With severe weather and unsettling news “knocking on everyone’s front door,” tech writer Clive Thompson is suggesting the climate crisis may finally be moving beyond “peak indifference”.
The term comes from sci-fi writer and activist Cory Doctorow, Thompson says, and describes the way society often reacts to a terrible but slow-moving problem. “Climate change isn’t the only example (think of digital privacy or income inequality), but it’s perhaps the toughest to crack,” he writes for Wired.
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“At some point, a crisis gets so bad that it becomes unignorable. Our indifference reaches a peak, begins to decline—and panic emerges,” Thompson says. That’s the shift now showing up in climate polling, and in people’s reactions to media coverage of real-world events. But there’s a risk bound up with the long-awaited opportunity: “When we ignore trouble for so long, we can slip quickly into nihilism. It’s too late. We missed our chance to take action.”
It’s a reaction that is already showing up in conversations about climate change. Thompson says it points to “only a brief window to sell the public on a plan,” and while writers like David Wallace-Wells of The Uninhabitable Earth fame make the case for “the value of panic for pushing collective action,” Thompson and Doctorow see it differently: Doctorow calls it the point “where you divert your energy from convincing people there’s a problem to convincing them there’s a solution.”
Thompson ties the theory to the in-the-moment reality of the Green New Deal resolution introduced earlier this year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). He cites Anthony Leiserowitz, head of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, noting the “huge public consensus” in the U.S. for clean energy, but adds that barriers remain—from degrees of climate denial on the Republican side of the aisle, to a lack of policy details in the poll that showed 81% of Americans, and 57% of conservative Republicans, supporting the general concept of a Green New Deal. The state of play so far shows that “even people terrified about climate change don’t always agree on what policies to pursue,” he concludes. “But the Sunrise activists, and all of us who want action on this, have to push hard now. It’s only when you reach the peak that you can see where you need to go.”
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