Why We Ignore Climate Change, Part 2


These posts explore a précis I did of George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change (2014), starting 20170122. In reading the book, I was surprised by some of the research that he encountered. Hence, I believe it important to disseminate his findings.

Chapter 6. The jury of our peers. How we follow the people around us. We watch the behavior of others to identify an appropriate response to situations (the bystander effect or pluralistic ignorance). If no one is responding to a crisis, then it must not be a crisis! However, caution must be noted with the slippery we.

Again — trust! But in attempting to generate inclusion and response (the ‘slippery we’), it is easy to alienate those who do trust the “message.”

Chapter 7. The power of the mob. How bullies hide in the crowd. According to self-categorization theory, we seek to establish similarity with the groups that we identify with, and differences against the people who are not like us. This leads both sides to under-estimate the diversity of views within their own ranks and those of their opponents. One of the consequences is that the in-group often develops a sense of superiority. The advent of the Internet has produced entirely new areas of communication, and has allowed frequent outright bullying of the out-group because of the anonymity provided.

The noise of our culture distracts from awareness. Here, for me, Marshall identifies one of the major complexities of modern living — we have too many people, many of whom are  formulating logical and ethical difficulties (of which a major one is global warming) as emotional issues. And in so doing, they add huge noise which confuses the system.

Chapter 8. Through a glass darkly. The strange world of climate deniers. For conservatives, climate change has become an issue at just the right time to replace the Red Menace bogeyman that had so long been the mobilizing enemy.

Disinformation! Marshall suggests that a major transition in the climate denial store occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a fascinating hypothesis, and one that is consistent with the emotional issues.

Chapter 9. Inside the elephant. Why we keep searching for enemies. In the end, many struggles come down to there being identifiable vested interests; however, we usually forget that we are participants in those interests. The real difficulty is your own immaturity, especially our inability to deal with our own shadows.

In a super-wicked difficulty, we are the participants. This is the central thesis of this blog — that the major issue is our acedia, our unwillingness to engage in the painful struggle to maturity. For me, Marshall correctly identifies that we “need to find narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests, and our common humanity.”

Summary #1. Those who passionately accept or passionately deny climate change have one thing in common: they are regard each other as a major threat. However, in between these two conflicting groups, the vast majority of people find it difficult to give any importance to the issue at all; they happily identify that there is a problem, but otherwise, they give it a little  consideration.

An accurate assessment of the complexity.

Chapter 10. The two brains. Why we are so poorly evolved to deal with climate change. Our psychological evolution has prepared us to respond strongly to four key triggers (PAIN): personal, abrupt, immoral, now. Climate change triggers none of these. We can understand the difficulty of climate change with our rational brains, but this does not trigger the emotional brain into action. Climate activists maximize the data without impacting the emotional brain; climate deniers activate emotions, and minimize the data; whereas the group in the middle are aware of the data, and are waiting to see the emotional responses generated as social cues.

Again, an accurate assessment of the complexity.

Chapter 11. Familiar yet unimaginable. Why climate change does not feel dangerous. There are two main drivers of risk perception: 1) dread risk, intergenerational and irreversible, a sense of powerlessness in the face of involuntary and catastrophic impacts, and 2) unknown risk, invisible and unprecedented, an anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of new and unforeseen danger. Because climate change does not have the stigma of attack, and extreme weather events have a degree of familiarity, the uncertainty of climate change does not instill dread or danger. Rather, there is leeway to “believe what you want.” Climate change does not feel threatening, unless you choose to feel that it is.

See the next comment.

Chapter 12. Uncertain long-term costs. Why our cognitive biases line up against climate change. Climate change lacks salience: it is abstract, distant, invisible, and disputed. It requires the acceptance of short-term costs to mitigate higher but uncertain losses in the far future. In addition, disinformation has created uncertainty. To mobilize people, an issue needs to be emotional; it needs to have immediacy and salience — our decisions are directed by largely intuitive mental shortcuts (cognitive biases). It is possible that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standards of living.

Sad! As I look around at this very moment on a cold but sunny day in Canadian winter, I do not feel threatened, and I can easily fall into the numbness of “what’s the big deal.” Yet, intellectually, the complexity of the issues overwhelms me, and I truly believe we are shortly destined for extinction. We do not seem capable of managing such complexity.

To be continued.

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