Guest post: The problem is incremental 

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on Never going back.

I have been thinking a lot about intellectually compelling problems vs. emotionally compelling problems lately: Considering that climate change – along with the strongly interlinked problem of ocean acidification, the mass-extinction of species, and the general toll the human economy is taking on ecosystems and the natural world – is the most dire existential emergency our species has ever faced, many have struggled to explain why – despite constant claims of “alarmism” and “hysteria” – there isn’t more alarm and public outrage around the issue.

The most obvious answer, and usually the first one that comes to mind – is that tackling the problem puts you on a direct collision course with powerful vested interests. The fossil fuel industry is the richest, most profitable industry in history, and is thus able to spend practically unlimited resources financing disinformation campaigns, lobbying buying politicians etc. But there’s more to it than that. Even if only a relatively small percentage of the population get their income directly from the fossil fuel industry, we are all invested in the modern, high-tech, consumerist life-style, and while I don’t think there’s much evidence that consumerism ever made us any happier (I’m strongly inclined to suspect the opposite is true!), it’s certainly addictive as hell, very much like heroin or alcohol in this respect. You can learn pretty much everything there is to know about human self-deception, rationalization, compartmentalization etc. by studying addicts alone, and we’re all addicts when it comes to fossil fuel.

Another common explanation is that the issue has become so heavily politicized that many also have an ideological stake in denying the problem, especially in the U.S. where it’s become just another proxy issue in the ongoing Culture War between Democrats and Republicans for the soul of the nation. In reality, of course, neither Democrats nor Republicans have any real interest in doing anything about the problem that has any chance of actually working. But since Democrats at the very least tend to accept the problem as real and pay lip-service to doing something about it, even acknowledging that the problem exists has come to be seen as a “liberal” or “leftist” position and hence a proxy for everything people dislike about taxes and regulations, immigration, abortion, gun control, political correctness, multiculturalism, feminism, secularism etc. Thus rejecting it out of hand becomes about group identity (“My kind of people don’t believe things like that!”), tribal loyalty, rooting for your team, booing the other team, etc. The actual facts of the matter hardly enter into your considerations at all.

But this still doesn’t quite explain why even people who accept all the facts, understand what’s happening on an intellectual level, and are able accurately assess the danger, are mostly not motivated to do anything about it. Of course there is a game-theory aspect to it: Why should I give up the benefit (in the short term) of fossil fuels if others won’t and the world gets screwed anyway? And of course the potential for self-fulfilling prophecies is only too obvious.

But I also think there’s a lot of truth in what people like Daniel Kahneman have said about apathy and indifference to climate change and human psychology. The human brain evolved to react strongly to a sudden danger or threat. It did not evolve to react to a gradual worsening of conditions over time. We’re all familiar with the (probably apocryphal, but never mind) claim about frogs in hot water: If you put a frog directly into scolding hot water, so the story goes, it will instantly jump out and save its own life. If you put the same frog in lukewarm water and gradually heat it to that exact same temperature, it will look in vain for the “line” where the temperature changes from acceptable to unacceptable and hence remain passive and indecisive while it’s slowly boiled to death. The claim doesn’t have to be literally true (after all, the topic at hand wasn’t frogs anyway) to be instructive.

The human brain also evolved to react strongly to a threat from a clearly identifiable and hostile external agent (a predator, a rivaling tribe etc.). Climate change offers none of these psychological triggers. The problem is incremental rather than binary (i.e. all or nothing), and while wildfires and extreme weather events can be both sudden and dramatic when they occur, it’s not like they never happened in the past. Rather than a sharp line we’re once again looking at a gradual increase in the statistical frequency and intensity of such events. Nor is there a clearly identifiable external enemy. Blaming politicians or even the fossil fuel industry doesn’t quite do it justice since ultimately we’re the ones who keep electing those politicians and paying those companies to fuel our cars, heat our homes etc. As someone once put it, the elephant in the room is all of us. And so even if you understand the problem on an intellectual level, it doesn’t trigger the kind of instinctive, visceral fear reaction required to motivate action. In other words, it may be an intellectually compelling problem but it’s not an emotionally compelling problem, and only emotions can generate motivation.

Compare it to, say, the threat of Islamist terrorism. If you’re an average citizen in the West and you look at the most statistically probable causes of death for people within your demographic, Islamist terrorism should rank very low on your list of concerns – certainly orders of magnitude lower than climate change. But here we have almost the opposite dynamic going on: It may not be an intellectually compelling problem, but it sure is emotionally compelling. Terrorist attacks are usually sudden and dramatic when they occur and conjure up images of dangerous fanatics shouting violent slogans who hate us and want to destroy us. It ticks all the right boxes and pushes all the right buttons.

Bottom line, visceral fear – and hence motivation to act – often has very little to do with any objective assessment of risk, and so people burn enormous amounts of calories worrying about vanishingly improbable dangers and act accordingly while the greatest existential threat to our collective survival is treated with about as much urgency as a bad haircut. Well… Not quite that much…

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