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Waning Attention To Climate Change Amid Pandemic Could Have Lasting Effects

University of Colorado at Boulder

As media coverage of coronavirus has gone up, interest in climate change has plummeted.

With COVID-19 dominating the headlines, searches for climate change are on the decline.

That worries authors of a new study showing that even brief, involuntary attention to environmental issues moves people to care more and act.

On Sept. 23, 2019, then-16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg stood before a sea of news cameras at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City and told world leaders: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing…How dare you continue to look away.”

Within days, web searches for ‘climate change’ soared to levels not seen in years, and environmentalists cheered a new surge of activism. Fast forward to summer 2020: With a global pandemic monopolizing news coverage, searches around environmental issues have plummeted to new lows, according to Google analytics data.

This trend could mean serious trouble for the planet, suggests a new CU Boulder study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“We found that simply directing your attention to an environmental risk, even momentarily, can make it seem more frightening and worthy of mitigation,” said senior author Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience. “On the flip side, if you are not actively paying attention, the risk seems less dangerous and less important to address.”

Previous research has shown that humans have a finite capacity for attention to risk, inherently programmed to prioritize one threat at a time. Rather than thoughtfully calculating how risky something truly is, humans tend toward “intuitive risk perception,” or how something feels in the moment, Van Boven said.

“If a threat seems physically distant, far in the future, too abstract or if we are just too distracted to notice it, our perception of risk declines. Climate change is the prototypical example.” […]

In a recent analysis of Google search trends, Mrkva looked to see how often people searched for information about the same 12 issues. Not surprisingly, as media coverage of coronavirus has gone up, interest in those issues has plummeted.” The consequences of this reduced attention could be severe,” said Mrkva.

He points to a recent Gallup Poll showing that concern about climate change is already slipping, with only 2% of Americans identifying it as the most important problem facing the country today, versus 5% in December.

Those wanting to raise the profile of environmental hazards in the media face an uphill battle, notes Van Boven.

“It’s all COVID all the time right now,” he said.

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