I often wonder how in the face of images like these, we as humans have failed to take action on climate change. It’s led me down a rabbit hole of psychology, the persuasion, and how we make decisions. The threat of global warming has been around since the 70s. Since then we’ve been debating whether humans cause it, how much damage we’ve done, and who’s responsible. Why has policy moved at a snail’s pace? Why does the world refuse to rally? Why don’t we care enough to act?
One aspect of evolutionary biology forces us to deal with immediate threats. Like, “Ow! My hand is on fire” or “I need shelter away from the bears tonight” or the feeling of choking on a piece of plastic. Our ability to see the long view and foresee problems that could happen in 150 years just isn’t that strong. It’s probably why so few Americans stress about this next month’s rent but fail to open retirement accounts. Or why my wife doesn’t like to put on sunscreen. The effects are only felt much much later.
Another reason is that we don’t enjoy thinking of our demise. Watching a doomsday scenario is much more fun on screen, preferably with Bill Pullman as our President saving the day at the end. This tendency works to our benefit. Just imagine stepping outside everyday consumed with the certainty that you’re going to be attacked by your neighbor’s pitbull or hit by a truck. That feels paralyzing to me. Positive thinking helps us lead positive lives. A plane may go down over there, but my 747 is totally bulletproof. Or missile proof, if you live near Russia.
Some people view climate change as a conspiracy. This stance may be due to motivated reasoning. That happens when we twist or ignore information because it conflicts with an opposite held belief. That can be based on identity or affiliation – a political party or a sports team. For instance, you think a referee made a shitty call when it hurts your team, but the right one when it helps. You believe in small government and thus, any type of regulation, even ones that protect our air and minimize pollution, are an infringement on our rights. Motivated reasoning is why science can be seen as trash or in the words of Michelle Bachman, “voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” In a way, the brain can’t resolve these two opposite ideas. Psychologists calls this cognitive dissonance. For some, it’s either A or B, but not both. At that point, we’re not breaking down arguments. We’re breaking down bonds in the brain, which are made of really tough spider silk.
But perhaps the most common and defeating reason is that I’m just one person, and global warming is just too big for me to make any kind of dent. So we’re not all Ghandi or George Washington. But there are examples of big sweeping movements where humans rallied to solve a crisis. A story: before anesthesia was invented, life really sucked for the wounded. Patients were intoxicated to dangerous levels, held down by big burly men, and limbs were sawed off. Then on November 18th, 1846 a report was published in Boston by Henry Bigelow on the discovery of “insensibility of inhalation.” Nitrous oxide was applied and spread like wildfire because it helped people. By mid-December, doctors adopted the idea in Paris and London. By June, most regions of the world were using it. These were the days before twitter and the Internet, and still the world rallied because it helped all of humanity. We did the same during the Japanese tsunami or earthquake in Haiti. During WWII the United States underwent a total rework of supplies and rationed everything – gas, rubber, food. All to help people. When are we going to do it again to protect our planet, and ourselves?