You may wonder why it seems so hard to do something about climate change despite the potentially disastrous impact on our future lives and generations. Well, this has bothered me for a while so I decided to collect a list of the reasons based on my expertise in neuroscience and human behaviour.
These reasons, based on psychology and brain science, explain why most people fail to do something about climate change despite the scientific proof that the world is going down the drain and all warning lights are flashing bright red. Also, to be brutally honest with myself, it is also why I personally don’t do enough – so maybe writing this will help me get my act together also!
When it comes to climate change what is surprising is that everyone generally agrees that there is a problem. Yes, even those darned Republicans – their views do differ, and I’ll explain below how it is relatively easy to convince most of them to take action (there are some diehards who will never be convinced whatever).
I have grouped these into four broad categories of the brain or external factors:
A. Brain Biases: how the brain is biased – these are natural mechanisms that happen to all of us in some way or form. Basically, it’s how the human brain is designed to operate.
B. Social Brain: how the brain is biased towards social factors which have played such an important part in our brain’s development
C. Vested Interests: how vested interests distort our thinking often without anyone noticing.
D. Systems: how the system stops things from changing – not individuals or political parties.
A. Brain Biases
The brain comes ready made with a set of operating processes – these are our inbuilt biases that influence how we make decisions, prioritize and process information.
1. Concrete vs. abstract
One of the simplest ways to explain our problems with processing climate change is that the brain is primed to work with concrete objects, and tangible concepts. A house that is falling down is easy to see, it is easy to process the importance, and the concrete steps to take to resolve this, even if effortful and costly. Climate change is more abstract. It is a big concept, less tangible. On a daily basis it is hard to see (yes, using pictures is good but see my comments on pictures below). A broken window in your house is clear, creates immediate discomfort and you can get it fixed quickly. Climate change is different.
What to do:show measurements, show data, talk about it, take action
2. Bystander effect
The bystander effect is what is happening in large groups of people when we expect others to take actions “somebody must be doing something”. Similarly, even if we do take action, our impact is minimal and hard to quantify tangibly (see point 1.). So many of us are expecting others to take action and sort it out and even if we did take action, we don’t see it or feel it.
This is also related to a social preference of small groups over large groups when the group becomes too large, we become too anonymous and have minimal influence (or feel minimal influence).
What to do: take any action, make small actions where you can see the difference: clean up plastic in the local park, measure the savings of insulating your house better. Start school projects – everything counts! What’s more you may inspire other people.
The brain also likes simple processes and actions. Use hammer to hit nail to fix piece of wood. All simple actions with clear results (and tangible). The more complex a process or action is the more our brains will resist this, on average. Doing something about climate change is very complex and there are multiple ways and influences – if there were a simple fix, we probably would have done it by now. Hence, we all get blocked by this complexity and the magnitude of the problem.
What to do: Do anything, at any time, take simple actions: eat vegetarian once a week, take the bike to work / school once a week (if you wouldn’t normally).
4. Hyperbolic discounting
Fancy name but this simply means we focus on the present and not distant complex or abstract futures. Our key focus is on what is happening in the present – in everyday life our focus is not on climate change, it may be getting the job done at work, paying the bills, upcoming exams, finishing a project. We rarely on a daily basis really consider climate change except in passing thoughts. The here and now takes priority and this is part of a system that feeds itself (see systemic problems).
What to do: Do something every day to benefit the climate – make it a habit (see section on habits).
B. Social Brain
The social brain gives us some interesting dilemmas – similar to biases, the brain is built to do certain things and social biases are very important to human beings. See also section on Vested Interests as this is also partly socially motivated.
This is an underestimated aspect of human things. In social contexts we tend to compensate for bad behaviour: if we treat a friend badly, we then compensate by apologising and trying go repair the friendship. This works in social contexts. Similarly, research has shown that we often behave towards the environment in this way. We take a flight and then try to compensate by doing something nice to the environment. However, this rarely adds up. The carbon footprint generated by taking a flight is not, unfortunately, offset by putting your empty coke can in the aluminium bin instead of the regular garbage! Worse still, further research has shown that when we do something good for the environment – ride the bike to work or school instead of taking the car or bus we are then more likely to do environmentally challenging behaviour – as if we have earned the right to do so.
What to do:all damaging behaviour to the environment is damaging, reduce all environmentally challenging behaviour as often as possible. Measure overall environmental impact and try to lower this each month
I include this because I find it fascinating – this is based on a report by the BBC here. When trying to illustrate climate change (which is a good idea to make it more tangible and visible) we have often used the wrong pictures. By this I mean that the pictures do not impact us as they should impact us, relate the importance, or drive us to action. A simple example; a picture of a factory spewing out pollution has less of an impact than seeing a human being suffering the results of climate change e.g. a person losing all their possessions in a flood. We need to relate to human beings to be able to be influenced. This is particularly so when partisanship is involved. It is better to use pictures of social groups that people can relate to. When trying to convince an American conservative show pictures of Americans who have lost their homes (probably white and male also – remember we’re not trying to be politically correct but influence people who don’t take action to take action).
What to do: if writing about climate change show pictures of the human impact particularly of the target group. If speaking, use local human examples to prove your case.
7. Social Dominance
Social Dominance Theory refers to people who believe in social dominance i.e. they want to become dominant. There are related concepts such as authoritarianism and unpleasant personalities and for the sake of argument we can group them together here. Socially dominant people want to be dominant, will accept hierarchical differences and unfairness (particularly in their favour), are more egotistical and therefore care less about the impacts of external factors such as the climate change. However, they tend to believe in protecting the status quo (mostly when it suits them) and also are often group biased i.e. very patriotic.
What to do: focus on maintaining the status quo e.g. protecting our great landscapes, national heritage, national animal symbols. Authoritarians prefer the status quo and are more often than not male conservatives. Typically, they are not systemic thinkers (see below).
C. Vested Interests
Vested interests are also forms of biases but influenced by loyalties, partisanship, identity, and simple money making.
Unfortunately, partisanship has become a major stumbling block to tackling climate change particularly with the Republicans and Trump in the USA (but not only in the USA). Simply put, this has become something that is politically divided despite both sides in reality agreeing there is a serious problem. Back to our social brain which is designed to operate in small groups. We develop loyalties to our in-groups and will defend each other. Hence when something like climate change becomes partisan, we tend to split clearly on partisan lines. This has been driven by vested interests – the oil industry is obviously worried that they will not become relevant (despite many oil companies investing heavily in alternative energy). Hence, they also spend immense amounts of money lobbying politicians. Similarly, it has been shown that Republicans are aware of climate threats but are much more likely to respond if the message is given by a fellow Republican than a Democrat.
What to do:focus on the areas that resonate with partisan groups (see social dominance above). Use the language of that group e.g. conservatives believe strongly in conserving heritage and defending the status quo.
Counter-intuitive facts support climate change deniers. Some things in climate change are counter intuitive. The brain doesn’t like this – it likes simple clear things that have clear causes and responses (see Simplicity). Consider that global warming (note I have consistently called it climate change) can cause some areas of the earth to cool because of the change in weather systems – for example, in Britain if the gulf stream were to shut down (which is genuinely likely to happen), this would mean the winters would be much colder than currently. When we have an extreme cold snap in winter, climate deniers roll their eyes and say, “What is all this about global warming”. The reality is global warming increases extreme weather and can make some places colder not warmer. This will also have many drastic and negative effects.
What to do: talk about climate change, and extreme weather. Talk about these extreme weather events when they happen (as they are and will happen more often), as climate change events.
10. Market forces
Market forces is a term used a lot by politicians – it simply means supply and demand: how much there is of a product how much of a demand there is for a product and therefore how much people will pay for it (which in turn effects supply and demand). We could discuss this for a long time but the long and short of it is: price is critical. If alternative and green energy is cheaper than oil and coal, everyone will use that. Full stop. If electric cars are cheaper and more practical than petrol cars, then we will drive electric.
Because our economies have been built on fossil fuels there is a system in place (see Systems) that has made these efficient though economies of scale and massive production. So, simply put, non-ecological is generally cheap, and ecological is generally expensive. In addition to prices there are things such as practicality, ease of use, and comfort, to consider. Unfortunately, market forces are not correct here – see section on externalities.
What to do:spend your money and encourage others to spend their money in the right way. Take on a bit of discomfort for the sake of the environment, or better, reframe this: a train trip instead of a car or plane trip enables you to relax, enjoy the journey, read, talk and play games (if travelling together).
Systems are rarely considered factors in climate change engagement. These are the external systems that are in place that are often hard to change because of their interconnectedness and complexity.
Good old habit is critical in climate change. Habit is what we do normally, it is a default way of behaving and reacting to the world around us. It will not necessarily be a conscious decision to buy the products we do, but simple habit – we do it because it is easy, and we’ve always done it (and this combines with some of the other biases above). Some people call this apathy – and this is partly true. The other side of habit is if we change the habit then we make protecting the climate easy – essentially a lot of people don’t care if the bus they take to work is spewing out lots or little of CO2 they just care about getting on to the bus and getting to work. The same applies to driving whether a car is highly efficient or not rarely impacts people (this is why systems, below, are important).
What to do: question your habits, encourage others to change habits, constantly remind people to help them change their habits, petition government and administrations to change some systems that are more climate friendly.
Systems are critical to thinking on climate change. Simply put we need to change a whole system. Modern societies are built on fossil fuel and energy consumption (not to mention consumption in general). This is not evil or bad it is just the way it developed but because it is a whole system it takes a long time to change. As an example, we can think of electric cars which have been around for decades, the reason electric cars have taken a long time to come is that there is no system in place to make them efficient, easy to use, and cheap (not to mention cool). If everyone buys electric cars the price becomes cheaper, then there will be more charging stations, there will be more investment into technologies making them more efficient, etc. etc.
What to do: Vote with your money – market capitalistic systems respond quickly to changes in market dynamics. Simply put, they follow the money. This applies to what you buy and where you invest money. See externalities to understand market systems and market forces.
Externalities is the simple reason why Western market economies have failed the environment. The principle of market-based economics is that resources will be shared efficiently, and everyone wins (in the long run). I would have to write a lot longer to explain why this is the case. In a market system generally, everything should be priced in – if I sell apples, all the work and effort is priced into the price of an apple. An externality is something that is not priced in – it is external to the price. Unfortunately, this is the environment – when we buy an apple we pay for the labour, production, transport, land but we don’t pay for the damage to the environment. Another example is plastic pollution and the often-asked question who should pay for it. The simple answer: producers of plastic. It can only be this answer because it is a cost of plastic production and therefore should be priced in.
If we could price in externalities into products, I claim, we could solve the vast majority of ecological damage quickly with market forces.
What to do:support carbon tax and similar initiatives. Campaign to implement tax offsetting (though “offsetting” is a bad term it is better than nothing). Campaign for pricing in of externalities. Many people forget that something similar happened in the 1970s and 1980s with acid rain and sulphur emissions – once regulated and priced in, sulphur emissions were vastly reduced, and acid rain became a thing of the past (and now we’ve forgotten it).
We can see with these 13 reasons that the brain is very much biased against taking action. This includes our own brains. You will also notice that these 13 reasons don’t come alone but all work together and in unison to stop politicians and the general public taking action. For politicians their primary fear is the economy – the economy being the sum of everything that is produced in a country which influences employment, tax income, and a country’s budget and resources. They fear that by going green they will damage the economy and they know that if jobs are lost and the economy slows down, they will be considered a failure. The irony of this is that from an economic perspective rebuilding or reinventing a system, regenerates economies and provides more income!
What is important for all of us to note is that these 13 reasons can stop all of us – we should all be taking action on a daily basis a small change in our behaviour does make a difference and the more we do it the bigger the difference. We should all also be active in lobbying our politicians, and companies to take action. If you are at a school or working in a company start an initiative or project – the more people do this, the more we become conscious and the more change we can influence. The world does need it and it needs it know.
When I read the data, I see how close the planet is to a tipping point of runaway uncontrollable global warming – the tipping point also applies to climate health we do not need to convince the whole world to change we just need a critical mass of people – once there is enough momentum then we can also reach tipping point to greatly impact our planet and our future.
I have also come to a realisation in writing this – I have been conscious of the environment but by elucidating the biases I have also uncovered my biases – I have now vowed to be much more proactive myself – planet earth here I come!