How can we make people care about climate change? Do we show them polar bears perched atop wobbly icebergs? Do we warn them about melting glaciers in Greenland? This seems to work, at least while we’re having the discussion. But then, they forget. They go back to their old ways. Ultimately, humans simply don’t have the mental energy to deal with this abstract, future threat.

American conservation scientist M. Sanjayan has taken a keen interest in studying these issues. What can we do in the face of this well-meaning, but ultimately useless approach? Fortunately, he has an idea that has worked before.

“We’ve faced enormous, scary climate issues before. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? As insurmountable as that seemed in the 1970’s and 80’s, we were able to wrap our heads around that and take action. People got this very simple, easy to understand, concrete image of this protective layer around the earth, kind of like a roof protecting us in this case from ultraviolet light (which, by the way, has the direct health consequence of potentially giving you skin cancer). Then, they came up with this fabulous term, “the ozone hole.” Terrible problem, great term.” People also got a concrete image of how we ended up with this problem; for decades chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) were a main ingredient in a lot of products like aerosol spray cans. Then, when scientists discovered that CFCs were actually destroying the atmospheric ozone, people could look at their own hairspray and say “do I want to destroy the planet because of my hairspray?” So, what’s interesting is that sales of hairspray and those kinds of products started dropping quite dramatically. People listened to scientists and took action, and now scientists predict that the hole in the ozone layer will be healed by around 2050.” – M. Sanjayan, VOX

Sanjayan then goes on to discuss climate change, saying that if we had a concrete image – if we could see climate change – then we’d do something.

The thing is, we can see climate change. At least, in a way.

Throughout the UK and particularly in the Greater London Area, air pollution is a hot topic. Moreover, as capital-dwellers will tell you, we can both see and feel it, particularly on any high air-pollution alert day. As a recent resident of Beijing and Hong Kong, I can affirm that it only gets worse. More importantly, air pollution and climate change are intricately linked, as many compounds that are considered as pollution also count as greenhouse gases (CO2, nitrous oxide, ozone, and so on).

Pollution is not a future threat, like climate change. It is affecting you now. According to the Guardian, air pollution kills 9 million around the world annually (more than 5 times as many as car accidents), with that figure set to rise. So, why not focus first on fighting pollution? The actions necessary, such as limiting vehicular emissions and transitioning from fossil fuel power sources (which can be done through Carbon Fee & Dividend!) will do equal work in fighting climate change down the road.

(The following photos I took while hiking show a clear difference – a difference you can see, and act on!)

Hong Kong on a clear day:

Hong Kong on a smoggy day: