Freelance journalist Beth Gardiner wrote an editorial called We're All Climate Change Idiots which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review on July 21, 2012. There are valuable insights in it, though they are not the ones Beth had in mind when she wrote it.
Climate change is staring us in the face. The science is clear, and the need to reduce planet-warming emissions has grown urgent. So why, collectively, are we doing so little about it?
Yes, that's the Big Question.
Yes, there are political and economic barriers, as well as some strong ideological opposition, to going green.
As you'll see shortly, Beth does not explicitly refer to the economic barriers to "going green" again. That's a glaring omission, dontcha think?
But researchers in the burgeoning field of climate psychology have identified another obstacle, one rooted in the very ways our brains work. The mental habits that help us navigate the local, practical demands of day-to-day life, they say, make it difficult to engage with the more abstract, global dangers posed by climate change.
Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who studies the behavioral barriers to combating climate change, calls these habits of mind “dragons of inaction.”
- We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions.
- We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains.
- And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Next we get an invaluable insight into opinions about climate change. This is where Beth starts to go off the rails.
Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant. A new study by the psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, published in last month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that participants seated in a room with a ficus tree lacking foliage were considerably more likely to say that global warming was real than were those in a room with a ficus tree that had foliage.
As I've said in the past, no one who is unfamiliar with the climate science is entitled to an opinion about whether global warming is real, a view which is made stronger still if those opinions are influenced by whether the ficus tree has foilage or not. Nevertheless, and regardless of the health of the ficus tree, Beth still thinks it matters what people think about global warming.
We also tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our minds, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Dan M. Kahan, a Yale Law School professor who studies risk and science communication, says this is crucial to understanding the intense political polarization on climate change.
He and his research colleagues have found that people with more hierarchical, individualistic worldviews (generally conservatives) sense that accepting climate science would lead to restraints on commerce, something they highly value, so they often dismiss evidence of the risk. Those with a more egalitarian, community-oriented mind-set (generally liberals) are likely to be suspicious of industry and very ready to credit the idea that it is harming the environment.
There are ways to overcome such prejudices...
And there you have it—liberals and conservatives. Prejudices? I want to address the liberals in the crowd. I've got some bad news for you. There are many layers of confusion here, so let's unpack them.
First, consider this sentence: conservatives sense that accepting climate science would lead to constraints on commerce. Not accepting the science is indeed a prejudice, but the truth of the matter is that doing something about global warming would lead to constraints on commerce, to wit—
- Burning fossil fuels results in carbon dioxide emissions.
- Such emissions amplify the greenhouse effect.
- We burn fossil fuels to access the vast amounts of latent energy they contain.
- Without that energy, most human commerce would come to a grinding halt.
This is the 7000-pound elephant in the room that liberals don't want to see. It explains why CO2 emissions can be used as a proxy for (alternative measurement of) economic growth. That growth is inextricably bound to energy consumption. See my post Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable. So-called "renewable" energy sources can not now, and likely never will, come anywhere close to replacing all the energy we get from fossil fuels.
If push came to shove, and humankind started radically reducing emissions at something like the rate required to mitigate global warming, industrial economies would all but disappear. And nobody, I mean nobody, liberals and conservatives alike, would be happy with that result. Those emissions would reappear faster than you can say "global depression."
See my post For Humans, The Economy Is Everything.
So while it is true that Robert Gifford's "dragons of inaction" (listed above) are definitely in play psychologically, the real problem is the 7000-pound elephant in the room which Beth Gardiner never discussed.
Surprise, surprise! Beth doesn't see the elephant! It's invisible!
Beth is right: we're all climate change idiots. Unfortunately, she is wrong about why. Global warming is not a political issue. It is a human issue. It's all about that invisible 7000-pound elephant.