Issue 14: nature

Who cares about climate change?

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by Oliver Burkeman on November 29, 2016

Here’s a question you probably shouldn’t ask yourself unless you’re prepared for an unsettling answer: which problems facing the modern world do you really, truly care about the most, as measured by how emotionally exercised you get, and how willing you are to take action? Somewhere near the top, for me, is the man who illegally parks his dark blue van outside my apartment building almost every week; he reliably renders me furious, and I never fail to make an online complaint. A little lower down the list comes the recent decision by my fellow Brits to leave the European Union; and below that, terrorist atrocities: appalling as they are, they’re so incomprehensible that my main response is bafflement. Below all these comes climate change. Apart from brief flashes of raw sadness at what’s happening to the planet, and my complicity in it, the shameful reality is that it generally just isn’t a regular cause of motivating emotion.

This probably makes me a bad person, but I’m not a stupid one: I can see that my priorities, judged by the vehemence of my emotions, are precisely upside-down. Like many other people, I’m a walking embodiment of Sayre’s Law, coined by the American political scientist Wallace Sayre: when it comes to political disputes (and, he might have added, other societal challenges) intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to what’s at stake. We tend to care most about what matters least, and vice versa – a very human flaw, perhaps, but one that may yet bring about our destruction. The problem of humanity’s impact on our natural habitat feels too complex to understand; too big for any individual to make a difference; and potentially so catastrophic as to be painful to contemplate. No wonder it’s more appealing to pursue my vendetta against Blue Van Guy instead.

This predilection for focusing our energies on precisely the wrong things is nothing new: in his famous letter On the Shortness of Life, the Stoic philosopher Seneca bemoaned his fellow Romans’ tendency to fill their lives with pointless busywork, rather than using their short span of time more meaningfully. (Which meant, Seneca argued, using it to do philosophy.) What’s different about climate change, psychologically speaking, is the way it triggers an unprecedented combination of our in-built self-sabotaging impulses. As recent research in behavioural economics has shown, we’re largely unable to make small sacrifices now to avert major losses later on – and we’re much more troubled by threats we can mentally picture (a terrorist planting a bomb, a thief with a gun) than those that are harder to visualise (the systemic ramifications of a one-degree rise in global temperatures, say). Besides, when we do take some selfless action, such as donating to an environmental charity, we become immediately prone to ‘moral licensing’, the phenomenon whereby the warm inner glow of having done the right thing provides an excuse for doing something that cancels out the benefits, such as eating more meat, or turning up the air conditioning. Some of these cognitive biases have evolutionary justifications: in early human communities, for example, easy-to-picture dangers probably did pose the greatest threat. Now, though, they’ve become a serious impediment to our safety – one that Daniel Kahneman, the doyen of cognitive bias researchers, has said he’s personally pessimistic we’ll ever manage to surmount.

Yet perhaps the most interesting and troubling psychological feature of climate change, ironically enough, is how boring it is to so many of us. The filmmaker Randy Olson has called this “the great unmentionable” of the environmental movement, and at first glance it makes little sense: such a severe, planet-wide threat might well terrify us into paralysis, but you’d hardly expect it to seem dull. The truth, though, is that modernity’s most pressing problems are frequently among the least interesting – in part because they involve not exciting individual human dramas, which seize our attention and evoke empathy, but complex interconnected systems and endless quantities of data. The global financial meltdown of 2007-8 was of little interest to anyone other than specialists, or those worst affected, until it began to involve TV images of homeowners forced from their dwellings, or fired bankers carrying out boxes of their belongings on to Wall Street.

There are, of course, dramatic human stories unfolding right now as a consequence of the climate crisis – but they tend either to be happening far away, or difficult to attribute definitively to global warming. (Those displaced by flooding and fires in the US, for example, rarely get described as climate refugees.) The conspiratorial thinking of climate denial, by contrast, positively teems with gripping tales of evil scientists scheming in backrooms. These stories may be false – but you can’t claim they’re not compelling. They are testaments to what the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, has called “the vast, witchy power of story in human life”. Stories compel us, whether or not they’re true; facts may not, even though they are.

Or maybe the feeling of boredom is better explained psychoanalytically, as a defence against emotions we daren’t make conscious – a numbing but easier alternative to confronting the horror we’re helping to perpetrate? Either way, it’s natural enough for climate campaigners to want to shock people out of their listlessness with graphic imagery and dire warnings. But as a widely reported study showed in 2011 – and subsequent research has confirmed – such messages can easily backfire. The more alarming they are, the more likely audiences are to discount them because of the challenge they pose to the ‘just world bias’, the widely held, if usually unarticulated, assumption that life is generally safe, predictable, and fair. When confronted with evidence that contradicts a deeply-held belief, we’re frighteningly skilled at dismissing the evidence, rather than changing the belief. And even if they don’t backfire, they risk working too well, inducing a sense of helplessness. That despair can then serve as a defence mechanism: if there’s no point in caring about the climate, nor can there be any ethical obligation to do so.

It would be absurd to propose any simple remedy for this predicament. (Who said the existence of a problem entails the existence of a solution anyway?) Personally, though, I’ve found both solace and motivation in the work of Derrick Jensen, a co-founder of the environmental movement Deep Green Resistance. Jensen keeps fighting in the face of despair, he has written, because he’s “in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms… and if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort.” Though it risks sounding sentimental, thinking in terms of love is actually highly clarifying. Instinctively, we understand what it entails: most of us would condemn a parent who stopped caring for a child simply because the experience was often tedious, or inconvenient, or scary, or because success couldn’t be guaranteed. If we claim to love the planet, why should things be any different? “If my love doesn’t cause me to protect what I love,” as Jensen puts it, “it’s not love.”

The climate crisis may sometimes bore me, or strike me as hopeless, or fail to make me as viscerally angry as it should (or as Blue Van Guy does). But so what? Virtually everyone already knows the experience of investing time and energy in caring for those you love, regardless of whether, in that very moment, you happen to feel like it. You don’t usually do it for some future payoff, or even for the warm inner glow. On the contrary, it’s self-justifying. You do it because it’s what needs to be done.

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