Daniel Kahneman is not hopeful. “I am very sorry,” he told me, “but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”
Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision-making. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. He regards climate change as a perfect trigger: a distant problem requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. This combination is exceptionally hard for us to accept, he told me.
Kahneman’s views are widely shared by cognitive psychologists. As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University says: “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.”
People from other disciplines also seem to view climate change as a “perfect” problem. Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect Market failure”. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle says it is a “perfect moral storm”. Everyone, it seems, shapes climate change in their own image.
Which points to the real problem: climate change is exceptionally amorphous. It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process and evaluate information about the world, but find none. And so we impose our own. This is a perilous situation, leaving climate change wide open to another of Kahneman’s biases – an “assimilation bias” that bends information to fit people’s existing values and prejudices.
So is climate change really innately challenging, or does it just seem so because of the stories we have shaped around it? For example, the overwhelming and possibly hopeless struggle portrayed by the media and many campaigners provokes feelings of powerlessness. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and endless talk of uncertainty. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the word ”uncertain” more than once per page.
Discussions about economics, meanwhile, invariably turn into self-defeating cost-benefit analyses. Stern offers a choice between spending 1 per cent of annual income now, or risking losing 20 percent of it in 50 years’ time. This language is almost identical to that Kahneman used two decades earlier in his experiments on loss aversion. Is it surprising that when a choice is framed like this, policymakers are intuitively drawn towards postponing action and taking a gamble on the future?
If cost and uncertainty really are universal psychological barriers, it is hard to explain why 15 percent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. Most of the people in this group are left wing or environmentalists and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.
Conservatives may justify climate inaction of the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they too, are able to accept both as long as they speak to their core values. As former US vice-president and climate skeptic Dick Cheney said: “If there is only a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”
Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they do not volunteer it.
This silence is similar to that found around human rights abuses, argued the late Stanley Cohen, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. He suggested that we know very well what is happening but “enter into unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged”.
Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal disavowal: unwillingness to face our own mortality, says neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York. She argues that overt images of death and decay along with the deeper implications of societal decline and collapse are powerful triggers for denial of mortality.
There is a great deal of research showing that people respond to reminders of death with aggressive assertion of their own group identity. Dickinson argues that political polarization and angry denial found around climate change is consistent with this “terror management theory”. Again, there is a complex relationship between our psychology and the narratives that we construct to make sense of climate change.
For all of these reasons, it is a mistake to assume that the scientific evidence of climate change will flow directly into action – or, conversely, that climate denial can be dismissed as mere misinformation. The systems that govern our attitudes are just as complex as those that govern energy and carbon, and just as subject to feedbacks that exaggerate small differences between people. The problem itself is far from perfect and the situation is not hopeless, but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction.
New Scientist; August 2014; editorial by George Marshall (founder of Climate Outreach and information Network in Oxford, UK)
Comment: This opens a rather large gap in human thought processes that threatens our survival. Do we have the wherewithal to correct the problem in time to save human society or to, at least, save it from doing severe damage to itself?
(Review and comments by Ron Miller)