Can Psychology Solve this Climate Conundrum?
January 13, 2011
This essay is in response to: How can we integrate scientific evidence into our climate and energy policy choices?
“The psychology of this is clearly the hardest part”
--From a personal
communication to me (12/02/08) from Andrew Revkin, award winning journalist,
editor, and originator of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog.
From antiquity, philosophers and theologians have thought
that we are not always rational creatures. They assumed that we are
fundamentally driven by our passions, most strikingly shown during falling in
and out of love, and that reason by itself is often too weak to control those
In our time, psychology has not only provided some proof for
those conclusions, but some methods for managing those emotions. The emotional
part of our brain, centered in the limbic system, evolved before mammals and
reptiles diverged. It doesn’t care much for the future, nor the big picture.
Rather, because the daily life of early Homo sapiens was so filled with danger,
our brain is hard-wired to respond with a fight-or-flight response to immediate
perceived danger, but not to danger years in the future. This evolutionary
legacy is part of the explanation for why many people do pleasant and rewarding
things over and over, such as overeating, abusing drugs, risky activities, and
not saving enough for retirement, whenever that is practically possible.
Our brain is also hard-wired to feel safer in an in-group
like us. Such tribalism makes it difficult to put the common needs of humanity
as a priority.
Yet another remnant of our evolutionary brain that is
relevant to our climate conundrum is to be uncomfortable with too much
uncertainty or information that seems conflicting. Perceiving that, we then
tend to resort to traditional, premature, or simplistic solutions to resolve
this emotional tension.
Safety and security comes first for us, as Maslow pointed
out in his hierarchy of human needs, and threats to that are met with (often
fierce) resistance. That may help explain why neuroimaging has shown that we
have such a strong aversion to loss that we generally err on the side of
maintaining the status quo.
The potential trouble with this evolution of our brain is
that evolutionary changes occur very, very slowly and are built over different
parts of our brain that evolved at different times in various environments and
in response to social pressures. The frontal lobe, our seat of reasoning,
evolved much more recently and can consider the future, but can be overwhelmed
when the older and still active limbic system senses danger. In medicine, we
see this most commonly in Posttraumatic Stress Disorders. Since modern life
does not usually have the immediate daily dangers of our ancestral life, this
kind of responsiveness may be stronger than needed and applied to situations
where it is not needed anymore.
As a consequence, it should then be no surprise that for so
many people, more immediate problems in finances, family, health, or politics,
will keep grabbing their attention and concern. For countries where the
industrialization fueled by fossil fuels made the bulk of their citizens feel
more safe, secure, and satisfied, why would they want to risk giving that up?
Countries who don’t have these gains want them. Powerful and successful energy
companies naturally resist a threat to their profits, though those involved may
end up with some unconscious guilt about their contribution to the climate
Add to all of this that there will be pockets of populations
that will probably benefit from climate change and want that to continue. Why,
some with certain religious beliefs will even feel that the destruction of the
earth is inevitable and/or necessary. Such sentiments may reflect Freud’s
controversial theory that humans may have a death instinct, a predilection for
our own destruction.
So, our emotions can certainly get in the way of addressing
climate change, but so can our cognitive processes. Cognitive acceptance of the
risks is also not so easy. If you happen to have been living in any part of the
USA, from my Milwaukee to Florida, that had suffered one of the coldest
Decembers on record, or suffered through the climate instability of the East
Coast “snow apocalypse,” wouldn’t you doubt the risk, and maybe even conclude
that some “global warming” would be good?
Even the term “global warming” might be comforting instead
of conveying concern. Similarly, the term “climate change” can imply a
desirable or detrimental change. Most businesses, and especially pharmaceutical
companies, know the emotional and cognitive value of what a name can convey.
Nuclear weapons, though still a significant risk, was an
easier target than the unprecedented prediction of climate disaster. World War
II clearly showed us what the bombs could do. Even if environmental disasters
like Hurricane Katrina were indeed related to climate change, that did not affect
many people directly, and the last Hurricane season in the USA was benign.
No wonder, then, that we seem to be stuck with such little
progress at international climate conferences and in many local environments.
What more can be done?
There are ways to make the risk seem more immediate and
therefore stimulating to our emotional core. Keep talking about the risks to
our current grandchildren. Use technology to visualize the projected risks. A
study in progress at Northwestern University uses computer images of one’s
aging self to increase empathy for the future. Those who saw reflections of
their aging selves over 20-30 years allocated twice as much money for
retirement as those who didn’t.
To allay cognitive dissonance, admit that the future risk is
not certain. Moreover, make it clearer that it is more risky to do nothing and
be wrong than to develop renewable and safer energy sources that will have many
other benefits besides. In other words, more people may now be convinced to
address climate instability if they think that the problem is a more immediate
one that is more readily apparent. It seems like there is good consensus that
currently our main energy supplies in the form of carbon-based oil and coal are
limited. At times, there has even been periods of crisis when oil and gas
supplies have been cut off and the cost of gas for automobiles in the USA
skyrocketed, causing citizen outrage and political upheaval. Some of our
current conflicts between nations rest in part on the distribution of which
countries have the most oil resources. Therefore, the problem surrounding our
climate can be reframed akin to how Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy reframes
how the depressed person views their problems. In the case of our climate, now
may be the time to emphasize the bigger and more immediate problem, which is
energy availability, sustainability, and safety. Like our common use of “global
warming” and “climate change,” we can add or substitute such sayings as “oil draining”
and “energy supply.”
Let’s change the
language that we use to stimulate the appropriate emotional response.
Substitute something like "global boiling" for "global warming." Substitute "climate instability" for "climate change." "Dirty fuel" sounds more worrisome
than "fossil fuel."
Use the behavioral principles of positive and negative
reinforcement, with the carrot more prominent than the stick, to guide
behavioral change. Significantly award and incentivize companies and
individuals in the desired direction, and advocate for financial penalties for
those who resist. Offer the possibility of public forgiveness instead of just
blame and criticism.
Identification with models that people want to emulate can
convert more. Find more celebrities, corporate executives, and charismatic
political leaders that embrace alternative energy and energy conservation,
including the need to slow the population growth that contributes to the
problem. Supplement that with your own influence of a lifestyle of change that
might be socially contagious.
Use some novel alternative approaches. Use humor to disarm
resisters. Use music, since it engages so many different areas of the brain.
How about a global anthem for going green?