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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Can Psychology Solve this Climate Conundrum?

Posted on January 13, 2011

By H. Steven Moffic, MD

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 drives.

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 conundrum.

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?


Ronald Pies MD said ..

Kudos to Dr. Moffic for "nailing" the evolutionary psychology, as well as providing some practical ways of counteracting our tendency to avoid constructive, long-term change. --Ron Pies MD

January 18, 2011
Dave King said ..

Here in Portland some folks are trying to bring the issue of unemployment together with climate instability. We believe that only a massive mobilization of resources on the scale of WWll will be effective in dealing with the necessary reduction of carbon emissions. Such an effort would provide work for everyone able to work and then some. Bringing this idea to unemployed people and their supporters has proved to be an effective way to interest people in learning more about global boiling.

January 14, 2011
Larry Carney said ..

A really good and interesting article, with helpful ideas. I always find interesting the interplay between our general ideas and our dealing with them in the concrete realities of life...being active and passsive, and when to be either. We know smoking is bad, but do it anyway. We're social creatures too, and "everyone else is doing it." I guess we have to keep acting to gradually change the attitudes of ourselves and everyone else...and just hope and pray beyond that.

January 14, 2011

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