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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.