Climate Crisis: We can handle worrying about multiple problems — we just lack the time

COVID-19 hasn’t made climate change any less scary

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Climate rally sign reading “one world,” written over a drawing of the planet.
Climate action remains on the backburner. Photo: Markus Spiske, Pexels

By Luke Faulks, Opinions Editor

Just over a month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet’s highest climate research body, released the latest in a series of damning climate predictions. Among the frightening calls to action was their finding that a livable world depends on global emissions peaking in 2025. It gives us just three years to reverse a horrifying upwards trend in planet-warming emissions. The problem is that it’s not resonating with citizens. 

Predictably, researchers have been trying to work out why climate doesn’t animate voters for a while. One idea that’s gained prominence recently is the “Finite Pool of Worry” (FPW) hypothesis. FPW argues that humans have a limited number of issues they can care to stress about at any given time. Though the term was coined in 1991, the hypothesis was first applied to climate change in 2004. The study investigated why climate change remained on the backburner of public opinion. They put a survey to two groups of farmers. Each was presented with a research on seasonal climatic conditions for the coming year, one favourable, one not. It found that beyond ranking climate as a higher concern, the group exposed to the poorer climatic outlook expressed less worry for other factors, like taxes or politics. Basically, “as the concern about climatic risk increased, concern about political uncertainty diminished.” 

The FPW hypothesis has been gaining traction in recent years, even leaping beyond academia to mainstream news outlets. Why the boom? COVID-19. 

Some academics had been worried that stress about COVID-19 would diminish climate anxiety. Instead, the research shows that climate worry stayed high as COVID-19 surged. A survey of the United Kingdom in 2021 suggests that climate has become an “intransigent” worry for citizens. In essence, it’s an issue citizens feel consistently upset about, regardless of the context — including, apparently, a global pandemic. Opinion surveys in Canada support the hypothesis. Early in 2021, before wildfire season and the heat dome, the environment surpassed COVID-19 as Canadians’ “top national issue of concern.” 

The question arises, then, why aren’t we doing anything about it? The answer is we don’t have the time to care. Research, let alone political participation, are luxuries that an overly-busy citizenry can’t afford in an economic system that demands so much of our time. 

Let’s take Canada. Whether it’s taking the time to exercise, to cook, or to lead otherwise healthy lifestyles, Canadians don’t have enough free time on their hands. That might be why, out of 30 countries surveyed this year, Canada ranked among the bottom five states whose citizens are aware of any national climate plan. In a busy country, we don’t find ourselves with the time to engage meaningfully with the issues of the day.  

British labour economist and universal basic income champion Guy Standing has written and spoken about the need to recapture citizens’ time. A new politics based on time, he argues, is necessary to spur citizens’ “community and political engagement.” He’s right. In Canada, politics based on reclaiming Canadians’ time is a necessity for climate action. Only a fully informed citizenry can be fully engaged on climate action, and right now, that’s not us. 

The FPW hypothesis doesn’t account for everyday pressures felt by Canadians. While climate remains ever-present on our minds, our ability to meaningfully engage on the issue, let alone keep it at the fore of our everyday lives, is hamstrung by smaller everyday pressures. Climate change alone is enough of a threat. To have a citizenry that’s meaningfully engaged on the issue, however, means reforming the way we work and live to afford us time.