Living With the ‘Collective Tinnitus’: Who Cares About Climate Change?

Sophia Zhu ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor

The Met office, United Kingdom’s national weather service, announced on Nov. 9 that, based on data from January to September, the 2015 global mean temperature is 1.02 °C (±0.11 °C) above pre-industrial levels. For the first time, we are set to pass the milestone of 1 °C of warming and are halfway to the 2 °C target – the most lenient possible danger limit for disastrous climate change. Stephen Belcher, director of the Met Office confirmed that “it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory,” expressing his deep worries about consequences as the world continues to warm.

Climate change has long been a hot topic of debate and has attracted the attention of the public, scientists and policymakers all over the world. However, it is clear that solving environmental problems is far from top of the agenda. After having numerous global conferences and drafting agreements, threats of global warming, extreme climate change and mass extinction are hardly alleviated. Rather, the alarm sounds with more urgency. As CNN columnist John D. Sutter put it, “Climate change is a collective tinnitus – always ringing in the background, but so constant and seemingly incurable that we try to ignore it.”

Nations around the globe have, admittedly, taken some steps to amplify their voices and call for a visible change in agenda priorities. However, initiatives to combat climate change are minimal – by comparison, these movements only account for about 1 percent of US federal spending. The tangible threat of the failing economy, the presidential campaign and horrifying acts of terrorism happening have pushed the “collective tinnitus” of climate change further into the background of our ears.

Over the years, it seems that we have been trained to do well in leaving this grandiose project to an invisible savior of mankind. To those involved in campaigning to bring attention to climate change, probably the only thing lacking is the support of people in power. However, the community of enthusiastic environmental protectionists have remained a minority, and the authorities hardly acknowledge them over the public’s nonchalance. Even worse, the recent political polarization has resulted in increasing disagreement on climate issues. Party identification is the lens through which many Americans view the world. Hardly do these opinions – even those based on scientific fact – remain objective. As the Pew poll published in June indicates, the divide on views toward climate change along the partisan line is rather stark: “86 percent of Democrats … say there is evidence of it, while Republicans are split, 45-48, on the question.” In today’s world, technology develops at an astonishing speed. A layperson can hardly understand every scientific discovery, turning science into something we can pick and choose to trust, according to our personal beliefs or party identification. Dissenting elites lead to a confused public. According to a Gallup survey from 2014, climate change ranked near the bottom on a list of 15 issues that Americans are most worried about. The outcome of such a polarization and controversy is quite understandable – lack of initiative in addressing global warming and greater obstacles in fighting against climate change.

The government cannot act on its own to protect the environment without strong public support. Policymaking is often a pragmatic assessment of costs and benefits, which may or may not take long-term social costs into consideration. As the Met office’s data shows, there is still hope to control global warming and keep it under the 2 °C threshold. This tinnitus has to be cured one day; what sets us back, however, is not lack of economic resources or technology  but a long overdue supportive and cooperative political climate.

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