Millions are affected by climate change. Feelings of indifference could be ‘psychic numbing’

Imagine a disaster so large in scope that it affects almost Canada’s entire population of 38 million: Homes have been destroyed; there is little food; farmers have lost all their crops; there is little access to clean water; children are dying; and people migrate to find somewhere, anywhere that hasn’t been affected. 

This isn’t the plot of a Hollywood disaster movie. It’s a reality for people living in Pakistan.

From mid-June to August, severe monsoon rains flooded almost the entire country. It’s estimated that 33 million people have been affected. Approximately 1,700 people have died, with almost eight million displaced. And it’s likely to take months to recover.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, rising waters have killed 600 people and displaced 1.3 million more. On the other end of the weather scale, Somalia is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, affecting more than seven million people who face starvation.

This overview of Indus River before and after flooding, in Rajanpur, Pakistan, on March 24, 2022, and Aug. 28, 2022, respectively, illustrates its scope. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

But news coverage in Canada of Pakistan and Nigeria — of the suffering, the death and the tragedy — seems to pale in comparison when it comes to the coverage of Hurricanes Ian and Fiona, just weeks later.

In September, our television, computer and phone screens were filled with images of storm surges from Fiona destroying homes in parts of Atlantic Canada. We watched as Ian all but decimated Fort Myers and other parts of Florida.

Yet many climate experts feel strongly that people in developing countries are paying the highest price for climate change, even though their countries emit a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions overall.

“The people of Pakistan are the victims of a grim calculus of climate injustice,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres told the UN on Oct. 7.

“Pakistan is responsible for less than one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is paying a supersized price for man-made climate change.”

‘Psychic numbing’ may explain our difficulty responding

Psychologically speaking, the inability to grasp the scope of human suffering may be something that’s ingrained.

“Humans are evolutionarily disposed to care about and look after both ourselves and those to whom we are related,” Colin Ellard, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview.

“I think those kinds of kinship-related responses probably go some way to accounting for why we might have more difficulty responding to news of thousands of people, including hundreds of young children, who drowned in the floods in Pakistan than we do the 31 people who were killed by Hurricane Fiona.”

Another psychological aspect Ellard notes is something called “psychic numbing,” where people tend to be indifferent to the suffering of a great number of people. 

Flooded streets and houses.
Vehicles are seen on a flooded road in Lokoja, Nigeria, on Oct. 13. (Ayodeji Oluwagbemiga/Reuters)

As an example, there is a quote attributed to Joseph Stalin (though it may have existed before he was claimed to have uttered these words): “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” 

Putting a face to a tragedy may help

Ellard thinks perhaps it is more about the human story than it is about numbers.

“We’re not driven by statistics. We’re driven by stories,” he said. “So you can say, ‘X-thousand number of Syrian refugees drowned in the Mediterranean.’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’ But show me that picture…”

That “picture” Ellard referred to was of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015. The photo of the toddler’s body lying face down on a beach, which ran on front pages around the world, moved millions.

“That had an impact on the Canadian election. Donations went through the roof, because of that one person,” Ellard said. “So when we can attach a story, a narrative to something that’s happening, then that compels action — and that makes it real to us.” 

Zamzam Jamac, a Somali woman displaced by the worsening drought due to failed rain seasons, feeds her one-year-old child Fatuma Botan through a nasogastric tube at the pediatric ward in the Banadir Hospital, in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Sept. 24. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Not all photos of tragedy have such a profound impact. That may be due to the fact that we’ve seen images of starving children for decades, perhaps desensitizing us.

It could also relate back to a sense of “othering,” Ellard said: They are not part of our clan, so, while we see the tragedy, it doesn’t move us in the same way it would if it were happening closer to home. 

Victims of a changing climate

When it comes to climate change, there’s no doubt that it is primarily countries in the Northern Hemisphere who are the top emitters, especially when you look at per capita emissions. But countries in the Global South are dealing with some of the biggest consequences.

“When you look at any disaster, I don’t care what it is, it generally affects the poor first. Simple as that,” said Jim Douris, project officer at World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“Their infrastructures are weaker. Typically, they don’t have the resources to respond per se to the advisories, or the capability to move as quickly as possible. They have the most difficulty in recovering from a disaster.”

WATCH | Flooding in Nigeria displaces more than 1 million people: 

Flooding in Nigeria displaces more than 1 million people

9 days ago

Duration 2:01

More than one million people have been displaced by intense flooding in Nigeria that has destroyed thousands of homes and farms. It’s yet another country severely impacted by floods this year, and one of the least equipped to deal with it.

And, he notes, these developing countries are the ones suffering from the most economic damage from weather catastophes brought on by climate change.

So why is it that we don’t seem to act to mitigate it, or help poorer nations better cope?

“The major emitting countries are just not doing enough to deal with the impacts they’re causing,” said Ian Fry, the UN’s special rapporteur on climate change. “So the whole concept of ‘polluter pays’ is not sort of playing out in international debates at the moment.” 

The UN’s next climate conference, COP27, or the Conference of Parties, takes place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next month; this is one of the largest meetings of countries from around the world, working to address the various aspects of climate change. 

One of the issues brought up during COP26 was the need for a fund for loss and damages, where developed countries would provide funding to developing countries who are already dealing with climate change-related damages, such as the loss of crops. The U.S., Australia and the European Union, however, opposed the proposition, concerned about “large compensation claims.”

Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe gives a COP26 statement while standing in the ocean in Funafuti, Tuvalu November 5, 2021. The minister was illustrating the challenges of sea level rise due to climate change. (Tuvalu’s Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs)

Last Friday, Fry gave a report to the UN General Assembly that addressed this very thing.

“I’m suggesting the cost is so big that it needs to be taken up at the UN level, I think — to a higher level, the secretary general,” Fry said. “I’m recommending the secretary general form a group of finance experts to sort of work on a fund that will deal with these losses and damages.” 

What comes of that remains to be seen, as the big emitters fear repercussions. 

Ellard, the University of Waterloo psychologist, said he has hope that eventually we’ll see the world, well, as a world — and not just in terms of how we are personally affected.

“I’m optimistic in the sense that it is possible to have a just world — a more just world than we have,” he said. 

“Maybe we’ll never get to the point of treating them as seriously as the impacts on our own country, or our own local area. But we can do better than we have done.”