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Why Our Brains Can’t Understand Climate Change

George-Marshall-2-110815In his new book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall tells the story of what happened at a dinner party when the conversation turned to everyone’s latest vacation trips. One of the guests commented that the airline flights to exotic destinations are having an impact on climate change and that our children are going to be paying the price in years to come.

The room went very quiet. Then a guest decided to break the ice. “My word,” she said, “what a lovely spinach tart.” Oh yes, everyone agreed emphatically, it was a very lovely spinach tart … and they spent the next ten minutes talking about the tart, the fresh spinach, and the recipe.

It’s not just that no one wants to talk about climate change; it’s that no one wants to talk about the fact that no one wants to talk about it. Not just the silence, but the silence about the silence.

Marshall’s short and easy-to-read book assumes you already know the planet is in big trouble. His focus is on why we seem to be so completely incapable of doing anything about it. Our brains, he explains, are wired to avoid the subject – and not only at dinner parties.

Just look at some of the weird ways we behave in the face of reality.

Why, for example, do the victims of flooding, drought, and severe storms become less willing to talk about climate change or even accept that it is real?

dont-think-about-it-110815Why is it that the very people who say that climate change is too uncertain to believe are easily convinced of the imminent dangers of far more uncertain things like terrorist attacks, asteroid strikes, even alien invasions?

And speaking of “uncertainty”: Why, during the 2012 election campaign, would the intelligent, successful Mitt Romney deny the reality of climate change, based on its “uncertainty”, while, at the very same time, arguing for more spending on the military on the basis that “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.”

And why, similarly, would former V.P. Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, based on its “uncertainty”, say that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”?

(And don’t say it’s because they’re conservative Republicans. The guests at the spinach tart dinner party were all liberal professionals.)

As the title of the books suggests, it’s all to do with how our brains work. And if we don’t understand what’s going on in our heads, it’s going to be impossible to change our behavior.

“Climate change is a threat that our evolved brains are uniquely unsuited to do a damned thing about.”Marshall talks to several psychologists who understand what’s going on and aren’t very optimistic about where we’re headed. As Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert tells him, “Climate change is a threat that our evolved brains are uniquely unsuited to do a damned thing about.”

“Let’s just get back to normal.” Studies show, for example, that people who survive climate disasters tend to emerge with a sense of invulnerability, telling themselves that “I survived that, so I can survive anything else that can happen.” (The same is the case with people who escape car accidents unscathed.) So, contrary to what you’d expect, a community recovering from a climate-related disaster turns out to be the place where people are least likely to want to talk about what’s happening to our planet.

Another reason for not wanting to talk or think about what’s happening is that the need for everything to get back to “normal” takes over our mental processes after a disaster.

san-andreas-110815(Think of the last words in the earthquake movie San Andreas: As the family surveys the catastrophe around them, one of the kids asks “What now?” Their heroic dad smiles encouragingly and says: “Now we rebuild.”)

This need to get back to “normal” explains why, in parts of the country that are regularly being hit by climate-related disasters, people still keep re-electing climate change deniers to Congress:

“I’m not being attacked by a climate change.” Another reason for our inability to deal with climate change is that over the thousands of years of our early evolution, when we were living on the plains of Africa, we became very good at confronting threats that were right in our face, like a pack of lions bearing down on one’s family. Our ancestors weren’t worrying about what was happening 50 miles away or what might happen next year. And our brains haven’t had time to learn to deal with threats that we can’t see and touch and that are maybe 5 to 50 years away.

lions-shutterstock_75160930-110815Stick with the crowd! Another thing we learned on the plains of Africa was that when that lion was bearing down on us, there was safety in numbers. So you were better off going with the group than going your own way – even if your way was the better way. That way of thinking is still with us. So most of us don’t want to stand out from the crowd, even if we know for sure that something bad is happening.

If your views on climate change differ from the socially held views, you find yourself balancing two risks: the uncertain and diffused risk of climate change as opposed to the certain and very personal social risk of opposing the norm … People often decide that it may be better to say nothing at all about climate change, even with their close friends.

Hence the silence at that dinner party.

Don’t think about dying! Marshall is also familiar with the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker. Climate change, he explains, reminds us of our own mortality, which is something we just don’t want to think about.

Becker argued that a fear of death lies at the center of all human belief. The denial of death, he argued, is a “vital lie” that leads us to invest our efforts into our cultures and social groups to obtain a sense of permanence and survival beyond our death. Thus, he argued, when we receive reminders of our death, we respond by defending those values and cultures.

… When the reminder of mortality is subtle or so subliminal that people do not even notice it, they display a greatly enhanced sense of the superiority of their own social group, and that can lead them to give increased attention to status, money, and improved self-image. Becker believed that our innate way of coping with our death is to invest our energy in our social group and its achievement— what he called our “immortality project.”

In those terms, climate change denial fits right into how we deal with our anxiety over our mortality. But more than that, once you understand that we’re now in the early stages of a mass extinction event, the knowledge of what’s happening can take your mortality anxiety to a whole other level. Marshall quotes environmental activist Bill McKibben as saying:

“We all know we are going to die, and we used to be able to cope with this with the thought that our life was contributing to something larger that would survive us. Now even that has been taken away from us.”

In her book Ask the Beasts, theologian Elizabeth Johnson makes the same point. “Death cuts off life,” she writes, “but extinction cuts off birth.”

And philosopher Samuel Scheffler explores the effect on people when they contemplate not just their own death, but the possibility of extinction:

If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work. (It would be unlikely, after all, that a cure would be found in your lifetime, and even it were, how much good would it do in the time remaining?) Likewise if you were an engineer working to improve the seismic safety of bridges, or an activist trying to reform our political or social institutions or a carpenter who cared about building things to last. What difference would these endeavors make, if the destruction of the human race was imminent?

… Our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves.

When we contemplate our own death, we’re comforted by the notion that what we’ve accomplished – whether building bridges, raising children or writing blog posts – will live on. This knowledge gives life meaning and purpose. But what happens when we begin to confront the extinction of our whole species, maybe even every species? There’s nothing in our history – our whole evolutionary experience – that’s prepared us to deal with this.

No wonder Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells Marshall bluntly:

“This is not what you might want to hear. I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

A lesson from religion? So, where do we go from there? It’s hard to get people to read a book about catastrophe that doesn’t end on a hopeful note, and Marshall gives it his best shot. If we are to overcome all these psychological barriers so that we can get out of denial and take meaningful action, he says, we would do well to take a lesson from some of the world’s most successful religions. After all, religions are in the business of getting us to believe in things that might be hard to accept at face value. They bypass our logical brain and appeal to our emotional brain with mythic stories like the Exodus and the Resurrection.

Powerful, mythic stories like these build strong communities. That’s why, in the United States, only 5 percent of people are members of environmental organizations, but more than 70 percent identify with a religious faith, and more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves to be born-again or evangelical Christians. We would do well to take a lesson from religions that are in the business of getting us to believe in things that are hard to accept.

Climate scientists, of course, don’t like talking about climate change in terms of emotionally resonant stories and beliefs. Theirs is a world of rationality and a quest for objective truth. But that’s not how our minds work, which is why so many people talk of climate change as something they do or don’t “believe” in.

Marshall points out that religions are also in the business of helping us cope with the guilt we feel over who we are and what we’ve done and the harm we’ve caused to others. But there’s little help available to people who acknowledge the damage we humans have caused to the planet and experience a sense of guilt or grief over it. A few online forums and books, but nothing compared to what religions offer to alleviate the sense of sin we humans carry around with us.

So while there’s no suggestion that it’s time to open the First Church of Climate Change, Marshall argues that thought leaders in the environmental movement would do well to talk about climate change not only in terms of facts and figures and predictions, but also with the language of shared belief, shared values and shared community.

People in the animal protection community have a powerful sense of shared values, based simply on the sanctity of all life.There are, in fact, people who are already doing that, but Marshall, who is very familiar with people in the environmental and psychological communities, probably hasn’t connected much with people in the animal protection community who are working, all over the world, to save the lives of orangutans in the rainforests, snow leopards in the Himalayas, wolves in Yellowstone, sea turtles and sharks in the oceans, frogs everywhere, and all the hundreds and thousands of other species who are disappearing in front of their eyes. Those who work, for example, among the elephants in Africa, know these animals by name and as individuals. And they grieve deeply as, one by one, the lives of these animals are violently taken.

Perhaps better than anyone else, these folks understand the impact we humans are having on nature and on our fellow animals. Their emotional brains are already fully connected to what’s happening, and they have a powerful sense of shared values, based simply on the sanctity of life – not just human life but all life.

Marshall does talk briefly about the need “to invoke the nonnegotiable sacred values … that prohibit inflicting harm on the weak or innocent and abusing God’s creation,” but he might want to explore the world of people for whom this is their work and their life. Both he and they could benefit from each other’s insights.

Regardless, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change will give you a really good understanding of the psychology of climate change denial – and denialism just generally. And that’s something we all need to know about.

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