Are we hard-wired to ignore climate change? 

This article by Environment North board member Lucy LaFramboise was first published in the Chronicle Journal in April 22, 2017.

Something to Think About

   “How is it possible, when presented with overwhelming evidence, even the evidence of our own eyes, that we can deliberately ignore something - while being entirely aware that this is what we are doing?”

   George Marshall, an environmentalist and leading expert in climate change communications explores this in his book Don't Even Think About It, Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. For this book he has interviewed people as diverse as Nobel Prize winning psychologists, scientists and Tea Party members.

   Marshall says that we engage with the world on both a rational and emotional basis. The rational part of us hears the facts and theories but they don't always engage us enough to act. Climate scientists are perplexed by this so they double down and show more facts. However, it is the emotional part of us that spurs us to action but our emotional brains are not effectively engaged to deal with climate change. To counter this scientists need to get the facts out in a more user friendly way and become more personable themselves.

   Marshall describes some of the many obstacles to being convinced about human-caused climate change.

   Weather is familiar and floods, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes are known dangers. And people often feel that after an extreme weather event they are immune from having another one, at least in the near future. The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire to return to a 'normal' state making it harder for people to accept that there are larger changes underway.

   We tend to believe what our social group believes, those whose opinions we trust (family, friends, church, politicians and social media).  If they don't believe, then we won't either because to go against the grain risks social isolation. Social media also “enables people to broadcast their views more widely and brazenly than in typical social interactions and the anonymity enables outright bullying”.

   Politicians tell us that we need to reduce our greenhouse gases in the future and they keep extending the timeline for this to happen so there is no sense of urgency. Focusing on emissions also distracts from dealing with the source of them i.e. coal and oil reserves, “of which up to 80% should be left in the ground”.

   Becoming a parent/grandparent makes us more invested in the future so we become more optimistic about it.

     Having a truly serious discussion about climate change can be as difficult as discussing death and therefore it becomes a taboo topic. (Marshall brought up the topic at a dinner party and conversation abruptly halted and then quickly changed direction.)

     We all contribute to climate change by our lifestyle choices and people are reluctant to change for uncertain outcomes. When there is no easy solution it becomes easier to not think about it or to put it off for another time.

     Marshall does go on to say though that we are also “wired to take action”.

     According to Marshall there is no instinct stronger than the drive to defend the interests of our own descendants and social groups. “Climate change is not a minor inconvenience”. And while “it is an existential threat on a scale equaled only by nuclear war” he feels we are up to the challenge. Dealing with climate change could bring us together and help us to overcome our differences. We have the capacity to anticipate threats. A sense of personal reward for action would then come from contributing to a common cause.

      The final proof that we are not “wired” to ignore climate change is that the majority of people across the world already accept it.  

       We need to act because the scientists tell us we are already on track for a 4 degree Celsius warmer world and that would be in a word - catastrophic.