Four reasons why we ignore climate change

Unless something dramatic happens in the next two or three years to change public opinion, the opportunity to stop climate change will have come and gone. It may already be too late. If it is, and the climate changes as feared, history will have some interesting questions for those of us alive today – why on earth didn’t you stop it?

We already know why we’re not acting. It’s scary, and easier to ignore. There are vested interests in the status quo. Most of us don’t understand the problem, or are confused by competing claims. Many of  those that do understand it have given up hope of finding a solution.

But there are other, deeper reasons too – reasons to do with the way that we process and respond to risk. Psychologist Dan Gilbert suggests there are four key ways that we understand threat, and that climate change just doesn’t ring the right warning bells for us.

  1. Climate change has no bad guy. Being a social species, we’re alert to the machinations of others. We’re naturally inclined to respond to a personifiable enemy, and there’s no beardy villain here.
  2. Climate change doesn’t move us. If something makes us angry or upset or disgusted, we’ll respond. Despite the emotive images of polar bears, the climate crisis doesn’t “violate our moral sensibilities”.
  3. Climate change isn’t immediate. The human body will move at lightning speed to avoid a sudden danger. We’re not so good at thinking about the future.
  4. Climate change is slow motion. If change is gradual, we don’t really notice it, and we’re prepared to tolerate long-term change that we’d never accept if it happened fast.

In short, “climate change lacks the four features that trigger our cerebral alarms.” It’s an impersonal threat, slow and quiet. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, that makes it invisible, though that’s not really going to cut it as an excuse.

The four points here are from a talk that Gilbert gave in 2007, so you may have seen it already. I read a reference to his work recently and looked it up again. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here.

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13 Comments on “Four reasons why we ignore climate change”

  1. T. Caine November 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Makes sense to me. I think #3 is the biggest culprit in this situation. As a society, the depth of our perspective looking forward seems to continue to shrink. More Americans may be going to college, but we save less money (sometimes none). We move around more and spend less time in a house, which makes things like quality less important. It seems as though most efforts of our country fit nicely within an election cycle. We just struggle with a long term view.

    I think your comment about the vested interest in the status quo is the other half. The inertia of business as usual is stronger than most people give it credit for. For all of the adaptability of humans, we often do not always embrace social change.

    • Jeremy November 8, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      The election cycle is an important one, as unfortunately it makes democratic governments less able to plan long-term than undemocratic ones. If you’re in power and take the kinds of radical and unpopular decisions that are needed, you’ll lose the next election – see Australia. Far easier to talk a good game and do as little as possible, which is what we’re doing in Britain.

  2. dichasium November 8, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    Jeremy – two or three years! In that case, there’s surely no hope? But in any case, do you really think public opinion could have sufficient force when we’re all so tightly plugged into the same system?
    If I am ever faced with the question ‘Why did you let it happen?’ I could only answer that some took too much power away from others, leaving them too weak, or in other words, that, as a species, there was too much fear and insufficient love. I may then have to answer to ‘Why?’ and I’d give my only explanation for that too. I wonder, how would you (or others) answer?

    • Jeremy November 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

      I can only really speak for myself, and I know that I didn’t act sooner because I just didn’t know about climate change. It didn’t come up at school, nor at university, and it was just this background thing that some people were worried about in the media. I looked into it out of curiosity, wanting to know if it was a real problem or not, and discovered that it was. But for most of us, it just doesn’t cross our horizons.

      Why is there so much fear and so little love? That’s among the most profound questions any of us can ask. My own answers to that question come out of my faith, and right at the heart of the Christian message is the calling to love others and put their needs above our own, rather than grab everything we can for ourselves. But that doesn’t come naturally.

      • dichasium November 9, 2013 at 12:02 am #

        Thank you Jeremy, it’s good to hear it said. Yes, self interest in our own lives prevents us from perfect love, but the truth sets us free and, as I see it, fundamental to that truth is that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (fear for our self interest). I have worked to satisfy my understanding of this but, of course, action is necessary.

        On the question why on earth didn’t you stop it? I didn’t see it as why didn’t you do something sooner which is what your response appears to answer. I also thought the question could not possibly be asking why any individual didn’t stop climate change but could only reasonably be referring to those who collectively felt the need to do something. This is what my reply was trying to answer. Either way, I think it is a good challenge, so thanks again.

        • Jeremy November 9, 2013 at 9:36 am #

          Yes, my answer to the direct question ‘why didn’t you stop it?’ would be: I tried! In my household and anywhere I had influence or potential influence, I did what I could. It wasn’t enough, but we tried.

          I guess I answered with why I didn’t act sooner because I’m trying to understand why others don’t act.

  3. Tegan Tallullah November 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    “Unless something dramatic happens in the next two or three years to change public opinion, the opportunity to stop climate change will have come and gone.”

    Do you mean any climate change, or the kind of dangerous climate change that makes the earth unlivable, or something in between?

    I was under the impression that some amount of climate change is already happening and will continue to happen for the next 100 years or so, even if we stopped emitting carbon today. (Because co2 stays in the atmosphere for so long before breaking down).

    But we can (and will have to) adapt to some climate change – the point is, there is a limit to how much we can adapt to and a certain amount of climate change will make life very difficult or eventually impossible. Surely you don’t mean we have 2 or 3 years to stop that level of climate change?!

    Just trying to clarify this. (:

    • Jeremy November 11, 2013 at 10:18 am #

      It could be anything – it could be a change in politics from China and the US. It could be a campaign or even a viral video. Hopefully it won’t be a major disaster, though it could be.

      The reason I say in the next two or three years is that many scientists suggest emissions have to peak by 2015 if we’re going to avoid 2 degrees. It’s not a matter of stopping climate change by then, but starting to stop it – turning the corner, basically. The One Hundred Months campaign have focused on that: http://www.onehundredmonths.org/

      • Tegan Tallullah November 11, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

        I hadn’t seen the 100 months campaign yet but I just looked at it and read the technical note – I’m usually a really optimistic person but it seems like we’re totally doomed! 😦 They call 400ppm the tipping point and say we’re set to reach it in 2016 – but we already have gone past 400ppm!

        And 2015 is in just over a year, – it seems very unlikely for emissions to peak within that time. I kind of though they’d peak within 10 years or something, but by the look of this data that’ll be too late and the feedback loops will kick in.

        How have you kept going after reading this? Like I said, I’m usually optimistic and inspired about the future but after reading this I just feel so depressed…

        • Jeremy November 12, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

          Well, there’s some good news and some bad news on that front – yes, we’ve hit 400ppm earlier than we thought, but the world is warming slightly slower than we thought too, so hopefully it will balance out.

          As for how to keep going, I’m an optimist by nature too, but I’m aware that time is not on our side. I’m not confident that climate change can be stopped. The thing is, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t tell if it’s too late or not, so I’m going to press on with what I can do today. Even if it is too late, we can stop it being so bad, we can help people to adapt and we can be ready. So it doesn’t really slow me down.

          • Tegan Tallullah November 13, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

            Fair, that’s a really good way of looking at it. Thank you, you and your blog is an inspiration.

  4. Sam Charles Norton (@Elizaphanian) November 12, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    With respect, I think one of the most important reasons is omitted, which is that the “science” associated with climate change has become corrupted, leading to a massive loss of credibility. When those who were previously trusted are shown to be either wicked or incompetent then they are no longer listened to. If you broadened the point to the wider Limits to Growth then I think it would be a stronger argument, and the most fundamental reason why things aren’t changing would be ‘because we benefit too much from the status quo’ – and we lack the spiritual maturity necessary to look beyond our own short-term gratification. However, limiting the issue to climate change is, to my mind, part of the problem not the solution. I believe that when we look back at the catastrophes that we have begun to endure, the self-destructive emphasis on climate change by green campaigners will be seen as one of the great missed opportunities. Trouble is, it can be quite comforting to be warmed by our own virtues in discussions like these – see, we are not like those other wicked people! I think the green movement has got an awful lot of soul-searching to do. BTW I agree that climate change is now a politically dead issue. The only way in which it will gain political traction again is if significant and long-term (more than a decade) warming resumes – which puts in to the late 2020s. I’m pretty sure that other factors, like Peak Oil and consequent impacts (eg wars, famines) will have changed the world out of all recognition by then, making the whole conversation irrelevant.

    • Jeremy November 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

      Good points. I think that the undermining of science has been a factor in the politics of it, but not so much to the average person on the street. I think it gave people an excuse to ignore something they were already ignoring, rather than changing their mind, if you see the distinction. I also think that people have vastly exaggerated the supposed corruption of the science, because that’s what we’d like to believe. Most of it is as sound as it can be for something that is new and moving fast.

      I do agree that we need to look at environmental problems in the round though. Fixating on climate change doesn’t get us to the heart of the problem, which is more systemic and more spiritual than we might like to think.

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