Why Humans Have Trouble With Anthropogenic Climate Change

I came across an interesting editorial today in the Los Angeles Times. Daniel Gilbert writes about how our evolutionary history and biology make it difficult for us to deal with problems like anthropogenic climate change (global warming):

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

(continue reading at the L. A. Times)

He lists several major reasons why it’s tough for humans to be really moved to take action against problems like this, and brings up a number of good points. He discusses reasons such as difficulty observing the slow rate of change, and the long delay before major adverse affects. This difficulty affects us in multiple ways; it’s relevant to medicine as well:

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t.

I run into this problem with patients all the time.

Of course, one thing that tends to set us apart from other animals is our ability to remember, transmit, and record information, meaning we can decide to take steps that aren’t always consistent with our instincts or evolutionary heritage. It’s up to us to step up and solve this problem, instead of hoping it will go away on its own.

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11 thoughts on “Why Humans Have Trouble With Anthropogenic Climate Change

  1. Hi Darmok,

    Thanks for finding this article. It only takes a look outside America to show that the writer of that article is providing a national argument for a global problem that is viewed very differently outside the United States.

    That psychologist is writing (and providing reasons or excuses) for the culture with which he is familiar, and generalising that for all mankind. He is not describing a generalised reality or truth for humans worldwide, but representing American societal preferences.

    I wonder how psychologists study and are trained in the U.S., because they miss this culture-specific point often. It is obvious to parents from Europe, for example, when talking with school counsellors Stateside that we do not have the same cultural expectations for our children as American parents.

    This daft paragraph would have to be inverted to make sense in Europe, where gay sex is accepted, flag burning is no problem, and healthier and more responsible ways of living ar encouraged by governments!

    Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

  2. You’re right, Inel, but I think you misunderstand the point. Yes, he is writing for an American audience (and my post is largely targeted towards Americans as well). Not all of the references would make sense to or apply to non-Americans.

    That Europe has long accepted anthropogenic climate change as a problem is true, and I also acknowledge that it has been far more proactive about taking steps to combat it. Yet I feel that the attributes he mentions apply to humans in general, even if they manifest themselves in different ways among different cultures.

    Given many Americans’ reluctance to make changes, the author explains it terms of some basic human attributes. It does not imply the converse is true: possessing those attributes does not necessarily mean all cultures will be reluctant. For instance, I could write about the evolutionary roots of our obesity problem (adaptations for an energy-scarce world and such). Someone from another culture could read it; in this culture obesity is not so prevalent, perhaps because they naturally embrace walking and physical fitness, or perhaps raising livestock is tougher in their land, or perhaps they’re just more attuned to health and fitness. It wouldn’t invalidate the explanation of pan-human attributes that contribute to obesity, even if these attributes haven’t contributed to obesity in that culture. Am I making any sense?

  3. Hi Darmok. Yes, you make complete sense, as you always do 🙂

    The author is highlighting basic human attributes, I agree, but his article excuses, rather than challenges, people to consciously use their brains in a more appropriate way.

    The people he refers to worry about things they know little about and they are instructed, groomed, and primed to worry about … like anthrax. The manipulation of these people by special interests enabled by the media is what concerns me.

    It does not help address climate change when such an authority as a psychology professor at Harvard University reassures people that their response is perfectly natural, without his offering a suggestion that they rise above their base instincts, as civilised people are meant to do, and use their intelligence and emotional responses to actively care for the world in which we live.

    Perhaps that is the role of another professional who should write an Op-Ed in the L.A. Times on this topic in response …

  4. Really fascinating article, Darmok – glad I read it. I think the etymologist in me likes the word anthropogenic now. As for it not really positing any solutions, it certainly explains why others DON’T do more to solve it either, and that can well be a ‘this is why you aren’t getting off your arse, you silly bugger … so get off your arse, you silly bugger!’

    It is a victorious battle in the War On Ignorism.

    Well posted 🙂

  5. I agree with Inel that ignorance of global warming is not a global trend, and that Daniel Gilbert’s editorial seems to analyse the mentality of Americans, and apply it to humanity in general… which is quite common for American authors, politicians, scientists, etc etc, so never mind.

    However, global warming is in general (in the 1sth world except US) very much of a hot issue which is frequently referred to and discussed in the media, and integrated into political and commercial planning. If you are building a new shopping centre, or managing a travel agency or an insurance company, you would take into consideration global warming, I think. How will the climate changes affect the business in 20 years? No one knows, however, I believe few do not try to estimate it in one way or another.

    It is not that everybody agree global warming can be blamed on human activity. But the topic is being discussed and taken into consideration, so claiming a general situation of ignorance of global warming, is way off road.

    I am a Dane, currently in Australia, and has never been to the US. However, I have read (too many) American text books in uni, seen loads of American movies in my spare time, read American articles, news, etc.— most of these sources had a strong implicit assumption that American culture is universal somehow.

  6. → Inel I interpreted the closing sentence of his article (“It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions”) as such a challenge. Furthermore, I do not feel that every essay or article on global warming must include exhortations to readers to take action. In my opinion, it is quite helpful to analyze why people don’t appreciate the existence or urgency of global warming. By explaining the ways our reasoning processes are flawed, by making people aware of the imbalance, it can stimulate them to consciously reassess global warming rather than writing it off as unimportant.

    → Rusty I’m glad you liked it! Hah, yes, I like “anthropogenic” (and “anthropomorphize”) as well.

    → Anne (and Inel) I believe you are overreacting. He is an American author, writing for an American audience. Yes, there are many cultures to which this article would not apply. I doubt avian influenza is of major concern to the Haya people of Tanzania, for instance. Just because people have access to and read American works in other countries doesn’t mean that those works were intended for those audiences. In fact, I think it’s a bit inappropriate to read another country’s works and then complain that it doesn’t apply to you.

  7. @Darmok, So you think it was inappropriate, all right. When I read expressions like “humans” (eg “why it’s tough for humans to be really moved to take action against problems like this”) I initially felt that category applied to me, but I can see now that I should have interpreted it as “Americans” and minded my own business. I guess that is a thing about the Internet: you read opinions which seems to be applied to a general context, but which are in fact assumed to be applied only to a local (national) context.

    However, while I do see your point, I don’t think it is relevant to compare Tanzania’s local culture’s interests to “the rest of the world” as a whole. There is an ongoing global debate on global warming taking place on the Internet and everywhere, and not just in culturally isolated corners somewhere irrelevant to anywhere else.

  8. You’re right; as a human you certainly belong in that group. It just seems strange to me to simultaneously protest to be included in the group and complain that the characterizations don’t apply to you.

    Obviously, our personalities and thought processes are shaped by both our genetics and our environment. One could say that genes lay the foundation, and that environment (including culture) molds it.

    No matter how much you and Inel protest, our brains (those of humans in general) really are poorly equipped to recognize and respond to dangers like global warming. We evolved to respond most strongly to immediate, personal danger. That we can realize this is a problem and take steps to correct it is a testament to our incredible culture.

    However, I believe most if not all of our behaviors can find some basis in biology. For instance, the concern that we share about global warming and the future harm to humanity worldwide can be seen as an expansion of the response to protect closely related members of one’s species from harm.

    As a physician (and someone who is interested in science), I find it fascinating to explore the biological roots of behaviors and our other aspects (for instance, obesity in humans, or domestication in dogs). Even if you don’t share this fascination, I just wish you would let us enjoy these explorations without criticizing them for not exploring the areas you find interesting. There is room for articles on both of our interests on the Internet.

  9. I find biological roots of behaviour quite fascinating too – that’s why I read your post in the first place. But observations tend to be biased by the cultural glasses they are observed through. However, I can see that my comment somehow provoked you. Don’t worry, you won’t hear more from me.

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