Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We’re all climate change deniers at heart—Oliver Burkeman

One of the things that has dawned on me in the last couple of years is how MUCH climate change denialism is embedded in the movements that oppose climate change.  We saw this phenomenon on full display last September when some of the biggest guns in the USA Climate Change movement descended on New York to march around aimlessly to express their displeasure with the lack of progress on this critical, life-threatening, problem.  The organizers claimed that 400,000 people participated.  If I had participated, I would have had to drive 2400 miles which would have put a TON of CO2 into the atmosphere given that my car gets roughly 24 mpg.  If we assume that everyone was at least 4x more efficient than I would have been driving in from Minnesota, this still means that a symbolic gesture of this size pumped 100,000 tons of CO2 into an overloaded atmosphere.

Of course, I did not go.  I thought the whole exercise was somewhere between obscene and insane.  But it raised a very interesting question in my mind, "How do concerned, intelligent, and unusually informed people sign up for such madness?"  I have been fretting about this ever since.

Now I have some theories.  I have toyed with the idea that the problem is:
  • People don't really understand the science behind greenhouse gasses.
  • The time frame is too long—folks think next year is a long ways off so 50 years is nearly forever.
  • Folks seem to think that if we would only pass the appropriate regulation, the problem would solve itself.
  • There seems to be a widespread belief that climate change is only caused when we waste energy.  There is no realization that doing the things necessary for survival like heating one's house is a MUCH bigger factor in creating CO2 emissions.
  • Etc.
So it was with some pleasure that I read Oliver Burkeman's piece in today's Guardian wherein he addresses the very topic that has troubled me so.  His list of reasons for climate denialism are different than mine but that certainly does not mean that either of us are wrong.  In fact, we are probably both right.  Climate denialism by people concerned about climate change is such an absurd proposition that in fact, there are probably dozens of explanations that make at least a little sense.

We’re all climate change deniers at heart

Oliver Burkeman, 8 June 2015

The G7 goal to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century matters – because as individuals we’re hardwired to shirk existential challenges

At yesterday’s summit in Bavaria, the G7 leading industrial nations agreed to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. It’s easy to be cynical about these things, but these official goals really matter. And one big reason is this: in the absence of intergovernmental action, we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.

In fact, if a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change. We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.

And should it dawn on us that our behaviours don’t match our beliefs – that we’re not doing our bit to save the planet, even though we think we should – we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change) than the behaviour (flying less, having fewer children).

In one strikingly depressing scene in his recent book Don’t Even Think About It, climate change activist George Marshall interviews the Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the leading scholar of cognitive biases, and tries to nudge him into saying that understanding our brains’ limitations will, at the very least, make it easier to overcome them. “I’m not very optimistic about that,” Kahneman replies, despondently sipping tomato soup. “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.” The pessimism of experts provides yet another reason to pay attention to something else, anything else, instead of climate change: why choose to spend your days feeling relentlessly depressed?

Then there’s the problem the scientist and filmmaker Randy Olson has called “the great unmentionable”, which is that climate change is incredibly boring. “I dare you to find any major programme studying public attitudes toward climate”, he told the New York Times, “and willing to call it what it is … [which is] quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.” It feels shameful to admit that I agree, as if calling something uninteresting is to say that it’s also unimportant. In fact, though, the opposite is true: the most important challenges are frequently the least interesting, because they involve the slow workings of complex impersonal systems, rather than stories of individual humans.

Even once you grasp that people in general are terrible at responding to a threat such as climate change, though, there’s another hurdle: it remains much harder to accept how far you’re prone to such psychological pitfalls yourself. (This bias against perceiving your own bias has its own label: the bias blind spot.) It’s easy enough for any of us who aren’t climate-change deniers to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of them: they’re mired in denial and defence mechanisms, busily constructing online communities of like-minded people to help shield themselves from guilt, from accepting the need for personal sacrifices, or from contemplating their mortality. It’s much more difficult to accept that, in a subtler sense, you might be a climate change denier yourself. But the drive to eliminate cognitive dissonance – to rid yourself of the discomfort that comes from holding contradictory beliefs, or failing to act in accordance with your beliefs – is an awesomely powerful thing.

People who become parents, for instance, actually seem to start taking climate change a little less seriously, according to Marshall’s evidence. You might think having children would elicit greater concern for the welfare of future generations – but what wins out, apparently, is the desire not to feel guilty about the environmental impact of procreation.

Marshall suggests we learn from US religion which connects with the reverence millions feel for 'sacred values'

Equally tricksy is “moral licensing”, the phenomenon whereby performing a virtuous action provides you with a self-righteous inner glow, leaving you feeling justified in performing some less virtuous action – even if the damaging impact of the latter far outweighs the benefits of the former. This is surely endemic in “ethical living”: if you feel so good about yourself for recycling paper that you take an additional long-haul flight each year, your commitment to the environment has straightforwardly made matters worse. As a journalist, it’s troubling to speculate how much journalism on climate change has a moral-licensing effect on the journalists involved: will writing this piece make me feel as if I’ve done my bit?

Marshall makes a resolute effort to end his book on an upbeat note. We must change the narrative, he explains, framing the crisis as one happening here and now, not in the future, and to humans, not polar bears. He visits American mega-churches and suggests we learn lessons from US religion, which manages to connect with the reverence that millions of people feel for certain “sacred values”; climate campaigners should talk in these terms as much as in the language of rational trade-offs and the risk of future destruction. And we must be as stringent in questioning our own assumptions, and scrutinising our own propensity to bias, as those of others. (Committed environmentalists might start by closely examining their motives for rejecting potential technological solutions.)

Personally I lean more towards Kahneman’s pessimism. Yet the same self-questioning stance surely demands that I acknowledge even pessimism has its selfish payoffs: if there’s nothing to be done, I might as well not bother trying to do anything. Despair can be a kind of denialism, too. more

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