.

As for what proportion falls into each category – it’s hard to tell, and depends on who actually answers the polls, where the information is collected, demographics and social context.

Which category do you fit in? Or do you find you do not fit into any of these? What kind of emotions do people around you express about climate change? Let me know in the comments 🙂