Only 15 Percent of Americans Think Climate Change Will Cause Them Significant Personal Harm
My life has been throttled by climate change all year.
In the spring, a strong F3 tornado touched down minutes away from our house and proceeded to destroy half the town.
It passed right overhead.
We got lucky.
After that, we lived through a heat dome. My daughter’s school canceled outdoor activities for a week. Temperatures continued creeping up well into the 100s while we went out of town, killing everything in our garden despite our best efforts to keep it covered and watered. During our trip, we got trapped in wildfire smoke — some of the worst air quality in the world. It was so thick you could see it floating over the mountains. I spent an afternoon curled into a ball, weak and nauseated.
I wound up having to wear an N95 mask indoors.
The air quality index where we were staying officially reached “unhealthy” levels that day. Later, I read that the smoke probably contained toxic chemicals like benzine. As someone who grew up around smokers, I’m in the sensitive group who feels it first.
My family calls me the canary in the coal mine.
On our way home, we got sidelined by severe storms, hail so furious it blotted out any visibility on the roads.
We had to pull over.
As many of you know, I’ve been writing about climate change for a few years. Now I’m living it. I’ve got street cred.
As the world sees the hottest days ever recorded and wildfires drown half the country in smoke, most Americans can’t be be bothered. They’re traveling more than ever. When they’re not flying, they’re sitting in air-conditioned coffee shops.
They don’t seem very concerned.
We know why.
A survey released by Yale and George Mason universities found that only 15 percent of Americans think climate change will cause them “a great deal” of personal harm. Only one in three Americans talk about global warming on a regular basis. They think it will hurt future generations, and it will hurt poor people — but not them. That might be starting to change as videos show people trapped on the roofs of their cars, getting washed down the road by floods that look like rapids.
It needs to change faster.
As videos from floods in Spain overtook social media, climate activists warned that it was coming to America next. They were laughed off. Days later, catastrophic rains lashed the northeast. The exact same videos appeared before us. Only this time it was cars getting washed down the road in New York and Vermont.
It’s time to wake up.
People like me are often taken to task for writing in what climate minimizers consider a hyperbolic or even hysterical tone. They balk at the idea that climate change will have any kind of serious impact on them. Psychologists call this optimism bias.
It’s also known as “the illusion of invulnerability.” Up to 80 percent of the human population suffers from it. This bias frequently drives people to underestimate the risks of everything from heart disease to cancer. Because people don’t understand their risks, they make poor decisions and increase their odds of personal harm.
It runs rampant in America.
If you want to understand why so many people seem to understand climate change but fail to take action, look no further.
This is it.
The last few years have revealed just how deep optimism bias runs in western culture. Nobody wants to believe that anything bad will ever happen to them. When it does, they’re shocked.
They can’t believe it.
If anything, the average American needs to be a little more scared of climate change. It’s going to hurt them.
They need to understand how.
First, climate change is going to drive up the cost of your insurance. That’s already happening, whether you know it or not. Major insurers have already begun to abandon states like Florida and California. They’ll start leaving other states soon.
Climate change is going to hurt your health. You’re going to breathe more and more wildfire smoke as the years go on and more forests burn. Air pollution already causes one in five deaths.
That ratio will go up.
Climate change is going to threaten your life. Most Americans probably think they’ll just get to spend the rest of their lives insulated from extreme heat waves by air conditioning. They don’t seem to understand that these heat waves put extreme demands on power grids, as millions of people crank up their AC units.
One day, they’re going to fail.
A grid doesn’t have to completely collapse for people to die. As Jeff Goodell writes in The Heat Will Kill You First, even someone who’s young and fit won’t last long at 109F.
Climate change is going to bring more disease. As Ed Yong writes, we’re living in the pandemicine now. Get ready for more pandemics. Get ready for malaria. Get ready for hemorrhagic fevers.
They’re already here.
The diseases Americans assumed were the problem of poor, undeveloped countries are going to become everyone’s problem. We should’ve eradicated them when we had the chance.
Climate change is going to drink your water, too. Major cities around the world have already started to run out.
And it’s going to eat your food.
If you want solutions, then the first thing we have to do as a culture is shred this thing we call optimism bias. As it turns out, autistic people like me are less vulnerable to it anyway. We pay more attention to risks, and we don’t consider ourselves above them.
We listen to warnings.
We need more than 15 percent of Americans to understand that climate change poses a serious threat, and not just to future generations or poor people in developing countries — as the surveys have shown. We need everyone to get off their high horse and understand that climate change is hurting them now in big ways.
Climate change is coming for us all.
We don’t have another 20 years to gradually increase our green energy while pretending that we’re going to keep the same comfortable, convenient lifestyles we’ve had.
We don’t have ten years.
We don’t have five.
We need as many Americans as possible to understand that one day very soon it could be them clinging to the top of a car for dear life while raging flood waters try to rip them away.
I’ve already been nearly blown away by a tornado. I’ve already lived through a heat dome. I’ve already learned what it feels like to breathe poisoned air from fires burning hundreds of miles away. I know what’s at stake for my family. I get it.