Are we hardwired to ignore climate change?
International delegates convened at the UN Climate Summit in New York City this week. Top military officers have called climate change a huge threat to national security, but activists think that environmental issues have slipped off the political agendas around the world. So if climate change presents the grave threat experts say it does, why don't we respond to it...
International delegates convened at the UN Climate Summit in New York City this week. Top military officers have called climate change a huge threat to national security, but activists think that environmental issues have slipped off the political agendas around the world. So if climate change presents the grave threat experts say it does, why don't we respond to it that way? George Marshall says it's all in our heads. He's the author of the new book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.
Q & A with Brent Bambury and George Marshall
BB: George, two stories dominated the news this week. Climate change and the relative lack of action on it, and ISIS and the international mobilization that was taken to fight them. So using those two threats as an example, why were there such divergent actions attached to them?
GM: "Our brains are wired in ways that are deeply built into our evolutionary history. That makes some things very, very strange and powerful for us and other things much weaker. Now, we have a rational side to our brains as well which evaluates risk and says, rationally, well, we know one thing is more dangerous than another, but the fact is that ISIS is extremely compelling to us for a whole lot of reasons. One is that it's hear-and-now whereas climate change can seem uncertain, in the future, it's a bit nebulous, but more than anything [ISIS] has a very powerful story. You see, we don't understand climate change in terms of the science, what happens - and how we make sense of things - is that we turn them into stories. Climate change struggles to find an effective and compelling story whereas, of course, ISIS has one already prepared. Above all, what ISIS has is an enemy. An enemy who is familiar to us. We already have a sense in our minds as to where we sit on this. There is an intent and in fact we impose an intent on it, an intent to cause harm. And that's very important to how we make sense of things. So when we see things done to individuals by others with an intent to cause harm, that's suddenly very compelling to us. And the problem with climate change is that that intention is lacking. Not only are we all involved in it in various ways, certainly in the rich world and the way that we live, but we have no intention to cause harm, we're just living our lives and driving our kids to school and putting food on the table. So when we try to turn it into a moral argument, which is what it needs to be in order to compel us to take action, of course, not surprisingly people get very angry and they push the thing away."
BB: There are scientific facts that show that the climate change threat is real. So what's happening psychologically that doesn't compel people to act on these facts?
GM: "Well, there are different kinds of facts. We interpret the world in terms of scientific facts and data, and that is something that we deal with in what we know as the rational analytic side of our brain, but twenty years now of brain-scanning and a great deal of research has shown that we actually have another - dominant - parallel system, which is an emotional one. Psychologists would call it 'affective reasoning' which dominates. So we have the scientific facts - no question, and let's not forget that climate change is built on those, but we also have social facts. And the social facts are the readings we take of the people around us: are they concerned, what are they saying, what are their conversations, what are they doing. And that's what we feed upon. And we know in an experimental sense that people will disregard the things that they know to be the case, the scientific facts, if they do not perceive that the people around them are responding."
BB: What about the hundreds of thousands of people who protested climate change inaction this week. They're responding to the threat. Doesn't that erode your premise that we're not wired to respond to climate change as a threat?
Photo: Demonstrators sit in the middle of Broadway during the Flood Wall Street protest on September 22, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)
GM: "But I would never say we are not wired to respond to climate change. We are wired to pay attention to things that are threats. The question is whether they're shaped and formed in ways that make us see that they are threats. So for the people who are marching on New York, they have already shaped and formed this into a narrative that they share with each other that this is a threat. So therefore they quite rightly perceive it as a threat, which indeed it is. Of course, the problem is then for people who don't identify with those people whose values are in the march, [they] are therefore liable to pull away in the opposite direction."
BB: You said that, in a way, we - individually, each of us - are the enemy when it comes to climate change, so when it comes to a perceived threat, we usually perceive another enemy who's not us, but in this case it's us. How does that affect our response?
Photo: Benny Zable, 69, wears a gas mask and carries a sign during the 'Flood Wall Street' protest on September 22, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)
GM: "You're asking one of the biggest challenges of this issue. This is really getting to the nub of why we find climate change so hard to deal with. We could decide to shape it in terms of existing narratives and values which we create from the different cultures we have, [and their] enemies. Or we could face up to the fact that we have to change and we have to rebuild who we are. That of course is harder to except, it's going to be... it's going to be difficult for people. My feeling is that that's a way of thinking about it that's just going to have to come further down the line."