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Frogs in a Boiling Pot: The Effects of Disaster Fatigue

By Julia Maruca

Natural disasters are becoming more and more common. Wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes in California, a devastating hurricane rocked Puerto Rico, and floods have deluged the Midwest, all within a short period of time. Since the beginning of the 20th century there has been a steadily increasing number of named storms and hurricanes, and over the past 24 years, there have been 16 “severer than normal” hurricane seasons, according to The Guardian. Despite their increasing frequency, these well-known proxies for climate change are not often topics of conversation. They happen so much now that they’re starting to become the new normal.

A 2017 article from The Huffington Post discusses the phenomenon of “disaster fatigue,” or the overwhelming nature of constant bad news in the media. The article refers to “disasters” in a general way, including events like the Harvey Weinstein scandals and mass shootings, but “disaster fatigue” is also applicable to literal natural disasters and symptoms of climate change.

“People have never before in the history of the world lived where they were surrounded with so much media and information,” said Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a University of Texas psychology professor, in a 2014 interview. “So 100 years ago, if there was a disaster and you were in it, you actually had some direct things you needed to do to cope. But you weren’t aware of everything going on around you, therefore weren’t as overwhelmed.”

Disaster fatigue may be connected to the concept of “compassion fatigue”, a more acute version of helplessness and withdrawal found in care workers and direct aid workers. It’s not the exact same condition, but being exposed to the secondhand impact of so many natural disasters and increasing climate change symptoms through the media can give members of the public a similar sense of stress and exhaustion.

If people are intimidated by the deluge of climate disaster news and feel helpless, they may be less likely to lobby for greener government policies or volunteer with climate organizations. They may also neglect to provide aid to the victims of such disasters, according to an article from Grist. People who are stressed by disaster fatigue may be likely to pay attention to news coverage of other disasters, and news organizations may become overwhelmed with disaster coverage as well.

“Disaster fatigue” may also be affecting people’s perceptions of temperature anomalies. A study published this March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America examined the increasing “everyday-ness” of temperature anomalies. The study analyzed over two billion tweets that complained about the weather and linked them to their geographic location to identify the temperature anomalies to which they applied. They found that while the more unusual temperature anomalies at atypical times of year garnered attention, others weren’t as widely discussed. If the same weather anomalies happened over and over again, they got less Twitter attention, which suggests people accepted it as normal.

In an article for Science News, Frances C. Moore, one of the authors of the study, mentions the reaction trends are an example of the “frog in a boiling pot” phenomenon. The phrase comes from the adage that if you slowly heat up a frog in a pot, it will not notice or jump out until it is too late and its environment is deadly. If a situation slowly and steadily gets worse, people react less and less to it, even when it may threaten their lives or make things harder for them.

“Extreme temperatures still make people miserable, but they stop talking about it,” said Moore. “People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer to avoid. But just because they’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not making them worse off.”

Whether the frustration stems from small or large effects of climate change, becoming consumed by disaster fatigue isn’t helpful for anyone. A 2017 article from Grist offers some advice to stop a deluge of disaster news from destroying motivation to make a change. First, people can pay more attention to the amount of heavy disaster-related media, and take breaks when they can. Second, they can take actions to directly help people affected by increasing effects of climate change, “altering the future so you don’t drown in the overwhelming present.”

Levitt, Daniel, and Niko Kommenda. “Is Climate Change Making Hurricanes Worse?” The Guardian. October 10, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019.

Khoo, Isabelle. “‘Disaster Fatigue’ Is What Happens When Our Minds Are Bombarded With Bad News.” HuffPost Canada. October 16, 2017. Accessed April 06, 2019.

“After the Disaster Comes Disaster Fatigue. Here’s How to Fight It.” Grist. October 05, 2017. Accessed April 06, 2019.

Kerlin, Kat. “Tweets Tell Scientists How Quickly We Normalize Unusual Weather.” ScienceDaily. February 25, 2019. Accessed April 06, 2019.

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