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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet

If swing voters were terrified of the climate crisis, ministers would take it seriously | Gaby Hinsliff

If swing voters were terrified of the climate crisis, ministers would take it seriously | Gaby Hinsliff

The end of the world is nigh, again. And as usual, it’s being greeted largely with a shrug. Perhaps you felt a prick of unease as you scrolled the headlines, or half listened over breakfast to some radio debate about the fact that sometime in the next four years the planet is likely to breach the 1.5C rise in global temperature that we have long been told is the tipping point to avoid. (Although this time the breach should be only temporary, the World Meteorological Organisation report stresses that it still takes us into uncharted waters, and if nothing changes the world is likely to cross this dangerous threshold more and more often in future.)

Perhaps you even felt rage or frustration that it’s taking everyone else so long to wake up. But the chances are that most people will have forgotten it by lunchtime. YouGov’s regular tracker poll finds Britons are still more worried about immigration, which almost a third consider the single most important issue currently facing the country, than about climate and the environment.

Being a Nobel-worthy climate scientist these days must feel frustratingly like being one of those prophets of doom parading down the high street in a sandwich board, yelling at oblivious shoppers that judgment day is coming, with the exception that this time it really might be.

If swing voters were as viscerally scared of flood, fire and catastrophic crop failure as they seem to be of people leaving Calais in dinghies, governments would be turning themselves inside out battling the rising temperature. Just look at the mad, economically self-lacerating lengths the Tories have been willing to go to for the past seven years in the name of supposedly “taking back control” over our borders, and at how frightened Labour still is of contradicting them.

Imagine if Westminster pounced on every global heating forecast like it will on next week’s immigration figures, expected to show another rise to record levels; if green issues stirred the same primal emotions as Brexiters’ blue passports.

But though the nation says it cares when specifically prodded – three-quarters of adults said they were worried about the climate crisis when asked by the Office for National Statistics – somehow we don’t follow through by punishing politicians who fail to deliver. Allow yourself to think about the potential consequences of our collective feebleness, and they’re terrifying. But for some reason – arguably because they’re terrifying – we mostly don’t let ourselves think about it very often.

A psychologist would argue that the brain’s natural defences against anxiety are strong, and in this case unhelpfully so. We’re hardwired to respond to imminent physical threats rather than abstract or distant ones; and, crucially, to run away from anything too big to fight.

People sweeping mud from a house after torrential rain caused severe flooding and landslides, Faenza, Italy, 18 May 2023.

These survival instincts served humans well in conflict with charging mammoths, but not so much against the kind of abstract but existential risks potentially posed by the climate crisis, hyperintelligent AI or the prospect of antibiotic resistance rendering modern drugs useless. Add in our species’ natural bias towards optimism – the sunny belief that something’s bound to turn up, or that someone in authority will presumably be along any minute to take charge – and we are stunningly ill-equipped to deal with pending apocalypses of any kind.

No doubt the media could do more to shove this particular crisis in everyone’s faces. But with apologies to those many Guardian readers who genuinely long to see climate issues covered in greater depth, journalists can lead a horse to water but they can’t stop it drinking something more relaxing in its lunch hour. The joy and curse of online news is that every newspaper can now see exactly what people are reading: we know how many people skim the headlines of serious stories they’ll later swear they read, before devouring every word about Phil ‘n’ Holly at war on the This Morning sofa.

And the inconvenient truth, to coin a phrase, is that at the time of writing I can see more Guardian readers are engrossed by Harry and Meghan’s battle with the paparazzi than by the breaching of the 1.5C threshold. Meanwhile, on Twitter, where users joyfully unconstrained by mainstream media agendas can post about whatever matters most to them, the current trending topics are Kylie Minogue and some basketball game in the US.

Melting ice sheets? Meh. Some things are just too big to get your head around. What looks on the face of it like apathy may be better understood as being overwhelmed, a sort of sagging mental exhaustion; the same feeling that makes you collapse on the sofa with a takeaway again when you know perfectly well you would live longer if you went to the gym.

It’s not too late yet. The lesson from the pandemic is that people can be surprisingly willing to make sacrifices for the public good, if we think that everyone else is doing it and if the rewards are clear. Staying at home to save the NHS was, of course, the noble thing to do, but crucially it also made you much less likely to die of Covid yourself, and within weeks it was gratifyingly obvious that it was working as case numbers began to fall.

The fight to stay below 1.5C needs to feel like the next national crusade, a battle we are capable of winning and which is therefore worth joining in. There is something oddly puzzling about this government’s apparent reluctance to sing its own praises over net zero: Britain evidently isn’t decarbonising fast enough, but it still reduced its emissions faster than any other country in the world between 2010 and 2020, a success many Conservatives now seem strangely embarrassed to mention.

Crucially, households need to know what is in it for them if they give up their gas boilers or petrol cars – which in practice means more generous financial subsidies and incentives to cushion the costs of switching, plus investment in the infrastructure to back it up, from car-charging points and battery factories to an army of properly trained heating engineers.

But with one in five voters already saying they think the government spends too much on climate and environment policies, political parties won’t risk spending billions more without a clear signal that this really is how we want our taxes spent. And so we go, round and round in an endless circle of dithering.

It isn’t rising global temperatures that threaten us in the end so much as the eternal human tendency to put off endlessly until tomorrow that which we can’t quite face doing today. What the science is increasingly urgently trying to tell us, much as we may not want to listen, is that we can no longer be sure exactly how many tomorrows we have left.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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