Climate Change & Human Denial

I was forwarded an old (well 2006) article from the LA Times by Daniel Gilbert – you know the one who wrote Stumbling on Happiness’.

Great image!!

I want to post his full article here as a precursor to talking about Climate Change yet again.

NO ONE seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won’t involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

The second reason why global warming doesn’t put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn’t force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain’s call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

The third reason why global warming doesn’t trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That’s what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain’s most stunning innovations, and we wouldn’t have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.

There is a fourth reason why we just can’t seem to get worked up about global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn’t happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.

The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.

It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.

I find Gilbert’s take on the way humans look at their world around them fascinating. His mention that the rate of climate change is so slow as to pass us by without notice must be juxtaposed with the remarkable flooding and now huge cyclone to affect Australia. And what about the heaviest snow and coldest winter the UK and parts of Europe have experienced for decades?

Even when extraordinary events DO happen, we seem to sit back and ho hum our way through denial with comments about the way the planet is and nothing is new and certainly not allowing for any anthropogenic influence whatsoever. The planet is just doing its ‘thing’. Oh, it must be the La Nina effect or in previous years, the El Nino effect. Always something else but never us – we don’t contribute to it at all.

Good image of what goes on

I suppose this also has to do with our 70 odd year life span. We can’t seem to use our brains to think ahead about potential scenarios. We are so caught up in the moment.

I want to write about Prof. Ross Garnaut’s address yesterday at the Monash Sustainability Institute in Melbourne, entitled “Weighing the costs and benefits of climate change action”. This is the first of 8 instalments to his 2010 update of his paper on Climate Change in 2006.

He addresses the problem of why people feel they shouldn’t pay now for benefits that will only be realised in another generation. His point is that the only justification for valuing the wellbeing of those in the future less than our own is the belief that humans may suddenly become extinct. While some think that, others certainly don’t. And it aids and abets laziness, greed, profit and idleness for the apparently short time humans have left.

To my mind it is not a good tack to take. It is, of course, easier to reach the conclusion that we have passed the tipping point and a lot of scientists think that – Lovelock being only one.

Someone said to me recently about religites who believe passionately in heaven and their future ‘life’, to ask them the question – What if none of it is true? What do you do then? How would you live your life now?

I guess the same questions could be asked of climate change deniers. What if it is all true – how would you live your life now?


6 comments on “Climate Change & Human Denial

  1. Michelle B says:

    Comprehensive grasp on why this danger is so hard to appreciate. Gilbert is a wonderful writer. Your ending point is excellent, V.

  2. Veronique says:

    I like Gilbert’s writing as well. I don’t know why I never saw his article until yesterday when it was forwarded to me.

    Ross Garnaut will be the next person I look at. The comments to the report on his lecture seems full of deniers and in Australia and at this point in time with the mess that is currently eastern Australia. Unbelievable.

  3. Rosie says:

    What a gift to be able to write wisely with wit! Thanks for this, and for passing on the crucial question. Sadly, it relies on imagination, and I just wonder whether that is becoming a human scarcity? I heard an interesting distinction today between cynicism and scepticism, and have decided to be more active in the latter field than the former which just makes for more gloom…

    • Veronique says:

      Oh, I think we are still imaginative, Rosie. It is just that our imaginations run away with the clouds instead of being grounded!!

      Scepticism is a definite yes. Cynicism doesn’t get us very far, I agree. Nice to hear from you.

  4. colin says:

    I am no fan of Pascal’s Wager as it applies to theology, but it is a very effective tool when debating all but the craziest “anti-zionist” climate change cynic (i hesitate to use the words “denier” or “sceptic” in this instance, i shall purloin the fine suggestion from Rosie above).

    • Veronique says:

      Indeed, Colin, it can work extremely effectively. I am constantly blown away by the climate change blinkered members of our species. I mean, why wouldn’t anyone accept that our somewhat rapacious tenure and record of decimation (well, rather more than that actually) of our own planetary resources has some effect on the tenuous chemical balance that keeps this place operating?

      It seems quite obvious that 6.8 billion of us in varying stages of planetary rapacity cannot help but have effect. What is so hard about seeing that? Understanding the effects – well that is more difficult but the concept just isn’t that difficult.

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