Climate change is emotional, especially when the effects are disastrous and people's lives are ruined. It is vague, sometimes. For example, bad weather happens and always has happened, so an increase in frequency or severity of bad weather isn't necessarily qualitatively novel, and can be hard to put one's finger on. Although the negative effects of climate change are already here, more serious effects are in our future. So, climate change has a component that is mysterious and hard to relate to, because it is in the future. Climate change is global, but spotty on a given day or in a given month. So, you may spend a long period of time between direct bouts with the phenomenon and forget about it or write it off as an "it can't happen here" sort of thing. Climate change is scary or depressing, or both, so it is one of those things one tends to avoid thinking about. Climate change is complex, and climate change includes variation that is hard to understand.
When we look at how the human mind works, using the tools of anthropology, psychology, or any of your favorite ways to study the human condition, we find that we are better at some things than others. All those things I just said about climate change are things we humans tend to be bad at, find hard to comprehend, evaluate, understand, or explain.
Therefore, climate change has two very important characteristics. 1) It is very important, representing an existential threat that we must deal with; and 2) we are cognitively, emotionally, intellectually, pragmatically, unable to deal with it. Or, one would hope, unable to deal with it easily. Hopefully we will get past that.
George Marshall's Don't Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change is a must-read book for anyone interested in messaging and communication about climate change. You may know of George Marshall's work; he's the guy who made that great video on "How to talk to a climate change denier" (I've pasted it below).
If you know even a modest amount about climate change, and if you are likely to accept scientific consensus as valid (and the consensus on climate change is nearly 100% and is quite valid), then you may wonder how the heck people actively deny it. Less mysterious but still enigmatic is how people not actively engaged in denial don't just accept the science. There is a handful of easy answers to these wonderments. Ignorance, financial incentive, getting bad information by a well funded and very active denialist industry, probably account for much of this. But just as climate change is something we address in science, denial of climate change, or refusal to engage in the issue, can also be addressed with science. Marshall's book does this.
Marshall examines why people who aren't worried about climate change do worry about being hit by asteroids or killed by terrorists. He examines the enigmatic fact that having children, who will certainly be more affected by climate change than the parents will be, makes it more likely to deny the reality of the phenomenon. He talks about the role of myth, fiction, and stories in shaping people's belief, as opposed to science. He looks at why victims of climate change, such as those who lost everything in a major flood or terrible storm, exhibit a personal denial of the salient facts underlying their plight.
I have been dealing with science denial of one form or another for many years, much of that time surrounding the issue of evolution (as opposed to creationism). There are two things I've observed that relate to Marshall's book. First, the patterns of cause of denialism are rarely simple. There tends to be a political cause, in some cases there tends to be a religious cause (especially with respect to evolution), there tends to be a money-related cause, and so on. But it is unrealistic to attribute denial to a simple causal agent, and one does so at one's peril. The other observation is the commonness of well meaning people who look at denial think about if for a moment and come up with a simple fix. There isn't a simple fix for such a complex thing. This is why Don't Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change is a must-read book for anyone interested in messaging and communication about climate change.
I strongly recommend this book.