Not personal enough: Why climate change is not yet a top priority

In wealthy countries, relatively few people feel affected by climate threats—but that won't last, climate security experts say.

Typhoon Haiyan rips through Tanauan, Leyte in the Philippines
Typhoon Haiyan rips through Tanauan, Leyte in the Philippines in 2013, killing thousands and displacing some 3 million people. Image: UNHCR Photo Download, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Spurring ambitious-enough action to stem climate change will require persuading most people that its impacts - from deadlier weather to surging migration - are a direct and imminent threat to themselves, according to a British defence official.

Global warming “is not inconvenient if you’re not affected by it at all”, said Richard Nugee, head of climate change and sustainability strategy at the Ministry of Defence, during an online event run by London-based think-tank Chatham House this week.

The lack of a sense of personal threat is one reason why “climate change always seems to be number two” on Britain’s list of public concerns, behind other shifting priorities like Brexit - Britain’s departure from Europe - and Covid-19, he said.

“The urgent always overtakes the important. And everything apart from climate change seems to be the urgent,” he added. But with the window to cut climate-heating emissions and tame climate risks closing fast, more and more people are likely to be hit soon by anything from worsening floods and storms to economic losses, climate security experts warned.

A broad inability to grasp that threat - particularly in many so far less-affected richer nations that generate most of the emissions driving global warming - is a major barrier to climate action, they said.

The urgent always overtakes the important. And everything apart from climate change seems to be the urgent. 

Richard Nugee, departmental lead for climate change and sustainability, UK Ministry of Defence

“A lot of it is a failure of imagination, on one hand of how bad it is going to be - you can’t believe we’re actually ruining this planet - and a failure of imagination in creating new systems,” said Alexander Verbeek, founder of the Netherlands-based Institute for Planetary Security.

Covid lessons 

The coronavirus pandemic has given more people a sense of how quickly a personally painful crisis can emerge, said Mami Mizutori, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction.

What Covid-19 should be making clear is that “prevention saves lives”, she added.

Similarly, the pandemic has shown a need to take a broader look at potential risks, including how they may interact, and put strategies in place to deal with them - from flexible financing to clearer communications - before crises arrive.

“Covid has taught us if you don’t have a plan, it’s a plan for failure,” Mizutori told the online event.

Alice Hill, who led work on climate change threats for the US Department of Homeland Security during former President Barack Obama’s administration, said one under-appreciated threat was how far warming could undermine basic planning assumptions.

From infrastructure design to fighting wildfires, producing energy and farming, planetary heating will “affect every system on which humans rely”, she warned.

“The core systems supporting global stability (and) US economic and military strength rest on assumptions the climate is stable,” Hill told a separate online panel run by the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute.

She pointed to a report last year that found 300 million people around the world could be hit by annual flooding by 2050 as a result of sea level rise - more than three times previous estimates.

Many US flood maps have been updated to reflect that greater vulnerability, as part of a privately led effort, she said, but “maps don’t exist for other threats we will face”.

She also warned that governments, including her own, need to plan not just for one crisis but for “compound, concurrent and consecutive disasters” as threats - such as hurricanes and pandemics - converge.

Failure to prepare, leading to growing losses, “could undermine social cohesion within nations and among nations”, she said, warning that would likely cause “unprecedented migration”.

‘Every one of us’ 

Verbeek said most countries had experience preparing for low-probability but high-impact risks, such as the spectre of nuclear conflict during the Cold War.

But planning for global warming has proved far more difficult, he said, even though nuclear war was “much less likely to happen than climate change impacts”.

Although warming “will affect everyone on this planet… we have hardly started to prepare”, he said, urging planners to “imagine the unimaginable”, such as a world 4 degrees Celsius hotter than preindustrial times.

Most nations pledged in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to hold warming to “well below” 2C, with an aim of 1.5C. Scientists have since said achieving the lower limit is crucial to curb the most dangerous impacts of heating.

But planet-warming emissions continue to rise, with current carbon-cutting plans putting the world on track for just under 3C of warming if they are achieved.

Shifting that will likely require everything from taxing emissions to provide an economic incentive to reduce them, to more political leaders making clear the climate risks to their own people, the security experts said.

“Climate change is already here. We made a huge mistake talking about (fighting) climate change for the sake of our children and grandchildren,” said former British environment secretary John Gummer, who now chairs the country’s Committee on Climate Change.

“We’re actually fighting climate change for us, now,” he emphasised.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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