For decades scientists have tried to make people care about climate change. We present cogent arguments with perfectly graphed facts and figures. We hold lectures, write articles and point out extreme weather phenomena.
From a neuroscience perspective, it’s not entirely surprising. Climate change is the perfect challenge for human beings. Our brains are best wired for imminent threats, not ones in the future. Especially when our present-day actions have little to no immediate repercussions — or worse, when our bad behavior is reinforced — it’s particularly challenging to make changes.
Take gas-powered vehicles for example. At least two thirds of Americans recognize these are bad for the environment, yet most continue to use them — even many policy leaders and activists who could otherwise afford to switch. Why the contradiction?
It’s not strictly economics or infrastructure, although these certainly contribute. A large part is arguably due to there being no immediate punishment to driving these vehicles and, rather, they usually offer us a reward by getting us where we need to go. Psychologically, there’s little to inspire immediate change, and even those who want electric vehicles are faced with perceived punishments such as higher upfront costs.
In this light, facts and figures can rarely compete with such reinforcements. Other than strict regulations — which we should also implement for this reason — what else might help?
One possibility may be to increase the perceived urgency through messaging that makes the topic more relatable on a daily basis. While it’s highly accurate to discuss extreme weather events or long-term impacts to steel bridges, these can sometimes feel like more conceptual topics rather than everyday, personal implications.
On the other hand, tackling climate change by featuring the effects on popular topics such as food could help spur interest on a more regular basis. For example:
In 25 to 30 years, cacao production may be extinct. In eight years, major chocolate companies already expect deficits of an estimated 4.4 billion pounds. This stems from changes in cacao growing environments, specifically evapotranspiration, and chocolatiers have been investing billions in bioengineering hoping to save their products. In this context, it’s almost like every time you drive a gas-powered car you kill a Kit Kat bar.
Industry leaders project that up to half of the lands currently producing the best coffee beans could be inactive by 2050. In some regions, that number could be as high as 88%. This is in part due to a disease called “stem rust” that increases with climate change. As one small coffee farmer put it, “Climate change is good … if you sell rust.”
Wine grapes are incredibly sensitive to changes in climate, making even small changes seem big. Vintners are attempting to overcome the challenges with relocation and growing season strategies, but unfortunately, some vineyards have already been lost due to extreme wildfires, heat exposure or severe drought.
Hopefully you’re ready to switch to gluten-free pasta, or are at least prepared to pay 50% more for the real deal, because shortages of durum wheat are already happening due to extreme droughts. Other staples like corn, beans and rice are also being affected.
Thanks to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans, a process called ocean acidification is threatening a wide range of species harvested as culinary delights including scallops, oysters, lobsters and many fish.
National Public Radio clearly has a social scientist writing their headlines. In a 2018 article titled, “Climate Change Could Mean Less Maple Syrup For Your Pancakes” the news outlet encapsulated the argument in a nutshell: It might take 80 years for the full effects to be felt, but your kid’s breakfast might one day be drier than ever.
It’s the perfect time of year with pumpkin spice everything. But climate change is costing you precious time. In data analyzed from 1952 to 2011, researchers found that every season except for summer was shrinking. Autumn lost nearly a week during that time, with an average loss of one day per decade and growing.
Certainly, shortages or extinctions of popular foods are merely one effect of a rapidly changing climate. However, focus on popular topics may resonate more strongly than messages of extreme weather thanks to the emotional relationship we have with them.
For political reasons, we may not ever be able to convince the remaining one third of Americans that human-caused climate change is a fact, but creating an increased sense of urgency in the Americans who do may help expedite political will for changes in policy.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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