Climate is not the perfect cognitive challenge but its amorphous nature creates the ideal conditions for human denial and cognitive bias to come to the fore
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 that 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 the other cognitive psychologists I interviewed for my new book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. As Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and best selling author on happiness, told me: “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 is confident that they have found the real reason why we find it so hard to act on climate change. Climate scientists say that people don’t understand the science. Environmental campaigners say that the political process is corrupted by oil companies. Oil companies say that the political process is corrupted by environmental campaigners. Mark Berliner, a professor of statistics at Ohio State University, says that our failure comes from our “aversion to statistical thinking.” And communications specialists such as myself say—lo and behold—that the main reason why people have not responded to this threat has been because of failed communications.
If climate change really is the “elephant in the room”, it is a pitch black room, and, like the blind men in Rumi’s ancient fable, we are all feeling different parts of it and drawing our own, culturally biased conclusions about what they might be.
Which points to the real problem: climate change is exceptionally amorphous, even slippery, problem. It is multivalent—that is to say, it is open to multiple meanings and interpretations. 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 information about the world and evaluate threats. And we find none.
And so we impose our own and shape shape it, like jelly (jell-o to Americans) in the mold of our own values and worldviews. This is a dangerous situation, leaving climate change wide open for miscategorization and, another of Kahneman’s biases, an assimiliation bias that shapes climate change according to peoples pre-held assumptions.
Which raises a further question: is climate change really cognitively challenging at all? Or does it just seem so because of the stories that communicators shape around it?
For example, the media and many campaigners present it as an overwhelming and possibly hopeless struggle – leading to feelings of powerlessness. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and their constant 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 per cent of it in 50 years’ time. What sounds like an easy choice (a ‘no-brainer’ we could say) to him is actually disconcertingly similar to the language used in Daniel Kahneman’s famous experiments into temporal discounting. And, not surprisingly it produces the same result: phrased as a choice, people are innately biased to postponing action and taking a gamble on the future. What is more, politicians and business leaders are especially to prone to what Kahneman would call the ‘optimism bias’ – the tendency to overestimate their own luck and skill- and are all too willing to take this gamble.
Clearly cost and uncertainty cannot be overwhelming or universal psychological barriers when polls consistently find that 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. What is important is that these people have political convictions that can readily trump the cognitive challenges. Most of the people in this group have left wing politics or environmentalist values 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 on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both for other issues that speak to their core values. Mitt Romney, the first US presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a 1 per cent 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 cannot even recall that it exists.
This disavowal 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 avoidance: our unwillingness to face our own mortality. Neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York argues that the overt images of death and decay associated with climate change (along with its deeper implications of societal decline and collapse) are proxies for the denial of mortality. She draws on the large body of research evidence of Terror Management Theory, first developed by the anthropologist Ernest Becker, that finds that people respond to death salience with an aggressive assertion of their own in-group identity. Dickinson argues that this is entirely consistent with the angry denial and political polarization found around climate change.
And we appear to cope with climate change in similar ways to our fear of death too- recognising its reality but deliberately creating distance and stripping it of the qualities that would cause us anxiety. We cannot stand to think of the death of our own children, but we accept that they will die after we ourselves have died. Similarly, we can avoid the fear of climate change by placing its impacts beyond our own life span. In focus groups, people often do this quite openly, justifying their indifference with the observation that it is all in the future, when they will be long since dead and gone.
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.
This article is an expended version of an article in appeared in New Scientist issue 2982 on 18th August 2014 in the print edition under the headline “Hear no climate evil” and online as Understand faulty thinking to tackle climate change link…
The ideas and interviews were taken from George Marshall’s new book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change published by Bloomsbury US.