How a brain quirk keeps us from worrying about climate change

On the 6th of April, Dr. Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist and author, walked 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 about the climate crisis to a group of supporters.

“We’ve been trying to warn you for so many decades that we’re heading for a fucking catastrophe,” he says in a video of the protest that has since gone. go viral on twitter. “And we end up being ignored. The scientists of the world are being ignored. And this has to stop. We’re going to lose everything.”

Like me, Kalmus is a scientist – passionate about discovering the nature of reality. A reality threatened by the rapid rise in 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 engaging in non-violent civil disobedience”.

Watching Kalmus deliver his impassioned speech on the bank steps, I feel both humiliated and envious. I wonder why I don’t seem to care about the climate crisis as much as he does. The best explanation of my perspective as a cognitive scientist involves a fundamental flaw in my human psychology: the inability to care so much about what happens in the distant future. But I wondered how Peter Kalmus could explain the audience’s apparent lack of enthusiasm when it comes to fighting the good fight. So I wrote to him to ask.

“I think media climate denial plays a big role here,” he wrote me. “Bundles and bits and pieces of the emergency are reported (and it’s scary), but it’s not related to the future and how they will affect civilization, meaning the potential 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,” wrote Mark Hertsgaard, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and one of the co-founders of Covering Climate Now, a media collaboration struggling to get more coverage. news about the climate crisis. And when these stories are told, they rarely talk about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, but they present hopeful (and often delusional) solutions.

“The effectively irreversible nature of most climate impacts is also never mentioned,” Kalmus wrote. “Instead, often technological ‘solutions’ are highlighted, or a sense that we still have ‘budget’ for some warming milestone (eg 2°C) that is implied to be ‘safe’. So there is no urgency in the media.”

The thing is, I understand the urgency. And yet, I do next to nothing about it. I spend most of my days reading books, watching Netflix and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I’m not acting like there’s a climate emergency.

The thing is, I understand the urgency. I read the conclusions presented in the third volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on April 4th. It was a document filled with unmistakably dire warnings and the catalyst for Kalmus’ protest. He warns that we are on course for a rise in global temperature far beyond the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement (and possibly towards 3°C) by the end of the century, with no working plan to stop it. . to happen. Just to be clear, this could make most of the planet uninhabitable for our species. I to meet it is. And yet, I do next to nothing about it. I spend most of my days reading books, watching Netflix and planning dinner. Like almost everyone on this planet, I’m not acting like there’s a climate emergency.

It is possible that I, like many others, am behaving in a manner common to someone processing the threat of imminent cultural trauma. This is a term to refer to a horrendous event that irrevocably changes a society’s identity or destroys the social order. A common response to an imminent threat of this magnitude is to fight to maintain the the status quo. In doing so, a kind of social inertia arises in which people do everything they can to continue living their lives the way they have always lived, despite the implosion of society. Perhaps I, like so many others, am fully aware of the dire results of climate change, but my mind generates a kind of trauma-avoiding denial that shields me from reality. This helps me tune the IPCC report and tune “Bridgerton” instead.

There is, however, a psychological answer even older than denial that could explain why I, like so many others, am not chaining myself to benches in the face of humanity’s imminent extinction.

Edward Wasserman is a psychologist who studies animal behavior and author of the book “As If By Design” which offered an elegantly simple explanation of why humans are so bad at dealing with climate change. It comes down to how all animals – including humans – were designed by evolution to deal with common everyday problems like finding food, security 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 main driver of behavior – are designed to force us to act based on the potential for immediate reward.

“Being the first to detect a ripe fruit or a deadly predator can give an organism only a short time span to engage in adaptive action,” Wasserman wrote in his blog for Psychology Today. “This reality leads organisms to act impulsively. However, such impulsiveness is obviously at odds with appreciating and fighting the growing 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 main driver of behavior – are designed to force us to act based on the potential for immediate reward.

Humans are unique because, at some point in the last 250,000 years, we developed the ability to think far into the future. We can contemplate how our lives could be months or even years into the future – something no other animal species can do (as far as we know). But this newly developed cognitive skill works separately from the old emotional system that generates everyday animal behavior.

If you, for example, decide to invest in a retirement savings plan, it’s because you’ve resorted to a complex intellectual calculus about what your life might look like decades into the future. There’s nothing immediately satisfying about saving money right now. Pension schemes aren’t impulsive acts that generate dopamine rushes, like drinking a quisi, solving 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 denote this disconnect between the human capacity to think about the distant future and our inability to actually to sense strongly about that future. Prognosis means the ability to predict the future; myopia means myopia. It is prognostic myopia that explains the inertia that individuals, societies and governments have when it comes to tackling climate change. The IPCC report made it clear that fossil fuel extraction needed to cease as quickly as possible so that we could not set ourselves on a course of 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 extract 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 will resume and thereby increase oil and gas leasing on public lands (breaking a campaign promise). In either case, this is exactly what the IPCC report said we must stop doing immediately if we are to avoid human extinction. This is prognostic myopia in action. This feelings more importantly, face the threat of rising oil prices or the stability of the economy here and now, even if it accelerates our demise by a few decades. It is inexcusable and completely understandable in the context of human psychology.

Kalmus, however, is different. He is reacting to future threats as if they were a present danger, apparently avoiding the problem of prognostic myopia. His emotional reaction is raw, unyielding and prompts him to act. This is exceptional as far as human conditions are concerned and admirable. If we heed their warnings and act with the urgency described in the IPCC report, there is hope that our species will avoid extinction.

Admitting that humans are ruled by impulsiveness and intimidated by indifference to the cultural trauma of prognostic myopia is no excuse for inaction. We may not feel the same way about the future as Peter Kalmus, but we can admit that we should listen to him. “People should come together, make a significant effort and take risks to wake up society,” he wrote me. “Civil disobedience is the most effective thing I’ve found so far to fight the cultural wall of inaction and despair.”

It is more than likely that I, like most people, will never feel the emotional connection to the climate change problem that Kalmus does. But knowing that there is a psychological explanation for our lack of emotional investment, we can appeal to our intellect to guide our actions. We can decide to listen to these scientists literally screaming for us to do something. Maybe it’s time we let those who can feel the future guide us into it.

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