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United Nations conference to shine a light on climate change. Do Americans care?

President Biden, other U.S. politicians to attend Glasgow summit

A marker buoy is grounded on the dried-up shore of Echo Reservoir on Sept. 16, 2021.
A marker buoy is grounded on the dried-up shore of Echo Reservoir on Sept. 16, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As an estimated 20,000 people descend on Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss climate change and emission tamping goals, the massive United Nations conference, called COP26, will highlight progress, failures and give rise to a call for countries to more aggressively pursue clean energy.

Will Americans be paying attention to the Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 event? Have the massive wildfires in the West, the relentless drought, hurricanes and flooding made people sit up and take notice?

Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University, pointed to the rampaging wildfires in California and the massive force of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

“You don’t need a psychologist to say these are devastating events,” Krosnick said, but he added people are likely not jumping off of their couches to take direct action if they don’t feel particularly vulnerable.

But public consciousness over the threat of climate change has grown over the decades, said Krosnick, who specializes in conducting extensive surveys that probe attitudes in both the political space and on an individual basis.

Research from the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford demonstrates that the country’s residents have become increasingly “green.”

“A significant portion of Americans — over half in the last decade — believed they knew at least a moderate amount on the issue of global warming. In 1997, 42% said they knew a moderate amount or a lot about the topic, compared to an all-time high of 75% in 2020,,” the website says.

“Generally what we are seeing is a much greener country and we have a much greener country than Americans recognize,” Krosnick said.

While there are plenty of polarized topics to go around, there is more cohesion than one might think on climate change, he added, but pointed to media headlines and stories that often drive a different narrative.

“What often gets overlooked is 50% of the country are neither Republican or Democrat, they are independents,” Krosnick said.

Republicans make up 22% of the country, while Democrats sit at 28%.

A majority of the independents lean in the green direction like the Democrats, and Krosnick pointed out even a majority of Republicans believe climate change is a threat.

Research also shows that climate change driven anxiety and depression are more likely to impact the younger generation who are growing up in a time of where there seems to be constant talk of the threats, but little action on the world stage.

Thomas Doherty is a Portland-based clinical psychologist who has published multiple papers and books on environmental perspectives, mental health and well-being and also advises other mental health care professionals on how to offer therapy in the arena of “eco distress.” He blogs at selfsustain.com.

He said natural disasters and a changing climate fuel angst in young people who often feel they are helpless to create action in a world dominated by older, powerful leaders.

“Many young people around the world are concerned, anxious, they feel like they don’t have any place. A lot of times they don’t really talk to people about this and they also feel abandoned by their leaders,” Doherty said. “So this is a very kind of a common theme around the world. Younger people tend to be more concerned about this on average than elders. That’s not to say that some elders aren’t also concerned, obviously, but this is a trend.”

Doherty pointed out there are cascading effects of mental health strain that can coincide with climate change — the actual societal impacts of the natural disaster, emotional reaction and economic costs.

“You know, people are still concerned about it, because they’re altruistic and they don’t want other people to suffer. They’re concerned about animal extinctions and things like that. So you’ve got those three baskets of those impacts.”

He emphasized that he advises people to get out in nature, see the good and beauty in the world around them and take a holistic approach to their own well-being.

Take an emotional break from the drought, the wildfires, the floods and the hurricanes — as much as possible and commit to some personal change.

A large tanker drops retardant as crews fight the Parleys Canyon Fire near Park City on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
A large tanker drops retardant as crews continue fighting the Parley’s Canyon Fire near Park City on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It can be tough, he noted, because individuals concerned about climate change are not usually writing the laws, not implementing the policies and not in charge of where a new energy plant might be located.

Those concerned over climate change can take their own action to take some control of their destiny, but big changes will come from those in power.

And that, ultimately, can lead to more anxiety, he added.

“It’s pretty notable that there’s really no leader that I know of in the world that’s reassuring people, like there’s no government. There’s no leader that is stepping up to reassure people,” he said. “So it’s a pretty extraordinary situation where people are. They are sitting with this information, but they’re not really getting any guidance.”