The Climate Changes, But Will Our Minds?

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that warming trends throughout the past century are very likely of an anthropogenic nature. Sea acidification levels, caused by the saturation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, are at a 300-million-year high, which is threatening the existence of sea and human life. And, on top of all of this, many scientists now claim that previously predicted climate change timelines are a little too optimistic.

But amid all of this observable change and big data, have we changed our minds? According to the Pew Research Center, we haven’t. Just 42 percent of Americans believe climate change is mostly anthropogenic, according to a poll conducted in March of 2013.

Daniel Gilbert, scientist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, proposes that our reasoning might be, well, in our heads. The nature of climate change denial, he finds, may be less of a consciously-held decision, and much more of a default propensity.

Gilbert, a Harvard University professor of psychology, reasons that the human brain is only quick to respond to threats that fulfill four characteristics, all of which, he states, fall short of our current framing of climate change. First, he argues, threats that hold some sort of intention — some sort of actor — are naturally among our most feared. We focus our attention on matters that have a knowable, distinct cause, like terrorism or a street fight. The origins of climate change, however, are a complex unification of factors on a global scale. Scientists have found that its causes may be anthropogenic, natural, or a combination of the two, which inhibits our ability to place fault on a single wrongdoer.

Next, he finds, climate change doesn’t easily engage our moral groundings. This notion proposes that, for example, the deplorable acts of serial killers are far more impactful to us than the emission of greenhouse gases. More importantly, we appraise acts like these as immediately immoral — there is no ambiguity. While many have argued that global warming is a moral issue since it poses the greatest threats to the disadvantaged and the unborn, we can more readily frame the issue as amoral, given its shrouded, unfocused origins.

The last two characteristics deal with time. The human brain is great at responding to and making immediate changes, but the changes associated with global warming tend to occur on large, geological timescales. What propels us into action is largely related to its immediacy, and thus, what falls out of view of our myopia also falls out of our agenda. This gains frightening perspective with another glance at Pew Research data: A relatively-high 47 percent of polled Americans viewed climate change as primarily motivated by human activity in 2008, while a low 34 percent believed so in 2010. This suggests that the numbers may hold dependency on the year’s meteorological events, as such occurrences provide the ignition for powerful, deeply emotional experiences.

But what can we learn from all of this? It may be that policy-makers need to better account for our natural nearsightedness and direct more energy to more extensive applications of sustainability, since these sorts of goals may pose greater benefits. We may have to frame any such sustainable development as deeply moral, urgently needed, and ours — as something we, as everyday observers, can accomplish. Doing so not only alleviates the burden our carbon footprints pose on future generations, but also paints our actions in a more meaningful and morally imperative light.

Image Credit: By Brian Jeffery Beggerly (Flickr: IMG_2083) [CC-BY-2.0 (]


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