Thinking about thinking about climate change
“If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change.” – Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, ‘The Burning Question’
Having recently attended Duncan Clark’s RSA event (based on his new book quoted above), and worked on the forthcoming climate change report by Dr Jonathan Rowson, I’ve been confronted with a host of different reasons for why we are collectively failing to respond to climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is the greatest single threat to our health, economy and security in the 21st century.
Whilst they are all interesting – from the orientation of our economy to the influence of powerful interest groups – most of these factors are external. But there is another element which is not about that or them, but about us. This blog highlights a small selection of the quirks in our psychological makeup that are causing us to ‘sleepwalk’ into so much danger.
Firstly, our brains are hardwired for optimism – we buy lottery tickets believing that the one in a million could be us, yet when confronted with the fact that almost one in two marriages end in divorce, we don’t see it as having any relevance to our own relationships. This optimism bias is great for protecting us from depression and inspiring us to be ambitious, but is really bad for dealing with looming problems like climate change.
Secondly, we stubbornly cling to our beliefs, only acknowledging evidence that supports our opinions. This confirmation bias is pretty familiar to us – we read the newspapers that share our world view, and dismiss as unreliable those which challenge us. Particularly stubborn is our self-image – so if we think of ourselves as funny, we remember all the times we made people laugh, and forget those quips that went down like a lead balloon. Facing up to the reality of climate change would force us to re-think not only our behaviour, but our view of ourselves as morally decent people, so we (consciously or unconsciously) choose not to face up to the uncomfortable truth that we have a role to play in all of this.
Added to these personal traits is the fact that we are essentially social creatures. We look first and foremost to our peers to determine our opinions and decision-making, not the facts. A perfect illustration is my own behaviour recently, when a fire alarm went off. If I was alone in the room at the time, I would have gotten up and left the building. But because there were other people present, I looked around and, seeing no-one else moving, decided it must be a false alarm and continued with what I was doing. In the case of climate change, our peers don’t seem alarmed, so we assume it can’t be that big a problem. This also creates ‘social inertia’ between political leaders and the public – we assume that if it was serious, governments would already be addressing it, yet governments aren’t compelled to take serious action because voters are not yet demanding it.
With climate change, all of these mental flaws are exacerbated by specific characteristics of the problem at hand, which is caused by particles we can’t see, has effects we can’t yet discern (although that is changing with all the recent instances of extreme weather events) and will impact firstly and most severely on people we will never meet. None of this changes the fact that there is a clear moral imperative to prevent the suffering that will be caused by inaction but, collectively, these factors give our minds all the ‘wiggle room’ they need to duck, dodge, and deny its relevance to us.
All this sounds pretty bleak, but the good news is that the social cycle mentioned above works both ways: if more of us start talking about the reality of climate change and how we can begin to address it, it loses the social taboo it currently has and encourages others to talk and act on it. And if we start demanding action from our governments, they will begin to see that addressing climate change is key to winning elections. And once they start taking it more seriously, that sends a signal to the rest of the population that climate change is the key issue of our time, and the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly.
the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly
A similar phenomenon happened with Western society’s attitude to slavery in the transition from the disinterest of the 18th century to the mass mobilization of opposition in the 19th. In that case, though, there was no deadline – no ‘tipping point’ at which more slavery would take the issue beyond human control and into a deadly, downward spiral. With climate change, there is.
So if you do one thing after reading this (and there are many you could do – from divesting from fossil fuels to supporting calls for fee and dividend policies), then make it a social act. Talk about this with the next person you see, or with your online connections, or with your family when you go home.
Because we are social brains, after all.
For more factors behind our ‘stealth denial’ of climate change, and possible solutions to break the deadlock, see Jonathan Rowson’s climate change report, coming out on Tuesday 17th December.
Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA. You can follow him @conorquinn85