Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change

Climate change is nothing new. We have known about this issue since the 1960s. When looking at the possible consequences, you would expect immediate and global action. We all know this is not what happened. So the question I cannot wrap my head around is: why do we keep procrastinating? Some important steps have been taken, but considering the scale of this issue we have not even started. How come? How is it possible for us to know that climate change is a threat but not feel that it is a threat? Let us try to find answers to those questions, which may help us find solutions. Bear with me.

People from Extinction Rebellion carrying a coffin with “Our future” on it to Buckingham Palace.

Blame the brain

The question is not whether we can stop climate change. To uncover the real problem we are forced to look into our own minds. It turns out that our brains are wired to ignore climate change. And there are several reasons for that. Climate change is complex, unfamiliar, invisible, slow-moving and intergenerational. It is not that we do not care, it is just such a complicated problem. In Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall concludes that you could hardly design a worse problem for the human brain to tackle.

Challenge No1: Visibility

Take the fact that carbon dioxide is invisible. This may seem trivial until you imagine if it were black and sticky. If that were the case, we would have dealt with this issue a long time ago.

Challenge No 2: Immortality

Climate change is mostly a rational issue. It does not trigger the emotional part of our brain, which is the most sensitive to danger. We respond to things that are personal, immoral, and disgusting. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, makes it very clear with this analogy:

“If global warming were caused by eating puppies, millions of people would be massing the streets.”

Challenge No 3: Enemy

We lack a common enemy. It is hard to blame one person, company or government when we are all personally responsible. That is why I had mixed feelings when Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement. It gave French President Emmanuel Macron the opportunity to form a united front with other world leaders against Trump and to raise their climate efforts.

Challenge No 4: Deadline

Taking action against climate change does not have a hard deadline. Today climate change is still seen as a distant problem. Distant in space: “This will only harm developing countries,” and distant in time: “This is an issue the next generations can deal with.” As humans, we are most sensitive to abrupt changes and tend to ignore slow-moving events. That is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published reports to stress the urgency with which we should act. As Barack Obama said during a campaign rally for his second term in 2014:

“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

Challenge No 5: Uncertainty

Uncertainty is likely to be the most important reason why individuals, companies and governments ignore climate change. As with any complex issue, it can be read in terms of layers of confidence. There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. When scientists say uncertain, many people hear unsure. This uncertainty about future outcomes is a key factor for people to act in their own short-term self-interest.

Challenge No 6: Reinforcement

There is no immediate punishment for pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. You do not get slapped in the face for eating a giant steak, driving an SUV or travelling by plane. More importantly, you do not get flowers when you do try to reduce your ecological footprint. There is no positive reinforcement. Let us consider the gain and loss theory. Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences Daniel Kahneman states that the best way to encourage behavioural change is by offering a clear gain. George Marshall, expert in climate change communications, explains the painful truth:

“Of all possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against uncertain longer-term loss.”

Challenge No 7: Scale

Facing these problems — together with the challenges of an ever growing population — is so overwhelming, that we tend to grow numb. Spreading fear and guilt does not set people in motion. It paralyses us, which is the exact opposite of what we aim to accomplish.

Melting permafrost creating one giant crater, releasing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Change the frame

The way we communicate about climate change is fundamentally wrong. It is typically framed as solely an environmental issue. As if only Greenpeace activists and tree huggers should care. News reports usually show images of polluting factories, melting ice caps, starving polar bears and dying coral reefs. Many of these photos almost unconsciously tell people that climate change indeed is a distant problem that will not affect us personally. But it is about so much more than rising sea levels and forest fires.

Mother of all problems

What many people do not know is that a changing climate will trigger other global crises. With the global weather becoming more unpredictable, droughts are lasting longer and rain seasons are getting more extreme. For example, growing food is already becoming much harder. The United Nations reports that over the past three years global hunger has been on the rise, returning to levels from a decade ago. Harvest failure can lead to poverty and instability in certain regions, which could cause violent conflicts with people fleeing their country. In short: climate change can be defined as an environmental problem, an economic problem, a health problem, an energy problem, a demographic problem, and so on. And yet, there is hope.

65,000 people participated in the largest climate march in Belgium yet.

Greatest time to be alive

Yes, the challenges are immense. But pessimism will not set people in motion. That is why we need to change the way we communicate about climate change and turn it into a more positive yet realistic narrative. For example, it is extremely fortunate that climate change is occurring now, during the longest period of peace in the developed world. There is no such thing as perfect timing, but this is as good as it gets. We live in a time in which the combination of human creativity, technology, wealth, knowledge and international corporation may be able to respond to it. The tools available have never been more abundant. Johan Norberg states that we have made more progress over the last 100 years than in the first 100,000. You may not believe it when watching the news, but now is the greatest time to be alive. Let us keep it that way for future generations.

Taking action

As said before, your actions as an individual may seem negligible. However, there is proof that we can beat the psychological triggers — or the lack of it. The majority of people across the world accept that climate change is a major threat and are willing to support the necessary changes. Many currently feel isolated, but could easily be mobilised if their hopes and concerns are heard within a larger community. We are social creatures. That is why I am thrilled that 65,000 people showed up for the Claim the Climate march in Brussels last Sunday. It shows people that they are not alone and that together we can deliver a clear message to policy makers at the COP24 in Katowice and to politicians to take the necessary actions. Not after the next elections. Now.

Power to the consumer

A strong political message is crucial. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that changing our consumer behaviour is an even more powerful tool. We as consumers have the power to make managers rethink their business models, demanding them to do business in a more sustainable way. Because yes, in the end it is all about staying profitable. Therefore, do not buy crap from companies that only care about their profits. Think about where your electricity comes from. And try to reduce your meat consumption. Livestock accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is about equal to all transportation — cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships — combined. To me, Anna Lappé, known for her work as a sustainable food advocate, could not have said it better:

“Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

What kind of world do you want?

Source : https://medium.com/@janlammens/why-we-fail-to-act-on-climate-change-e552f280c478

Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change


Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change

Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change


Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change

Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change


Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change

Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change


Why The Wiring Of Our Brains Makes It Hard To Stop Climate Change