Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change

Terrific book that unpacks the psychological barriers that keep our tongues mute, creating meta-silence whenever the topic of climate change comes up (“I am constantly dropping the term climate change into conversations with strangers… The words collapse, sink, and die in midair, and the conversation suddenly changes course.”) There are a lot of factors at work: its lack of discussion (how can you remain committed when you look around and don’t see anyone else fretting about it), confirmation bias (cherry-picking evidence that already supports your opinion), biased assimilation (squeezing new information we get into existing schema), the lack of immediacy & salience of the threat (our reptilian brains do well with immediate danger, not so hot on future planning – “our ability to look into the future is one of our most stunning abilities but as Daniel Gilbert says, it is ‘still in the early stages of R&D'”), the bystander effect (seeing no one else reacting), the emotional vs rational brain, the use of codes and symbols that environmentalists rally behind but that alienate people who dislike the greens. Important to create personal narratives that will go a long way to convincing the heart, and the head will follow. Reject the framing of this as a purely environmental issue – it’s an economic and human rights issue as well. Tap into the knowledge that’s been honed for thousands of years with religions requiring short-term losses to avoid uncertain long-term costs.
Climate scientists compartmentalize what they know about the catastrophe lurking and are able to fly around the planet justifying their actions. Important to walk the talk. I’m not sure what else I can do as a bicycling non-car-owning vegan who will not raise any kids (kids triple their parents carbon footprint, adding 9,441 metric tons of CO2) and who recycles, is a conscious consumer, and turns lights off obsessively.

There is no single factor that leads people to ignore climate change. There is a set of interrelated negotiations between our personal self-interest and our social identity, in which we actively participate to shape climate change in ways that enable us to avoid it.

Climate change is a global problem that requires a collective response and so is especially prone to the bystander effect. When we become aware of the issue, we scan the people around us for social cues to guide our own response: looking for evidence of what they do, say, and what they don’t say or do. These cues are codified into rules that define expected or inappropriate behaviors (social norms)… This social conformity is not some preference or choice. This is a strong behavioral instinct that is built into our core psychology…

Stranger still, it is exactly those politicians playing up the uncertainties of climate change who embrace uncertainty as a justification for military preparedness. Romney, the first 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 VP Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a 1% chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” Rumsfeld supported this argument, “Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it does not exist.” So a 1% chance of a terrorist attack should be acted on as though it is a certainty, but a 90% chance of severe climate disruption is too uncertain for action?