How Greed, Fear and Our Own Biases Blind Us to the Realities of Climate Change
The Climate Science Special Report that the Trump administration released last Friday is straightforward and relentlessly sobering. Scientists from 13 government agencies agree that the long-term global warming trend is "unambiguous" and that human activity is responsible. There is, they tell us, "no convincing alternative explanation."
Meanwhile, the president whose administration released the report maintains that climate change is a hoax and he and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, resist efforts to address it.
What's going on? How is this possible? Short-term economic self-interest (i.e., greed) is the driver for the energy industry, its supporters and their propaganda. But it's the psychological factors, and the biology in which they're grounded, that sustain denial. If we're going to mobilize Americans to address climate change, we first have to understand what they're thinking and why, and then help them change their minds.
The belief that human activity is not causing global warming is widespread outside of as well as within the White House. And it's remarkably resistant to evidence. Ninety-seven percent of scientific papers agree that humans are causing climate change, but 30 percent of American adults remain unconvinced.
Many attribute this denial to mistrust of science and the "elites" who are devoted to it. This is, at best, only partially true. A recent Pew survey shows a striking difference between trust in medical (and other scientists) and climate scientists. The vast majority of us still believe in the people who design our heart monitors and keep our planes flying.
Obviously, there are other reasons for climate denial. Fear of its possible apocalyptic consequences certainly encourages denial in all of us. But while most of us face the facts—perhaps with great reluctance—others turn stubbornly away.
Several studies show that such resolute deniers are far more likely to be politically conservative, white and older, and that twice as many are men. Researchers suggest that "social dominance orientation"—a tendency to conform to traditional values and to put faith in beneficial, protective hierarchic structures—predicts climate change denial.
This faith is, of course, molded by energy corporations, the scientists they hire and the politicians they fund. Our current president, sitting at the top of the political hierarchy, undoubtedly hardens positions.
But this faith is more than a consequence of propaganda or a social construct. There are factors built into human biology that foster denial of climate change and resistance to doing anything about it. If we want to change consciousness and constructively address climate change, we have to take these factors into account.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and others have pointed out that the human brain has evolved over millions of years to meet or avoid immediate, rather than long-term threats. We are primed to fight a human intruder now, not a natural disaster in some indefinite future. Our brain facilitates anger when we are insulted by another person, but insulates us from taking a distant destruction personally.
A recent Yale survey confirms the observation: A majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening, but only a "small minority" believe it will affect them. And, compounding this denial is our brains, which as Gilbert points out, are designed to react swiftly to dramatic events, but are far less sensitive to gradual changes, like progressively warmer temperatures.
Now, however, in the midst of ongoing environmental catastrophe, all of us—doubters as well as reluctant believers—have the opportunity and good reasons, to overcome our denial. This will be easiest for those who have been directly affected.
Disaster-traumatized people I've worked with, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in the northeast after Superstorm Sandy, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and, now, in Houston and Northern California, are rarely in denial. They appreciate that human factors—including global warming and the sacrifice of natural protections to energy exploitation and of zoning regulation to the greed of developers—killed relatives and friends, and contributed to their collapsed homes and destroyed neighborhoods.
This understanding of causes, as well as consequences, transcends age, race, class and political affiliation, and overrides the temporary restriction of abstract reasoning and judgment that may follow severe trauma. A healthy majority of hurricane-affected Texans, Floridians and Puerto Ricans—and Californians devastated by fires fueled by climate-heated timber and grass—will likely be open to learning and acting on the same lessons.
Those of us who have so far been spared the full destructiveness of climate-related disasters are also neurologically primed for a teaching moment. The absence of direct trauma has left our higher brain functions, like judgment, self-awareness and compassion unimpaired. Meanwhile, we've registered emotionally compelling images of damage, destruction and death—water-bloated bodies, homeless children, flooded and crushed homes. Now is the time when all of us may be ready to translate what we have felt and know into action.
Mass and social media have a major role to play in keeping consciousness-affecting images of climate-related destruction alive, and in linking them to scientific evidence. The images will show us that the people suffering look very much like all of us—climate deniers as well as believers, white as well as black and brown, rich and poor alike. Clear presentation of the science will deepen emotional learning. And updates on survivors' ongoing pain and life-deforming dislocation can provide effective continuing education. Little by little, everyone, including deniers, will get the message that what has happened to others can happen to all of us.
This may be especially important for older people, who in disproportionate numbers deny climate change. They will be reminded that they are far less able to escape natural disasters than younger people, and will, if affected, have far greater difficulty replacing what they've lost. The horror stories of residents boiling to death in power-deprived nursing homes need to be recalled and honored, as do the disorienting, destabilizing long-term consequences for older people who have lost their homes and neighborhoods. Groups like the AARP can take the lead in this painful but necessary educational process, and in advocating for climate sparing legislation.
It’s important, also, to continue to memorialize the selfless efforts of neighbors helping neighbors during and after the storms and fires, as well as the stories of distant Americans' generosity. Seeing compassion in action will maximize activity in the parts of our brains that encourage fellow feeling. As they see and feel how satisfying it is to care for one another, even the most resistant climate deniers may want to join the rest of us in caring for the planet that sustains us all.