What does caring about climate change look like?

I recently came across an article titled “What will it take for people to care about climate change?“. There are a lot of articles like this, all of them focused on some disaster linked to climate change. This one touches on the current heat wave in India, which has seen the highest temperature ever recorded in that country. This is the second year in a row in which the country had a heat wave that caused roads to melt.

“What will it take?” is a fair question to ask, but I think it may be the wrong question, at least if asked by itself. I think if you polled the planet, most people would say they care about climate change. Even if you polled the United States – a country famous for its science denial, it seems a majority of people care about the issue, at least to some degree. The problem is what that actually means.

For one family I know, it means a few years back, they got a solar array and associated regulatory system that meets their power requirements, and feeds the excess to their neighbors. The whole setup cost them around $30k. For another friend it meant taking a lobster boat to block a massive shipment of coal from being delivered to a power plant for a day. For other people it’s getting rid of their cars and biking more, or buying an electric car, or making their homes more energy efficient, or changing their diet.

But the reality is that the list of actions that demonstrate “caring about climate change” seems to vary wildly depending on how scared of it someone is, and how much money they have, and whether they own their home, and so on. It also probably varies depending on whether you’re struggling to put food on the table, or to deal with illness and debt, or to fight for a country where your skin color or gender identity or sexuality won’t get you murdered.

I think people do care about climate change, at least to some degree, but the way they respond to that depends on their circumstances. For most of humanity, the options are limited. I think part of the reason why we see so little clear action on climate change is that it’s not really clear what any one of us can do about it. If my landlord puts solar panels on the roof, it’ll take some money away from coal, but the interstate highway a couple blocks north of here will still have cars backed up for miles every morning and every evening, and virtually all of them will still be emitting carbon dioxide.

There’s a lot about this that evokes a feeling of powerlessness and futility, especially given the fact that no matter what we do, at this point it’s going to keep warming for the rest of our lives. Whether or not you care about it, this story will still be ongoing long after you’re dead. That means it’s hard to know what to do, and it’s hard to feel that the actions you do take have any effect.

At this point, I think it’s a matter of saving civilization. As insane as it seems, one obstacle to rooftop solar has been that it won’t pay for itself fast enough – as if the cost of the panels and the power bills were the only things at issue. We need a society that’s willing to spend money to deal with problems, whether or not it will make a profit or break even.

What will it take for people to show that they care about climate change? It will take giving people a way to do something about it, be it subsidized renewable energy, or retirement portfolios without fossil fuels, or billionaires investing in renewable energy implimentation rather than more “research and development”. It will take real action from those with the power to act, and I’m afraid it will take significant changes in who is running our government, and in how they talk about the issue. Until people feel that some form of real action with real consequences is within their grasp, I think it’s unlikely that most will be willing or able to demonstrate that they care about climate change.

I guess the real question is, “what will it take for society to care about climate change?” and to be honest, I really don’t know.


  1. Johnny Vector says

    One thing that would help on a local scale is the makings of renewable energy being available and easy to find. I have the great good fortune to be able to design my own house, and so it will be optimized for solar exposure on the roof. I expect to be net negative on energy over the course of a year (including all my local car travel), but now I’m thinking that I want to add some heat storage, so that I don’t draw (much) from the grid on cold winter nights. I think it will only take a 500 gallon tank of water and air-to-water heat pump, but those are hard to find. If they were available at Home Depot like the domestic hot water heaters, it would be much simpler to do.

    Earlier in the design process, I tried to build in solar shingles. Both Dow and CertainTeed told me they have given up trying to sell them on the East coast of the US, because no roofers are interested in changing their business model.

    A lot of the technology exists, but everyone still knows how to make buggies and isn’t interested in these newfangled automatical contraptions. I think there’s a tipping point ahead, if we could just get to it.

  2. says

    It would help if we didn’t have a bunch of rich, powerful assholes standing in the way of getting to said tipping point.

  3. StevoR says

    @^ Abe Drayton : This so much. There are a huge number of people in our societies who already care and are already taking action but there’s also that small but powerful group with vested interests and ideological warpage who keep fighting and dragging back and making things ever harder and worse than they need to be. History will NOT judge them kindly – the present is even starting to show that too.

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