How brain quirks prevent us from caring about climate change

On April 6th, Dr Peter Kalmus, NASA climate scientist and writer, walked into the JP Morgan Chase bank building in Los Angeles, pulled handcuffs from a cloth bag and chained himself to the front door. With tears in his eyes, he spoke about the climate crisis to a group of supporters.

“We have been trying to warn you for decades that we are headed for a major disaster,” he said in a video of the protests that have disappeared. viral on twitter. “And we end up being ignored. The scientists of the world are being ignored. And that has to stop. We’re going to lose everything.”

Like me, Kalmus is a scientist – passionate about uncovering the nature of reality. A reality that is threatened by rapidly increasing global temperatures. Unlike me, Kalmus actually did something about it. He is a member of the Scientist Rebellion – a group of academics and scientists who are struggling to draw attention to the “reality and severity of the climate and ecological emergency by engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Watching Kalmus give an impassioned speech on the steps of the bank, I felt humbled and envious. I wonder why I don’t seem to care as much about the climate crisis as he does. The best explanation from my point of view as a cognitive scientist involves a fundamental weakness in my human psychology: the inability to care too much about what happens in the distant future. But I wonder how Peter Kalmus can explain the public’s lack of enthusiasm when it comes to a good fight. So I wrote him to ask.

“I think climate denial in the media plays a big role here,” he wrote back to me. “A small percentage of emergencies are reported (and they are scary) but they are not related to the future and how they will impact civilization, i.e., the potential for the collapse of civilization is never mentioned.”

There are solid numbers to back up this claim. “Less than a quarter of the public hears about climate change in the media at least once a month,” writes Mark Hertsgaard, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, and co-founder of Covering Climate Now, a media collaboration struggling to get more news coverage of the climate crisis. And when these stories are reported, they rarely talk about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, but instead present a hopeful (and often delusional) solution.

“The effectively irreversible nature of most climate impacts is also never mentioned,” Kalmus wrote. “Instead, it’s usually the technology ‘solution’ to highlight, or the feeling that we still have a ‘budget’ for some warming milestone (eg, 2°C) that is implied as ‘safe.’ So there’s no urgency in the news media.”

The thing is, I understand the urgency. However, I did almost nothing. I spend most of my day reading books, watching Netflix, and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I don’t act like there’s a climate emergency.

The thing is, I understand the urgency. I have read the findings presented in the third volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on April 4. It was a document full of horrific warnings, and the catalyst for Kalmus’ protest. It warns that we are on track for a global temperature rise far beyond the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement (and possibly heading to 3°C) by the end of the century with no functional plan in place to stop it. from happening. To clarify, it could make most of the planet uninhabitable for our species. I know this. However, I did almost nothing. I spend most of my day reading books, watching Netflix, and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I don’t act like there’s a climate emergency.

It’s possible that I, like many others, behaved in a way common to someone processing an impending threat cultural trauma. It is a term to refer to a horrendous event that changes the identity of a society or irrevocably destroys the social fabric. The common response to an impending threat of this magnitude is to fight to defend status quo. In doing so, a kind of social inertia arises where people do everything they can to still live their lives the way they always have, despite the huge boom in society. Maybe I, like many others, are fully aware of the dire consequences of climate change, but my thoughts generate a kind of trauma-avoidance denial that shields me from reality. This helped me get rid of the IPCC report and listen to “Bridgerton” instead.

However, there is a psychological response even older than denial that could explain why I, like many others, did not chain myself to the bank in the face of humanity’s impending extinction.

Edward Wasserman is a psychologist who studies animal behavior and the author of “As If By Design which offers an elegantly simple explanation of why humans are so bad at dealing with climate change. It boils down to the way all animals — including humans — have been designed by evolution to deal with common everyday problems such as foraging for food, safety, or sex.

The problem is that humans, like all animals, evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions—the primary drivers of behavior—are designed to force us to act based on potential immediate rewards.

“Being the first to spot a ripe berry or a deadly predator may give the organism only a short time interval to engage in adaptive action,” Wasserman wrote in his blog for Psychology Today. “This reality prompts organisms to act impulsively. However, such impulsivity is clearly at odds with appreciation and resistance to the slowly increasing warning signs of climate change.”

The problem is that humans, like all animals, evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions—the primary drivers of behavior—are designed to force us to act based on potential immediate rewards.

Humans are unique in that, in the last 250,000 years, we developed the ability to think about the distant future. We can contemplate what our lives will look like months or even years into the future — something that no other animal species (as far as we know) can do. But recently developed cognitive skills function independently of the ancient emotional systems that produce everyday animal behavior.

If you, for example, decide to invest in a retirement savings scheme, it is because you are using complex intellectual calculations about what your life will be like decades in the future. There’s nothing immediately satisfying about saving right now. Retirement schemes are not impulsive actions that generate a rush of dopamine, like drinking a daquiri, cracking a Wordle, or eating a chocolate chip cookie. Planning for the distant future is a purely intellectual exercise.


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I use the term prognostic myopia to show the disconnect between the human ability to think about the distant future and our inability to really feel strong about that future. Prognostic means one’s ability to predict the future; myopic means nearsightedness. It is a prognostic myopia that explains the inaction that individuals, societies and governments have when it comes to solving climate change. The IPCC report clearly states that the extraction of fossil fuels needs to stop as soon as possible, so that we are not on the path of extinction. However, on April 11, less than a week after the IPCC report, the Canadian government approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil project, which will extract 300 million barrels of oil off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. On April 15, the Biden administration announced that the Bureau of Land Management would resume and thereby increase oil and gas leases on public lands (breaking campaign promises). In both cases, this is what the IPCC report says we must stop immediately if we are to prevent human extinction. This is prognostic myopia in action. He feel it is more important to address the threat of rising oil prices or economic stability here and now even if it accelerates our extinction within decades. This is inexcusable and completely understandable in the context of human psychology.

Kalmus, however, is different. He reacts to future threats as if they were present dangers, seemingly avoiding the problem of prognostic myopia. His emotional reactions are raw, unyielding, and push him to action. This is extraordinary as far as the human condition goes, and admirable. If we heed the warnings and act with the urgency outlined in the IPCC report, there is hope that our species will avoid extinction.

Acknowledging that humans are governed by impulsivity and timidly becoming indifferent in the face of cultural trauma by prognostic myopia is no reason not to act. We may not all feel the same way about the future as Peter Kalmus, but we can admit that we have to listen to him. “People have to come together, put in a significant effort, and take risks to wake up society,” he wrote to me. “Civil rebellion is the most effective thing I’ve found so far to push back against the cultural wall of indolence and despair.”

It is very likely that I, like most people, will never feel the emotional connection to the climate change issue that Kalmus is engaged in. But knowing that there is a psychological explanation for our lack of emotional investment, we can instead ask our intelligence to guide our actions. We can decide to listen to scientists literally shouting at us to do something. Maybe it’s time we let those who can sense the future guide us into it.

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