When Will the Lizard Brain Act on Climate Change?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJul 24, 2012 8:30 PM


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The contradictions in the climate debate make my head hurt. For years, we've been hearing that one of the biggest impediments to action is that people aren't sufficiently alarmed and informed about global warming. And that this owes, in large part, to a collective media failing. Here's Joe Romm in 2010:

The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse. The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.

I don't agree with this assessment; on the whole, there is ample evidence that belies Romm's broad brush. Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community. (How journalism is responsible for the failure of 20 years of international climate talks escapes me.) In any case, whoever/whatever is at fault, a bigger problem implied by Romm is the lack of "rational public discourse." But in recent years social scientists and cognitive researchers have been telling us that our brains are not equipped to respond rationally to climate change, which is now widely understood to be a "wicked" problem. Several days ago, this theme was discussed in a NY Timespiece:

We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly. "You almost couldn't design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology," says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

What he means by that is that our evolutionary brains are not built to deal with climate change. The danger signal that evolved in response to immediate threats to our survival through much of human history isn't activated by the diffused and delayed impacts of greenhouse gases. To understand this is to understand that our behavior--even in the present technologically advanced era--is largely governed by evolutionary forces. So if hostile aliens invaded the earth today I imagine the world would instantly come together in common cause. So far, the looming threat of climate change has not done that. Will it anytime soon? Unlikely. But back to that Times article. For some reason I cannot fathom, it triggered an angry reaction from Romm. In short, he argues that the piece glossed over the political and ideological obstacles to climate action. Instead of blaming politicians, the media and the "anti-science pro-pollution ideologues" (you know who you are!), we were

subjected to a bunch of psychoanalysis and social science research about how we all have a mental block to solving the climate problem.

I think I know who has the mental block here. I'm also starting to wonder if every article on climate change should carry this disclaimer: "This message was not approved by Joe Romm. It may not emphasize the full scope of the climate change-triggered apocalyptic death spiral of the human race, and it may not fully emphasize the full culpability of journalists, climate deniers, and all Republicans. May the climate Gods have mercy on my soul." Seriously, as one commenter at Romm's site says, the author of the Times piece

wasn't undertaking to comment on politics, or acting as an apologist for why a climate bill wasn't passed. She wasn't drawing a sharp moral judgment call between us, the people, and the politicians in Washington. It is a classic case of "our" blog looking for a difference of opinion "” a reason to take off the gloves "” when one did not exist. So, I don't see the purpose or the advantage gained from jumping down the throats of every individual who comments on some aspect of climate change who does not also, first and foremost, parrot the particular theme "” federal political inaction, is it? "” "everyone" here wants to hear.

Now I'm not saying that politics isn't an important part of the equation. Perhaps the 2009 cap & trade legislation that died in the U.S. Senate would have put us on a path to somewhere hopeful. A lot of smart people were dubious about that, but still latched on--rationalizing that any path is better than the ditch we've been in for two decades. And now with one of the major U.S. political parties embracing a rejectionist stance on climate science, I can appreciate the pent up frustration of folks who correctly see no desire by either political party to talk about climate change, much less help chart a new path to a decarbonized world. But I'm willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels. Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)? A large enough bloc of committed, passionate voters that makes its voice heard in Washington. A couple of hundred people chanting outside the White House gates isn't going to do it. It has to be a sustained, organized movement. Something nourished at the grassroots that spreads and multiplies throughout congressional districts. Can Bill McKibben pull that off? Al Gore should give him his Nobel if he does. Because there are no shortcuts. Greens and climate activists shouldn't count on sporadic heat waves and wildfires to do the work for them. This is crucial because extreme weather and disasters has become crack cocaine to the climate community. Many of them are now hooked. And they come crashing down once the heat breaks and global warming disappears from the headlines. Don't take my word for it. Here's Paul Krugman in his last column:

When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people's attention turns to other matters.

That's a problem for a climate movement that looks good on the web but is a paper tiger in the real world. So what's the game plan, other than beating up on the media and evil deniers? Paradoxically, more fossil fuels (in the short term), as Michael Tobis suggests here (my emphasis):

Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy. Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.

Many people already understand what is going on, of course, but never mind that. Once they have a steady job again and can make the monthly mortgage payment, their lizard brains will be receptive to a "cultural shift."

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