If only we could find a couch big enough to fit the entire human species, we could talk through what within our minds is preventing us from acting more aggressively on global warming.
Buried within fights over the science, economy, environment, extreme weather, politics, and lobbying is a debate about how psychological traits ingrained in the basic human condition are preventing people from supporting more action on global warming, despite the fact that most scientists agree it’s only going to get worse unless humankind makes a concerted effort to take major action soon.
Indeed, a United Nations report released Friday confirms with more certainty than ever (95 percent) what most scientists already know: that humans, chiefly through our use of coal, oil, and natural gas, are the key cause of the planet’s temperature rise.
This report is probably not going to trigger any sudden support for global-warming action. Science in and of itself is not a major barrier to action; it’s the way people think about the science—and the other factors that complicate the problem of global warming.
“All the obstacles are daunting—skepticism about the science, economic self-interest, and the difficulties of designing cost-effective approaches and obtaining an international agreement,” Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s former regulatory chief, wrote last month in an op-ed for Bloomberg. “But the world is unlikely to make much progress on climate change until the barrier of human psychology is squarely addressed.”
Sunstein’s op-ed has helped bring into the mainstream what has for years been mostly an academic debate. A report by the American Psychological Association in 2009 came to a similar conclusion.
“Both structural and psychological obstacles need to be removed for significant behavioral change to occur,” states the report, which was chaired by Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Psychologists and other social scientists need to work on psychological barriers.” Swim wasn’t available for an interview because, appropriately enough, she was in Europe for the German Environmental Psychology Association’s biannual conference.
The barriers that psychologists want to address include how people discount risks perceived to be in the distant future or to be more of a threat in other places. Another hurdle is what’s known as the collective-action problem: People don’t act because they feel they don’t have control over the outcome. For a problem such as global warming, whose cause is almost everywhere on earth, it’s easy to see why people feel this way. These barriers are intertwined with all the other, more explicit barriers, such as politics and policy.
Sunstein focused on a related psychological obstacle: fear. He writes that people don’t view risk associated with climate change the same as a more tangible threat. “An act of terrorism, for example, is likely to be both available and salient, and hence makes people fear that another such event will occur (whether it is likely to or not),” wrote Sunstein, who now teaches at Harvard University Law School (he first met President Obama when they both taught at the University of Chicago Law School). “By contrast, climate change is difficult to associate with any particular tragedy or disaster.”
To be sure, many scientists think climate change is causing more-extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. But Sandy didn’t come barreling up the East Coast with a flashing sign that said: “I’m Global Warming!”
“It is hard to prove that climate change ‘caused’ any particular event, and as a result, the association tends to be at best speculative in people’s minds,” wrote Sunstein, whose three-year tenure leading the White House regulatory review process was marked by consternation among environmentalists for his alleged slow-walking of environmental rules.
Friday’s report, issued by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, could likely exacerbate the already inflated debate over climate change. It seeks to explain why the planet’s temperature has been slower to rise in recent decades despite a continued increase in carbon emissions, and it admits the difficulty of predicting how global warming will affect local regions differently.
To the nonscientists among us, these uncertainties may be misinterpreted.
“Well-meant efforts by climate-change experts to characterize what they do and do not know [can lead] to systematic underestimation of risk,” notes the 2009 APA report. “Scientists are left with the problem of how to present the risk honestly while not promoting misguided optimism and justifying inaction.”
Even though the U.N. experts can tell us with more confidence than ever that we’re largely responsible for a warmer planet, they can’t offer clear predictions of how that’s going to affect us. Psychologically speaking, we seem to have no reason to care, let alone be afraid.
“We’re not trying to make people afraid,” said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, when asked about the basic proposition put forth by her former colleague Sunstein. “God knows there is enough people can be afraid of. When people are afraid, they tend to stand still or run away. We’re seeing some of that.”
McCarthy has been tasked with crafting the heart of Obama’s climate-change agenda through the first-ever standards controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from the nation’s power plants. She spent last week traveling the country talking up the importance of these regulations and Obama’s plan to combat global warming more generally.
“What we would like to do is bring science to the table and to make people understand why a changing climate poses a threat to them,” McCarthy said.
She may want to enlist the help of a psychologist.