How a quirk of the brain keeps us from caring about climate change – Tips & Results

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

“We’ve been trying for so many decades to warn you that we’re headed for a frigging catastrophe,” he says in a video of the protest that has since passed viral on Twitter. “And we end up being ignored. The scientists of the world are ignored. And that has to stop. We will lose everything.”

Kalmus is a scientist like me – passionate about uncovering the nature of reality. A reality threatened by rapidly rising global temperatures. Unlike me, Kalmus is actually doing something about it. He is a member of Scientist Rebellion – a group of academics and scientists fighting to bring attention to “the reality and gravity of the climate and ecological emergency by advocating nonviolent civil disobedience.”

When I see Kalmus deliver his impassioned speech on the bench steps, I am both humbled and envious. I wonder why the climate crisis doesn’t seem to matter as much to me as it does to him. The best explanation, from my point of view as a cognitive scientist, involves a fundamental flaw in my human psychology: an inability to care too much about what happens in the distant future. But I wondered how Peter Kalmus could explain the public’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for fighting the good fight. So I texted him to ask.

“I think climate denial in the media plays a big part here,” he wrote back. “Parts of the emergency are reported (and they’re scary) but they don’t relate to the future and how it will affect civilization, i.e. a possible collapse of civilization is never mentioned.”

There are solid numbers to support this claim. “Less than a quarter of the public hears about climate change in the media at least once a month,” wrote Mark Hertsgaard, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and one of the co-founders of Covering Climate Now, a media corporation fighting for more coverage of the climate crisis. And when these stories are reported, they rarely talk about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, instead presenting hopeful (and often delusional) solutions.

“The virtually irreversible nature of most climate impacts is also never mentioned,” wrote Kalmus. “Instead, technical ‘solutions’ are usually emphasized or the feeling that we still have ‘budget’ for a heating milestone (eg 2°C) that is implicitly considered ‘safe’. So there is no urgency in the news media.”

The thing is, I understand the urgency. And yet I do almost nothing about it. I spend most of my time reading books, watching Netflix and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I am not acting like there is 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 released on April 4th. It was a document filled with clearly dire warnings and the trigger for Kalmus’ protest. It warns that we are poised for a rise in global temperature well above the 1.5°C target set in the Paris Agreement (and potentially towards 3°C) by the end of the century, with no working plan in place to stop it to stop him from happening. Just to be clear, that could make most of the planet uninhabitable for our species. I to know this. And yet I do almost nothing about it. I spend most of my time reading books, watching Netflix and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I am not acting like there is a climate emergency.

It is possible that I, like many others, behave in a way that is mean to someone processing a pending processing threat cultural trauma. This is a term that refers to a horrific event that irrevocably alters a society’s identity or destroys social order. A common response to an imminent threat of this magnitude is to fight to maintain the Status quo. This creates a kind of social inertia in which, despite the impending implosion of society, people do everything they can to live their lives the way they always have. Perhaps, like so many others, I am fully aware of the dire consequences of climate change, but my mind creates a kind of trauma-avoiding denial that shields me from reality. It helps me to turn off the IPCC report and tune in to “Bridgerton” instead.

However, there is an even older psychological response than denial that may explain why I, like so many others, am not chaining myself to banks in the face of imminent human extinction.

Edward Wasserman is a psychologist who studies animal behavior and the author of As If By Design who provided an elegantly simple explanation for why people are so bad at dealing with climate change. It boils down to how all animals – including humans – were designed by evolution to deal with everyday problems like foraging, security or sex.

The problem is that, like all animals, humans evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions – the primary driver of behavior – are designed to compel us to act based on the potential for immediate gratification.

“Being the first to spot a ripe berry or a deadly predator might only give an organism a short span of time in which to adapt,” Wasserman wrote in his blog for Psychology Today. “This reality causes organisms to act impulsively. Such impulsiveness, however, is evidently at odds with appreciating and fighting the slowly rising warning signs of climate change.”

The problem is that, like all animals, humans evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions – the primary driver of behavior – are designed to compel us to act based on the potential for immediate gratification.

Humans are unique in that sometime in the last 250,000 years we have evolved the ability to think about the distant future. We can contemplate what our lives might be like in months or even years – something no other animal species can do (as far as we know). But this recently developed cognitive ability functions separately from the ancient emotional system that generates everyday animal behavior.

For example, if you decide to invest in a retirement plan, it is because you have been referring to a complex intellectual calculus of what your life might be like decades from now. There’s nothing immediately satisfying about saving money right now. Retirement plans aren’t impulsive acts that produce spikes of dopamine, like drinking a daquiri, solving Wordle, or eating a chocolate chip cookie. Planning for the future is purely an intellectual exercise.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter, The Vulgar Scientist.

I use the term prognostic myopia to denote this disconnect between the human ability to think about the distant future and our inability to actually do so feel strong about this future. forecast means the ability to predict the future; myopia means myopia. It is predictive myopia that explains the inertia that individuals, societies and governments have when it comes to solving climate change. The IPCC report made it clear that the extraction of fossil fuels must be stopped as soon as possible, lest we be on the path to extinction. And yet on April 11, less than a week after the IPCC report, the Canadian government approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil project, which will produce 300 million barrels of oil off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. On April 15, the Biden administration announced that the Bureau of Land Management would resume and increase oil and gas leases on public land (breaking a campaign promise). In either case, this is exactly what the IPCC report says we must stop immediately if we are to prevent human extinction. This is prognostic myopia in action. It feels more important to address the threat of rising oil prices or economic stability in the here and now, even if that will accelerate our extinction a few decades from now. It’s both unforgivable and fully understandable in the context of human psychology.

However, calamus is different. He reacts to future threats as if they were a present danger, seemingly sidestepping the problem of prognostic myopia. His emotional response is raw, unyielding, and drives him to action. This is both extraordinary and admirable for human conditions. If we heed its warnings and act with the urgency described in the IPCC report, there is hope that our species will avoid extinction.

Admitting that people are ruled by impulsiveness and bullied into complacency by prognostic myopia in the face of cultural trauma is no excuse for inaction. We may not all think about the future like Peter Kalmus, but we can admit that we should listen to him. “People should unite, make significant efforts and take risks to wake up society,” he wrote to me. “Civil disobedience is the most effective thing I’ve found so far to fight against the cultural wall of inaction and despair.”

It’s more than likely that like most people, I’ll never feel the emotional connection to the problem of climate change that Calamus has. But since we know there is a psychological explanation for our lack of emotional involvement, we can instead turn to our intellect to guide our actions. We can choose to listen to these scientists literally yelling at us to do something. Maybe it’s time we let those who can feel the future guide us.

Read more about climate change and psychology:

Leave a Comment