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The Slow Burn: Peak Indifference, Climate Change, And The End Of The World As We Know It

Climate change is real.

Our planet is warming up at an alarming rate, and evidence clearly shows that humans are at the root of this drastic and dangerous change. According to NASA, ice melt rates in the Antarctic have tripled in the past decade, while nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. We are at a point where it is virtually impossible for anyone to deny that there is a problem, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve won. The opposite is true — it will be harder now than ever before to get the world on the path to a stable climate.

A graph from an AP-NORC survey shows the number of Americans willing to pay a fee to help combat climate change.

In 2013, Cory Doctorow coined the phrase “peak indifference” to describe the public’s reaction to surveillance at the time. He defines it as “the moment when the consequences of actions taken a long time ago and very far away start to be felt so widely that the number of people who believe there is a problem starts to grow of its own accord.” This concept meshes perfectly with the public opinion today about climate change and global warming. The number of people who chose to ignore the extreme weather and startling headlines completely has reached its peak, and is beginning to drop. Does that mean the root causes are changing or going away? Absolutely not.

According to one recent survey, 73% of Americans think climate change is happening, while only 7% are “extremely” or “very” sure that climate change is not happening. However, another survey showed that as of November 2018, only 57% would be willing to pay a fee of one dollar a month — only 12 dollars a year — to help combat climate change. 30% would pay a fee of 20 dollars, and only 16% would pay 100 dollars a month. While the number of Americans who say that climate change is personally important to them has skyrocketed by nine percentage points since March 2018, the percent of adults who would pay a fee to help combat climate change has seen a net decrease since 2017.

Even Cory Doctorow himself recognizes that peak indifference in the case of climate change isn’t a victory. In a recent article on, he reflects on why the recent revelation a majority of Republicans believe in climate change might not be as groundbreaking as it seems. “A growing number of Republicans,” he says, “have gone straight from ‘climate change isn’t real’ to ‘it’s too late to do anything about climate change.'” He adds, sarcastically: “If the rhinos are doomed, why not kill this one?”

Doctorow raises an interesting question. If sea levels are rising and the climate is changing for the worse, why not just give it up? Anyone who doesn’t live on permafrost, an island, or a coastal state has more than enough time to live a good life and simply not worry about our slowly encroaching doom. This is the trap our species will fall into, and if we aren’t careful it will be the last big mistake we ever make. According to the World Health Organization, climate change will cause at least 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. More than half of livable land in Miami Beach will be underwater by 2060. Already, coastlines around the world are visibly different in shape than they were just years before. This may not be on par with the Biblical floods or science fiction’s Armageddon, but it will claim lives nevertheless — and possibly change Earth beyond recognition.

“If the rhinos are doomed, why not kill this one?”

Painting a picture of death and destruction is easy, but the statistics clearly show that it doesn’t have the intended effect of sparking actual change. Societal norms must change. Instead of teaching what will happen if we don’t do anything, we must educate people about what can be done. Corporations must be held accountable for their pollution and lies. Cities must overhaul their entire infrastructure and create more sustainable systems. These are not new ideas, but they are the ones that have to be carried out in order to save not only countless lives, human and animal, but also the entire world as we know it. Peak ignorance happened in the Al Gore era of education and solutions. Peak indifference, ironically enough, seems to have occurred in the Trump era of indecisiveness and youth outrage. Next comes peak action, and it will only come when we are ready to change not just our individual actions but society as a whole.

As sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “Young people must hold older generations accountable for the mess they have created. We need to get angry, and transform that anger into action.”

Photo: PA Images via The Economist

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