Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?

“‘Many climate scientists find the response to global warming completely
baffling,’ says Elke Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the
chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change’s Public
Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group.”

“The truly disconcerting thing about this work is that it shows how
difficult it is to change people’s views and behaviors with factual

AlterNet  November 14, 2008

Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat
of Catastrophic Climate Change?

By Lisa Bennett

Three years ago, I became obsessed with global
warming. Practically overnight, my worries about
its potential effects outstripped my worries
about so many other national and global issues,
even personal ones.

Indeed, as the mother of two young boys, I began
to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every
bump and scrape on my children’s little bodies
and budding egos, but largely ignored the threat
likely to put sizeable areas of the world,
including parts of the coastal city where we
live, underwater within their lifetime.

That year, 2005, marked a turning point for many
people. After decades of observation,
speculation, and analysis, the world’s climate
scientists had reached a consensus, and
increasingly the general public was accepting it.
As USA Today reported, “The Debate is Over: Globe
is Warming.”

The next step, scientists advised, was action. We
needed to take significant and urgent steps to
cut our dependence on fossil fuels by 25 percent
or more, something NASA’s top climate scientist,
James Hansen, said we had only a decade to do if
we were to avoid the great global warming tipping
point-that level at which increased temperatures
would unleash unprecedented global disasters.

So how are we doing?

Surely, some things have changed. Sales of the
Toyota Prius and other hybrids have skyrocketed.
Many of us have converted to the new
energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. A
flood of books are hitting the market offering
tips about how to save the Earth. And there is a
frenzy of advertising about everything from
“eco-friendly” houses to “green” hair salons,
showing just how widespread Americans’ desire is
to do the right thing for the environment.

Yet none of this adds up to the significant and
urgent action scientists have called for. The
question is why: Why don’t more of us respond
more seriously to the most serious threat to the
planet in human history?

“Many climate scientists find the response to
global warming completely baffling,” says Elke
Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the
chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate
Change’s Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working
Group. According to Weber, climate scientists
just can’t understand why government and the
public have been so slow to act on the
extraordinary information these scientists have

But now a growing number of social scientists are
offering their expertise in behavioral decision
making, risk analysis, and evolutionary
influences on human behavior to explain our
limited responses to global warming. Among the
most significant factors they point to: The way
we’re psychologically wired and socially
conditioned to respond to crises makes us
ill-suited to react to the abstract and seemingly
remote threat posed by global warming. Their
insights are also leading to some intriguing
recommendations about how to get people to take
action-including the potentially dangerous
prospect of playing on people’s fears.

Our misleading emotions

There are a significant number of researchers now
devoted to studying how people decide that
something is truly bad for them. They are called
“risk-analysis scholars,” and they believe there
are, in general, two ways we may assess a risk
such as global warming. One is through our
analytic abilities, by which we examine the
scientific evidence and make logical decisions
about how to respond. This is the process that
was used by climate scientists to reach the
strong and clear conclusion that the risks of
global warming are momentous and require
immediate and significant action.

But most of us do not rely on our analytic
abilities to evaluate the risk of global
warming-or any risk, for that matter.

Instead, we rely on the second and more common
way of perceiving risk: our emotions.

“For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a
statistic. Risk is a feeling,” says Weber. We are
swayed by our feelings, and those feelings-while
an essential part of the decision-making
process-can be misleading guides, depending on
the type of risk involved.

For example, in a recent paper on how emotion
shapes risk perception, Weber cites the growing
number of parents who choose to forego having
their children vaccinated against diphtheria,
tetanus, and pertussis. To most physicians, this
is a highly irrational decision, since
vaccinations help prevent serious illnesses and
pose very slight risks. So why do parents make
such decisions? Because when they learn that
roughly one child out of 1,000 will suffer from
high fever and one out of 14,000 will suffer
seizures as a result of vaccinations, their
emotions lead them to imagine that their child
will be the one to suffer.

“If I feel scared,” says Weber, “that overshadows
any amount of pallid statistical information.”

And perhaps most importantly, emotions, more than
anything else, are what motivate us to act. As
decades of behavioral decision research has
shown, most people have to feel a risk before
they do something about it.

In this way, our limited response to global
warming is similar to our limited response to
mass murder or genocide, according to Paul
Slovic, a professor of psychology at the
University of Oregon and the president of
Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies human
judgment, decision making, and risk.

In a series of research papers, Slovic has
explored why reports of genocide so often fail to
stir us to action. These reports, he writes,
usually stress the thousands or even millions of
people who have been killed. In doing so, they
speak to our analytic abilities but not our
feelings. Slovic has found that people are much
more likely to donate money to a cause after
reading the story of a single victim than after
reading a statistic citing a million victims.

Like genocide, the long-term consequences of
global warming are so enormous we can’t wrap our
heads around them. Scientists predict in 40 years
global warming will displace 20 million people
from Beijing, 40 million from Shanghai and
surrounding areas, and 60 million from Calcutta
and Bangladesh. These statistics are daunting,
but they’re abstract; they don’t inspire us to
feel for the one individual whose life will be
put at risk. As a result, we fail to take
appropriate action.

And as with others, so with ourselves: It is
emotions, such as fear or worry, that motivate us
to protect ourselves from risk. With global
warming, this presents an even more challenging
situation because, says Weber, our emotions are
shaped by two forms of past experience: either
direct personal experience or evolutionary
experience that still guides human behavior. We
feel the hairs stand up on the back of our necks
if someone in a dark alley appears dangerous.
This happens because, from an evolutionary
perspective, deep in our psyches we know what it
feels like to have another human being physically
threaten us. There’s also the chance that we’ve
been threatened or assaulted personally.

But we have no innate experience of global
warming that tells us, from personal or
evolutionary experience, that when we burn too
many fossil fuels, it causes the build-up of
greenhouse gases that trap warm air within the
Earth’s atmosphere, which, in turn, melts ice
caps and glaciers, raises ocean levels, and
causes hurricanes to intensify, floods to worsen,
droughts to increase, lakes and water supplies to
disappear, and, as in any such dire and
threatening circumstance, famine and warfare to
spread. As dramatic as these scenarios are, we
can’t feel them because we haven’t experienced
them (yet). Human-driven climate change is simply

“Global warming doesn’t make evolutionary sense
to us,” says Weber. “Our minds haven’t adjusted
to the much more complex technological risks that
are removed in space and time.”

Timing is everything

Our lack of past experience with global warming
is also exacerbated by the fact that global
warming is not a clear and present danger but,
rather, something that is projected to reveal its
most dramatic consequences decades from now.

“It’s a very well established fact about human
behavior,” says Slovic, “that we discount future
negative outcomes a great deal, especially if it
means having to postpone some immediate positive
benefit, such as the convenience of driving our
car.” He likens our attitudes toward the future
risks of global warming to how teenagers discount
the risk of smoking, despite abundant evidence of
its risks.

“Young people tend not to be quite clear about
whether there will be consequences from their
smoking, what they would be, and what it would be
like for them,” he says. “The future risk is not
imaginable, and that tends to make people more

The fact that global warming appears to represent
a hazard of nature also leads people to
underestimate the risk. “People don’t respect
nature and what it can do,” says Slovic. “They
feel nature is benign, even though it really

Case-in-point: He contrasts the response to
Hurricane Katrina with the response to September
11. “After Katrina, people started to pay more
attention to strengthening the levies even though
the information was available in advance. There
was a short period of time when there was a
heightened response, then it dampened.”

The response to September 11, in contrast, has
been far more significant and long-lasting, even
though, he says, “from a physical damage
standpoint, 9-11 was relatively smaller.” The
difference was that Katrina, which many
scientists believe was fueled by human-driven
global warming, seemed like an act of nature, and
that failed to trigger our millennia-old fears of
having our homes and lives invaded by a
stranger-fears evoked by September 11.

Reality vs. worldview

A third obstacle that limits people’s response to
global warming-and even their willingness to
believe in it-is also one of the most
intractable. In a series of recent studies, a
group of scholars from Yale and other
universities have been studying how cultural
values shape our perceptions of risk. Based on
the premise that Americans are culturally
polarized on a range of societal risks, from
global warming to gun control, Paul Slovic, Yale
Law School professor Dan Kahan, and others
analyzed the results of surveys and experiments
that matched the risk perceptions of some 5,000
Americans to the worldviews of those Americans.
Their finding: People may simply reject evidence
that clashes with their worldview.

“To a certain extent our attitude toward risk and
behaviors are conditioned not just by the raw
facts of the matter, but by the orientation that
we have to the world,” says Slovic.

In the case of global warming, researchers found
two general worldviews that seemed to have the
most significant influence on perception and
action. One group consists of egalitarians, or
people who prefer a society where wealth, power,
and opportunity are broadly distributed.
Researchers called the other group the
hierarchists, those who prefer a society that is
linear in its structure, with leaders on top and
followers below.

“What we’ve seen through this research is that
egalitarians are generally more concerned about
environmental risks over a range of hazards,
including global warming. Hierarchists tend to be
less concerned,” says Slovic. In fact, he says,
when it comes to perceptions of risk, one’s
worldview is vastly more influential than other
individual characteristics, such as race or
political ideology.

The researchers also found that when proposed
solutions to global warming clash with people’s
worldviews, those people are more likely to
reject evidence of the problem altogether. For
example, in one experiment, Kahan and his
colleagues gave two groups of people two
contrasting newspaper articles about global
warming. Both reported the problem in similar
terms: temperatures were rising, human behavior
was the cause of climate change, and global
warming could lead to disastrous environmental
and economic consequences if left unaddressed.
But the articles then went on to offer different
solutions: one called for increased regulation of
pollution emissions, while the other called for
revitalization of nuclear power.

When people with a hierarchical worldview
received the article that called for increased
regulation-policies currently associated with a
more egalitarian and liberal worldview-they were
more likely to reject that global warming was a
problem than when they received the article that
called for a revitalization of nuclear power.

This research helps explain the attitudes and
behaviors of global warming skeptics. Slovic says
it also shows how difficult it is to communicate
persuasively when people feel their worldview is

“People spin the information to keep their
worldview intact.” They do their best to hold
onto their worldviews, says Slovic, because so
much of their personal identity and social
networks are tied up in maintaining it.”

Fearful futures, hopeful actions

With such significant obstacles to spurring
action on global warming, what can social
scientists recommend about how to inspire the
necessary response?

First, communication about global warming needs
to reach people’s emotions and trigger fear, and
that means emphasizing the dramatic consequences
to come. “It is only the potentially catastrophic
nature of (rapid) climate change (of the kind
graphically depicted in the 2004 film The Day
After Tomorrow) and the global dimension of
adverse effects, which may create hardships for
future generations, that have the potential for
raising a visceral reaction to the risk,” Elke
Weber writes in a recent paper on why global
warming doesn’t scare us yet.

This means making future hardships vivid,
imaginable, personalized, and credible, says
Slovic. For example, he suggests that people
communicating about global warming answer the
questions: “How will it change the whole economy
and whole quality of life in a particular region?
Will the forests die out? Will the summers be so
hot and dry that the Earth will be uninhabitable?”

In setting out to evoke fear, however, one must
tread judiciously. “If people are being scared
without seeing a way out, it makes them
dysfunctional and freeze,” says Weber. “They will
switch channels and watch Britney Spears instead.”

And that leads to a second recommendation: People
need to be offered a set of actions they can take
to combat global warming. “In general, a good
guide is: Where does most of our energy get
used?” says Susanne C. Moser, co-editor of the
2007 anthology, Creating a Climate for Change.
The top three categories of energy-consumption
for individuals are transportation, home-energy
use, and food consumption. Already, plenty of
books and websites offer tips on how to reduce
energy use in all these areas. Reports on global
warming need to draw on these resources, so that
people feel there is something concrete they can
do about it.

Finally, beyond the many small energy-saving
solutions people can take, combating global
warming will require making people more aware of
the large-scale lifestyle changes that will
really make a difference. “I don’t want to have
to make a zillion little decisions,” says Baruch
Fischoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon
University and the former president of the
Society for Risk Analysis. “I’d like to see
people working out for me some alternative ways
of organizing my life where it will really be a
sustainable way to live.”

Indeed, figuring out these big lifestyles
changes, Fischoff suggests, is the practical work
that now lies ahead for climate and social

As for ordinary Americans like myself, I believe
that significant collective action on global
warming will come from a very personal place-such
as love for our kids, who will, after all, be
among those most likely to experience its
greatest consequences. But perhaps even more
significantly, I’m finding hope in knowing that
the drive to protect our children is another
universal desire for which most of us are, in
fact, hard-wired.

Reprinted from Greater Good, Vol. V, Issue 2
(Fall 2008), pp. 40-43. For more information,
please visit Greater Good magazine.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for
the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit dedicated
to education for sustainable living. She is

writing a book about parenting in the age of

global warming and can be reached at:

© 2008 Greater Good All rights reserved.
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