Why you don’t give a f#*k about climate change (but these 6 GIFs can fix that)

By Will Essilfie and Clare Saxon Ghauri

Martha Rosler, The Gray Drape (2008), photomontage, from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series (2004, 2008)

Here are four words you don’t care about: THE WORLD IS ENDING.

Because these are the two words why it’s ending, which you definitely don’t give a damn about: CLIMATE CHANGE.

You don’t care because you can’t. You are not meant to. It’s too big. Humans are not designed¹ to be able to comprehend such overwhelming hopelessness. It’s why we don’t talk about death in Western society.² Not our deaths or the deaths of those we love, anyway. We can’t handle it, it’s too much, and we have other stuff going on right now.

That hasn’t stopped society forcing other people’s deaths on us — but only people who don’t matter. Because as we all know, big bad news sells. Journalists will sniff out a bloody death to get their gruesome words read. Editors expect it and their executive boards demand it. The more dead bodies, the bigger the headline. The more tragic the story, the longer it rolls across our screens. The nastier the bad guy, because there is always a bad guy, the keener the algorithm. So why is the most gruesome, most tragic, biggest, baddest news in human history — our extinction from runaway climate change — not front page news every day?

It’s probably more depressing than you think. We know many newspapers are run by fossil fuel investors *cough* Rupert Murdoch³ *cough*, who have little interest in telling billions of people the truth about planet-heating fossil fuel emissions. Even The New York Times Company is part-owned by oil investor Carlos Slim⁴ and still appears to accept oil industry advertiser money.⁵ Whether right-wing or left, all newspapers align in their climate (de)priorities. Because they write what sells and people read what is written, climate change remains stuck on the back pages; too big to think about, talk about or do anything about.

What is wrong with the climate ‘story’ then? A narrative is what sells a message, experts say. If we accept the climate crisis as real, serious and imminent, there should be some sense of emergency in our actions. But because there is no urgency from governments and media, the cycle of inaction continues for another precious year. And while the right things continue to be said at annual climate conferences, nothing is actually done.

This week for example saw the usual greenwashing⁶ around Earth Day, boosted this year by US President Biden’s climate summit which brought 40 world leaders together virtually to say those ‘right things’. Despite a keynote address boasting that the US “isn’t waiting” to take climate action,⁷ just days before the summit Biden had already u-turned on his campaign promise to shut down the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.⁸

Similarly in the UK, last month Tory MP Alok Sharma⁹ said the world is on course for “an apocalyptic future” that we must take “immediate action” to avoid — yet 3 days earlier the UK government scrapped its last remaining green initiative, its £1.5bn green homes grant, just six months after it was launched.¹⁰ It’s like someone with a Cancerous tumour not starting treatment urgently, yet talking about the need for treatment while only making cosmetic modifications to their appearance.

But without public demand and media outrage, we can’t expect election-cycle tunnel-vision governments to do anything but the bare minimum. We need daily headlines of this inconvenient truth. Only then may people be scared and angry enough to act. And once we have that mainstream appetite for change, we need nothing less than a global climate strike. No more going to work until our safety is guaranteed.

So what exactly is getting in the way of journalists and activists crafting a convincing story that will unite the human race on tackling our crisis in time? Because if we sit around and wait for “enough” deaths to warrant mass action, we will have missed our species’ own deadline.

It appears humans aren’t in the business of climate speed. It has been at least 60 years now¹¹ since the man-made impacts of the environmental crisis were taken as incontrovertible. Six decades since we knew we had to stop burning fossil fuels or risk creating an atmosphere no human has ever survived before us. And now here we are, breathing that unprecedented air. The last time there was as much CO2 as there is now, not only did humans not exist, but sea levels were 100 feet higher.¹²

This is nothing but a siren-blaring emergency. We are not only approaching the cliff of no return, but we are flying off the edge, flapping wildly in the air before we plummet. Yet with every new report announcing the seriousness of the impact of human addiction to fossil fuels, especially of the Global North — other than some experts looking serious — very little seems to change. Even by conservative estimates, the current rates of change are too slow and do not go deep enough. The treatment we require for this collective tumour is a radical system change, one unseen in our history.

Many believe ‘green new deals’ or technological fixes will be this salvation. But these are designed to allow business to run pretty much as usual and therefore likely get us only so far, delaying the inevitable. Zero carbon emissions might significantly slow climate change but won’t address the ecological crisis. Switching to a planet run on renewable energy is highly desirable, but the battle doesn’t end there. The Circular Economy¹³ would significantly slow down the rate of destruction, but won’t eliminate it.

On top of all that exists global inequality and exploitation, which was built and fuelled by neoliberal capitalism; the very same beast that runs our climate-silent media. A radical overhaul of how we organise our lives and order our societies along the lines of degrowth,¹⁴ may be one of the best chances to secure the long-term safe and stable reality we crave. To keep everyone alive, we are going to have to kill capitalism. There’s your narrative.

System change doesn’t have to mean anarchy. Tweaks here and there, big ones sometimes, will make a difference. But the fact remains, on a planet of finite resources acting as though we can take whatever we want from the Earth without eventually feeling it ourselves, is a classic capitalist error.

When the minerals and metals integral to the objects we populate our lives with become scarce to the point of non-viability, and the land, sea and air we rely on for nourishment is devastated beyond sustainability — is that the point system change is acceptable? Waiting to be over the barrel? For our kids to go hungry?

Because that is what climate change really looks like. Its human story isn’t a toxic atmosphere or hotter Antarctic. It’s STARVATION. FAMINE. VIOLENCE. CONFLICT. HUMAN EXTINCTION. That’s six words you do care about. Tell a story in human terms instead of nature, and maybe everyone will listen.

Humankind’s separation from nature, something intrinsic to our design, is something we lost centuries ago. This loss contributes to inadequate consideration for the planet in how we live and insufficient effort to live in harmony with the environment that feeds us. But that loss has not gone entirely unfulfilled.

Where once controlling institutions of religion replaced our nature-connected paganism and indigenous cultures, now at a time when we are more atheist and less outdoors than ever before, we have a new connection. One fulfilled quite nicely by the very same evil powers that have vested interests in keeping us ignorant and silent on climate collapse. The billionaire-run, right-wing media that drip feeds its downtrodden readers random scapegoats to blame, while pacifying us with rampant consumerism.

Nationalist, divisive, fascist, whatever you want to call it, this media narrative satisfies an apparent need we once reserved for nature: belonging. We are descending into vicious tribalism to feel part of something, at a time when we desperately need to be uniting for survival — a much bigger something.

And because all stories need a visual baddie and he owns such a terrifying stake in global media, let’s just blame the climate crisis on Rupert Murdoch¹⁵ for a hot minute. We wouldn’t be alone in this plotline. Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister recently called Murdoch “one of the greatest enemies of climate change action on the planet”,¹⁶ and he was also included in Rolling Stone’s wrinkly white line-up of “climate enemies who sold the world”.¹⁷ And of course the guy who invests in fossil fuel companies and climate denial propaganda is also behind the rise in hate crimes which rocketed after Brexit¹⁸ and shows no signs of slowing.¹⁹ There’s your actual one-man 90-year old bad guy.

But let’s not get distracted by choosing who is most to blame from the tiny, wrinkly handful of unimaginably powerful billionaires propping up the status quo that exclusively serves them. All that matters now is how we beat them. And the answer is simple: at their own game.

We identify the reasons people don’t care about climate change and create a counter-narrative to change everything. We focus on the actual barriers standing in the way of the headline we fear most, yet need to see most of all: Human Extinction Inevitable Within Decades Without Global Emergency Response. Because if we don’t read that headline, we sure as hell are not going to care enough to do anything about it. And to triumph in the greatest story on Earth, we need every single one of us on the same page.

Below are six of what we believe are the biggest barriers to human action — but this list of categories is not in any way exhaustive, so please tell us what’s missing. And of course they’re in classic GIF form. Because don’t forget, we’re playing the billionaire baddies at their own game. Basic click-bait.

1] Knowledge

2] Ideology

3] Business

4] Control

5] Belief

6] Prejudice

Look familiar? A lot of these barriers are the same challenges humans face in tackling other major interconnected issues around the world. And we are all guilty of many of them. By cracking this code, perhaps we can begin to simultaneously untangle the systemic racism, misogyny and inequality that is the backbone of neoliberal capitalism, aka wrinkly, white man-made climate change.

As we have come to expect in this dystopian racist reality we live in, black and brown people²⁰ are most at risk — and already dying — from climate change, when they have done the least to cause it. Add ‘young’ and ‘woman’²¹ to the demographic checklist and impacts are tragically multiplied. So it makes sense that we should urgently dig a bit deeper to see how these dangerous thought processes are connected.

Below is a bit more information on each of the six gnarly barriers to match the six decades of violent inaction, during which nobody has cared enough about climate change to stop it happening.

1] Knowledge

Ignorance: consciously or not, lacking knowledge and understanding of the impact of our choices and ways of living, and the alternatives to this.

Separation from Nature: being so divorced from the natural world as to fail to register the impact of damaging her, as well as appreciation for simple things like where our food comes from.

Paralysis: being overcome with fear for the future to the extent of incapability of considering acting for change.

Cognitive Dissonance: being knowledgeable about the negative impact of circumstances, but to ignore that as a coping mechanism in order to deal with everyday challenges or for an easier life — reinforced by the same behaviour normalised by most people in society.

2] Ideology

Anti-Socialism: rejecting solutions that would seek to share resources and access fairly and equally, even if it means negative impacts for yourself.

Individualism: pursuing one’s pleasure and meeting of one’s needs regardless of other people’s needs.

Nationalism: maintaining conditions and resources for one’s country and citizens alone, despite the environmental crisis being a shared threat across borders that only collective international action will solve.

3] Business

Profit: seeking to generate short-term financial profit and prioritise that above equality and social justice needs, despite the financial risks, stranded assets and economic destruction that climate collapse will guarantee.

Capitalism: trusting and believing the market is the most effective and efficient way to address the issues, even though it created them in the first place.

4] Control

Politics: focusing exclusively on short election cycle timeframes, in order to win over voters so that potential unpopular or difficult actions and choices are avoided.

Power: acting to prevent success of campaigns and actions capable of success so personal interests thrive.

5] Belief

Technology: placing faith in as yet invented technology that will address all the problems, in a bid to pass responsibility to someone else.

Denialism: doubting the situation is as problematic as has been presented and believing fears are exaggerated, despite not only science, maths and global evidence but delusions of personal experience — such as conservatives in Australia blaming their local climate-caused bushfires on “greenies”.

Doomism: believing that it is too late for any kind of change, or any kind of global agreement, or that we’re past the point of return.

6] Prejudice

Racism: ignoring the poor in the Global South i.e. POC as the ones impacted first — and currently — by climate collapse, so little sense of urgency is needed.

So that’s the tip of the deep, systemic iceberg challenge humans face, in creating mass empathy for each other, for nature, and for action. Fun, right? And what makes it worse is that these psychological and therefore societal barriers may not even be possible to overcome. But they’re the start of a story that we must put every possible effort into writing together, or there will be nobody left to give a f*ck about anything. How’s that for a happy ending?!

Along with this article, if you feel the overwhelming urge to further unlock this extinction story puzzle look at the article by Lamb et al²² which highlights climate change discourses. If you find a new way of telling the world the climate story, please tell us too. We need all of you. We’ve only got humankind’s biggest bad guys to beat.

But like all the greatest stories in our history,²³ good is destined to win. Mother Nature is our home. And she is our mighty heroine. We will do anything to avoid her meeting those two dreaded, most tragic words of all: the end. Because *spoiler alert* this story has a plot twist. We are her. Every single one of us, however much we are told to hate each other. And there’s nobody we give more of a f*ck about than ourselves.

By Will Essilfie and Clare Saxon Ghauri

Notes

[1] Why your brain can’t process climate change: https://time.com/5651393/why-your-brain-cant-process-climate-change/

[2] What we can learn in the West from death in other countries: https://www.griefandsympathy.com/death-in-other-cultures.html

[3] Murdoch-owned media hypes lone meteorologist’s climate junk science: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/may/16/murdoch-media-hypes-lone-climate-denial-big-oil

[4] Slim Boosts Oil Industry Investments in Post-Pandemic Bet: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-11/carlos-slim-boosts-oil-industry-investments-in-post-pandemic-bet

[5] You only have to click on their website to see it’s happening, but this screen-shot is particularly shocking: https://twitter.com/ClimateHuman/status/1386056543422980099

[6] What is Greenwashing? How to Spot It and Stop it: https://medium.com/disruptive-design/what-is-greenwashing-how-to-spot-it-and-stop-it-c44f3d130d5

[7] Biden: This will be ‘decisive decade’ for tackling climate change: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-56837927

[8] Despite campaign promise, Biden administration will not shut down Dakota Access Pipeline ‘at this time’: https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/environment/547730-despite-campaign-promise-biden-administration

[9] International action and collaboration for a decade of delivery on climate change: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/international-action-and-collaboration-for-a-decade-of-delivery-on-climate-change

[10] Green Homes Grant Now Closed for New Applications: https://www.homebuilding.co.uk/advice/green-homes-grant-what-is-it

[11] A brief history of climate change: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15874560

[12] The last time CO2 was this high, humans didn’t exist: https://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-last-time-co2-was-this-high-humans-didnt-exist-15938#:~:text=The%20last%20time%20there%20was,warmer%20than%20it%20is%20now

[13] Circular Economy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_economy

[14] Here’s A Simple Solution To The Green Growth / Degrowth Debate: https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2018/11/1/a-simple-solution-to-the-growthdegrowth-debate

[15] As Rupert Murdoch Prepares to Hand Over His Media Empire, A Look At His Legacy of Climate Change Denialism: https://earth.org/rupert-murdoch-climate-change-denialism/

[16] Former Australian PMs put Murdoch in the hot seat on climate change: https://www.ft.com/content/ed23889a-2cc4-4ecb-8917-4c7e8d667404

[17] Climate Enemies: The Men Who Sold the World: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-lists/climate-enemies-ceos-oilmen-politicians-975667/daniel-jorjani-solicitor-us-department-interior-975719/

[18] The Sun and Daily Mail accused of ‘Fuelling prejudice’ in report on rising racist violence and hate speech in UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/the-sun-and-daily-mail-fuelling-prejudice-racist-violence-hate-crime-speech-uk-ecri-report-a7351856.html

[19] ‘Racist’ Daily Mail claims the UK isn’t institutionally racist: https://www.thecanary.co/trending/2021/03/31/racist-daily-mail-claims-the-uk-isnt-institutionally-racist/

[20] Climate change is a racial justice problem: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/06/29/climate-change-racism/

[21] Climate change ‘impacts women more than men’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43294221

[22] Lamb, W., Mattioli, G., Levi, S., Roberts, J., Capstick, S., Creutzig, F., Steinberger, J. (2020). Discourses of climate delay. Global Sustainability, 3, E17. doi:10.1017/sus.2020.13: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/global-sustainability/article/discourses-of-climate-delay/7B11B722E3E3454BB6212378E32985A7#article

[23] The hero’s journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey — bonus points if you spotted the related sub-headings in this article 🤓

aka Cle. Tweeting about climate action (for other people) since 2008. Ex The Climate Group, Greenhouse PR, Climate Week NYC. Digging the r/evolution.