The Battle Over Global Warming Is All in Your Head

Despite the fact that more people now acknowledge that climate change represents a significant threat to human well-being, this has yet to translate into any meaningful action. Psychologists may have an answer as to why this is

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Climate campaigns, like this one from Greenpeace in Moscow, have failed to galvanize public support for strong climate action

Today the scientific community is in almost total agreement that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activity, and that this represents a huge threat to the planet and to us. According to a Pew survey conducted in March, however, public opinion lags behind the scientific conclusion, with only 69% of those surveyed accepting the view that the earth is warming — and only 1 in 4 Americans see global warming as a major threat. Still, 69% is a solid majority, which begs the question, Why aren’t we doing anything about it?

This political inertia in the face of unprecedented threat is the most fundamental challenge to tackling climate change. Climate scientists and campaigners have long debated how to better communicate the message to nonexperts so that climate science can be translated into action. According to Christopher Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, the usual tactic of climate experts to provide the public with information isn’t enough because “it does not address key underlying causes.” We are all bombarded with the evidence of climate change on an almost a daily basis, from new studies and data to direct experiences of freakish weather events like last year’s epic drought in the U.S. The information is almost unavoidable.

If it’s not a data deficit that’s preventing people from doing more on global warming, what is it? Blame our brains. Renee Lertzman, an applied researcher who focuses on the psychological dimensions of sustainability, explains that the kind of systemic threat that climate change poses to humans is “unique both psychologically and socially.” We face a minefield of mental barriers and issues that prevent us from confronting the threat.

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For some, the answer lies in cognitive science. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has written about why our inability to deal with climate change is due in part to the way our mind is wired. Gilbert describes four key reasons ranging from the fact that global warming doesn’t take a human form — making it difficult for us to think of it as an enemy — to our brains’ failure to accurately perceive gradual change as opposed to rapid shifts. Climate change has occurred slowly enough for our minds to normalize it, which is precisely what makes it a deadly threat, as Gilbert writes, “because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.”

Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, also picks up on the point about our brains’ difficulty in grasping climate change as a threat. Gifford refers to this and other psychological barriers to mitigating climate change as “dragons of inaction.” Since authoring a paper on the subject in 2011 in which he outlined seven main barriers, or dragons, he has found many more. “We’re up to around 30,” he notes. “Now it’s time to think about how we can slay these dragons.” Gifford lists factors such as limited cognition or ignorance of the problem, ideologies or worldviews that may prevent action, social comparisons with other people and perceived inequity (the “Why should we change if X corporation or Y country won’t?”) and the perceived risks of changing our behavior.

Gifford is reluctant to pick out one barrier as being more powerful or limiting than another. “If I had to name one, I would nominate the lack of perceived behavioral control; ‘I’m only one person, what can I do?’ is certainly a big one.” For many, the first challenge will be in recognizing which dragons they have to deal with before they can overcome them. “If you don’t know what your problem is, you don’t know what the solution is,” says Gifford.

Yet this approach can only work if people are prepared to acknowledge that they have a problem. But for those of us who understand that climate change is a problem yet make little effort to cut the number of overseas trips we make or the amount of meat we consume, neither apathy nor denial really explains the dissonance between our actions and beliefs. Lertzman has come to the conclusion that this is not because of apathy — a lack of feeling — but because of the simple fact that we care an overwhelming amount about both the planet and our way of life, and we find that conflict too painful to bear. Our apparent apathy is just a defense mechanism in the face of this psychic pain.

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“We’re reluctant to come to terms with the fact that what we love and enjoy and what gives us a sense of who we are is also now bound up with the most unimaginable devastation,” says Lertzman. “When we don’t process the pain of that, that’s when we get stuck and can’t move forward.” Lertzman refers to this inability to mourn as “environmental melancholia,” and points to South Africa’s postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of how to effectively deal with this collective pain. “I’m not saying there should be one for climate or carbon, but there’s a lot to be said for providing a means for people to talk together about climate change, to make it socially acceptable to talk about it.”

Rosemary Randall, a trained psychotherapist, has organized something close to this. She runs the U.K.-based Carbon Conversations, a program that brings people together to talk in a group setting about ways of halving their personal carbon footprint. Writing in Aeon, an online magazine, Randall suggests that climate change is such a disturbing subject, that “like death, it can raise fears and anxieties that people feel have no place in polite conversation.” Randall acknowledges that while psychology and psychoanalysis aren’t the sole solutions to tackling climate change, “they do offer an important way of thinking about the problem.”

Lertzman says the mainstream climate-change community has been slow to register the value of psychology and social analysis in addressing global warming. “I think there’s a spark of some interest, but also a wariness of what this means, what it might look like,” she notes. Gifford says otherwise, however, explaining that he has never collaborated with other disciplines as much as he does now. “I may be a little biased because I’m invested in working in it, but in my view, climate change, and not mental health, is the biggest psychological problem we face today because it affects 100% of the global population.”

Despite the pain, shame, difficulty and minefield of other psychological barriers that we face in fully addressing climate change, both Lertzman and Gifford are still upbeat about our ability to face up to the challenge. “It’s patronizing to say that climate change is too big or abstract an issue for people to deal with,” says Lertzman. “There can’t be something about the human mind that stops us grappling with these issues given that so many people already are — maybe that’s what we should be focusing on instead.”

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