Humans are not wired to fight global warming with urgency
Extreme weather, water shortages and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as the Zika virus are all linked to a fast-heating Earth. Yet we still don’t treat climate change with the urgency we reserve for a terrorist attack.
Maybe the blame goes into our very natures: evolution did not design our bodies to treat climate change with urgency. Evolutionary responses favour real-time threats, not those that take place on an extended timescale. The challenge is that if you have to stop and think about whether a specific action or activity is threatening, that very process engages very different parts of the human brain – and not the ones that impel us to action.
The hormones that flood through our bodies to provide increased strength and speed in anticipation of fighting or running won’t kick in when the threat is one that can only be understood through research and thought. If you want to worry whether climate change will eventually make it more difficult for humans to feed themselves, for example, you need to get the books and study the science.
We only pay attention to climate change from time to time, usually when it hits us in the face – Hurricane Sandy or drought. But disaster rarely hits all humanity at the same time. And life goes on. Our memories of tragedy fade – a survival mechanism also bequeathed us by evolution.
Most of us don’t consciously connect gradual warming and human life. What if the changes make it difficult for insects that play vital roles in food production to survive and perform their jobs? Do we sense in a personal way how these changes might make us more vulnerable to opportunistic illness? We can avoid the issue until the boss directs us to travel to Brazil and we are forced to worry about the Zika virus.
Our difficulty in looking at longer-term scenarios encourages the thought that someone, somewhere is taking care of this problem for us, that there is really nothing the rest of us need do. We sit back and leave it to the experts.
The United State’s supreme court’s recent insistence on looking through the lens of legal process – the judges voted to stay Barack Obama’s carbon emissions regulations pending a challenge to them – neatly captures the fatal time factor. The court’s decision to cease implementation of the “Clean Power Plan” until the case is argued and decided isn’t fatal if the rule survives legal challenge. Then states will get back to work and ways will be found to reduce emissions. But the time lost in climate terms cannot be made up.
Climate change is relentless; human habit, Daniel Kahneman tells us, is oblivious. Bridging those two extremes is the central challenge of our times. – © Guardian News & Media 2016
Ruth Greenspan Bell is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.