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Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change.

3 Sep 2012



OPINION : The future of our species is under threat - yet we choose not to recognise the danger

IT'S REASSURING to imagine we are, by and large, rational beings who base our judgments and decisions on the best evidence we can muster.

The scientific evidence suggests otherwise.

Nowhere can the limits of human rationality be more forcefully encountered than in how we have collectively failed to respond to the existential threat posed by climate change.

Recessions threaten our jobs and income, while fears about terrorism or crime may undermine our sense of well-being. Climate change is uniquely different in that at its heart, it threatens to unravel our most fundamental assumption: that we, as individuals, indeed, as a species, have a future at all.

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. "We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies," is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that "the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change - a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon - as an important moral imperative", according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature Climate Change.

The researchers identified key reasons why, despite the mountains of hard scientific evidence, we have signally failed to react to the colossal threats posed by climate change.

First, our moral intuitions are strongly driven by emotional responses. For instance, witnessing someone injure a child evokes a powerful visceral moral response. Climate change also threatens our children, but understanding exactly how "requires cold, cognitively demanding and ultimately less motivating moral reasoning".

Second, the harms arising from pollution and resource depletion are a real but largely unintended by-product of economic activity. Neuroscientific evidence shows that we react much less to actions, however dangerous, if we see them as unintentional. Third, thinking about environmental damage makes us all squirm a little, as we know deep down that our flat-screen TVs, foreign holidays and affluent lifestyles are part of the problem. "To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimise perceptions of their own complicity."

In other words, we try to deflect our own feelings of guilt by decrying "corrupt" scientists and, by clutching to trivial errors or controversies, hope to reason away incontrovertible evidence amassed by teams of scientists of the calibre of those remotely operating the Mars rover.

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