I like George Monbiot – he's decent, principled and thorough – but I often disagree with the tenor of his arguments. Today he complained that there was more TV news coverage in 2014 of the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann than the whole range of environmental issues.
This doesn't really surprise me.
As animals we are programmed to react to immediate risks to our family. What happened to Madeleine McCann taps into our deepest fears. As a parent, the idea of losing a kid to a stranger while taking a minuscule risk – eating on the same premises while the kids sleep in a locked room (which I've been known to do) – haunts me. And never knowing their fate... it makes me shiver.
By contrast, climate change is a creeping, gradual, sometimes distant threat. We can look at graphs of plunging Arctic sea ice, but they don't hit that primal chord in the same way because we can't relate to the risk. Boris Johnson famously questioned how the world could be warming when he could see snow outside his window – a silly argument on an intellectual level, but it illustrates the mountain to climb.
[BTW, in 2014 'Maddie' hit the headlines for a particular reason (which both Monbiot and the study he quotes fail to mention) – the Portuguese Police and Scotland Yard started digging wasteland up in the hunt for the young girl. There was a very real chance the mystery would be solved at long last. Studying 2012 or 2013 might give a more realistic comparison.]
What I'm trying to get at here is people aren't stupid as the title of Monbiot's article – "There may be flowing water on Mars. But is there intelligent life on Earth?" – implies. But they are human, and if we are failing to communicate the risks of climate change, then maybe, just maybe it's our fault, not theirs.
Photograph by Adrian Arbib, used under Creative Commons License.