Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change

My article, as it appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times. There’s a busy comments section attached, with the usual handful of hard chaws piling in to an otherwise productive discussion…

IT’S REASSURING to imagine we are, by and large, rational beings who base our judgments and decisions on the best evidence we can muster.

The scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

Nowhere can the limits of human rationality be more forcefully encountered than in how we have collectively failed to respond to the existential threat posed by climate change.

Recessions threaten our jobs and income, while fears about terrorism or crime may undermine our sense of well-being. Climate change is uniquely different in that at its heart, it threatens to unravel our most fundamental assumption: that we, as individuals, indeed, as a species, have a future at all.

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature – Climate Change.

The researchers identified key reasons why, despite the mountains of hard scientific evidence, we have signally failed to react to the colossal threats posed by climate change.

First, our moral intuitions are strongly driven by emotional responses. For instance, witnessing someone injure a child evokes a powerful visceral moral response. Climate change also threatens our children, but understanding exactly how “requires cold, cognitively demanding and ultimately less motivating moral reasoning”.

Second, the harms arising from pollution and resource depletion are a real but largely unintended by-product of economic activity. Neuroscientific evidence shows that we react much less to actions, however dangerous, if we see them as unintentional. Third, thinking about environmental damage makes us all squirm a little, as we know deep down that our flat-screen TVs, foreign holidays and affluent lifestyles are part of the problem. “To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimise perceptions of their own complicity.”

In other words, we try to deflect our own feelings of guilt by decrying “corrupt” scientists and, by clutching to trivial errors or controversies, hope to reason away incontrovertible evidence amassed by teams of scientists of the calibre of those remotely operating the Mars rover.

Another roadblock is moral tribalism. People who identify themselves as liberals base their moral priorities around harm and fairness, while conservatives strongly value in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity/sanctity. People’s group identification strongly colours their views on political issues, and once a position takes hold, confirmation bias means we seek out views that support our own and readily dismiss alternate explanations.

This explains how the deliberate politicisation of the science of climate change has allowed many otherwise intelligent, educated people (most notably, conservative white males) to reject objective scientific facts from credible sources in favour of shabby but reassuring conspiracy theories.

The final factor at work is the perception that climate change is a threat that affects others who live elsewhere – either people in distant countries or from future generations. We can easily frame them as out-group members, somehow different from us and, so, less deserving of our concern.

Helpfully, the researchers also developed pointers for communicators to bolster the recognition of climate change as a profound moral imperative. First, they suggest using moral frameworks that appeal to conservatives as much as liberals. Framing environmental damage as profaning creation has traction with some religious conservatives.

Next, psychologists have established that messages focusing on the likely future burdens of unmitigated climate change, from severe weather and coastal inundation to the spread of diseases, are more effective than “selling” the idea of potential future benefits, such as a stable climate. Of course, blunt messaging about the risks of climate change can backfire, with some individuals simply “tuning out” such warnings. Linking action on climate change to positive moral emotions such as pride and gratitude can provoke a pro-social response that rewards respondents with feelings of well-being.

How we discuss the likely victims of climate change matters too. A phrase like “future generations” sounds hollow, but when that becomes “my children or grandchildren”, these victims are no longer quite so faceless or forgettable.

 John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. Twitter:@think_or_swim


ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Hugh-aedh

    Very well written article. I would also add that our “leaders” are all too often emotionally detached from the implications in their decision making. There is a sociopathic attitude among an elite of decision makers who are in collective denial of the consequences. In essence they live in an echo chamber that reinforces itself again & again within the group bubble so that only the “economy” & jobs, jobs jobs become repetitive cliches which over-ride all other imperatives, including the most dire of all, a modern life-style of abundance based on the appropriation of resources that all future generations will also be dependent upon. Hence, climate change denial as a human caused condition.

  • Guest

    Continuing on from the Irish Times comments section: Thanks for the link John and I must say I
    have always admired your persistence and am already on your thinkorswim
    email list. This article in your link however still reverts to the same
    biologically deterministic arguments you were making in this article.
    You completely overlook Norgaard’s central point which is the effect of
    “socially organised denial” on our climate change mitigation responses
    and non-responses in favour of the over-simplified and under-examined
    logic of the reptilian brain type explanations. Nature vs Nurture;
    environment vs biology; society vs individual are all forms of
    dichotomous thinking (largely a consequence of the failings in modern
    western language). The truth is much more anti-dichotomous. These
    factors are not distinct but always intertwined. To ignore one in favour
    of the other will confuse the argument. These heuristic and hard-wiring
    type explanations (biological determinism) overlook societal ones –
    consumerism, capitalism, individualisation, local, community and class-based
    dis-empowerment etc. These behavioural arguments have a tendency of
    circular reasoning. They start with the premise that everything is
    explained by some pathological hard-wiring, they find a behavioural
    regularity and then they invent a hard-wired bias or heuristic to explain it. In
    the end they offer little in terms of visualising pathways for change.   I will send you some links soon I hope. All the best

  • Klem

    ” The researchers identified key reasons why, despite the mountains of
    hard scientific evidence, we have signally failed to react to the
    colossal threats posed by climate change.”

    Um, ok lets see. If it rains we put on a raincoat, if its warm we wear shorts, if its cold we put on an overcoat. Hmm, it doesn’t look like we have signally failed, it looks like we are reacting just fine to me.

  • John Gibbons

    Thanks Hugh. “Sociopathic attitude” is a good way of putting it. So many smart people working together to (uninitentionally, if recklessly) destroy the basis for life on Earth, and to leave the charred remains as our ultimate legacy for our children’s generation. Guess it turns out we were’t nearly as smart as we thought after all.

  • John Gibbons

    Thanks for the comment, and your remarks on the IT article as well. As explained there, this article was primarily a review of the ‘Nature – Climate Change’ article. Understanding climate change is the ultimate multifactorial challenge…emotions, preconceptions, group identity, received wisdom, etc. Reminds me a little of a great quote attributed to Albert Einstein:  “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” 

  • Geoff Berry

    Great stuff. Reason alone will not rise to the challenge. Your choise of the quote sums up a lot of the reaons why:
    “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma.
    Fossil fuel companies and their slush funds, allied with willing politicians and other looters of public funds like the bankers, is most of the rest of the explanation …

  • guest

    Thanks for the reply. Great quote – Einstein appears to have been the Oscar Wilde of the science world.