How a quirk of the brain prevents us from caring about climate change

A very human way of thinking is limiting our ability to stop the climate apocalypse. Some of us can overcome it

Published May 8, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Don't Care That The World Is Burning (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Don't Care That The World Is Burning (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On April 6th, Dr. Peter Kalmus, NASA climate scientist and author, walked up to the JP Morgan Chase bank building in Los Angeles, pulled a pair of handcuffs out of a cloth bag and chained himself to the front door. With tears in his eyes, he spoke about the climate crisis to a group of supporters.  

"We've been trying to warn you guys for so many decades that we're heading towards a f**king catastrophe," he says in a video from the protest which has since gone viral on Twitter. "And we end up being ignored. The scientists of the world are being ignored. And it's got to stop. We're going to lose everything."

Like me, Kalmus is a scientist – passionate about uncovering the nature of reality. A reality being threated by rapidly rising global temperatures. Unlike me, Kalmus is actually doing something about it. He is a member of Scientist Rebellion – a group of academics and scientists fighting to draw attention to "the reality and severity of the  climate  and  ecological  emergency  by  engaging  in  non-violent  civil  disobedience."

Watching Kalmus give his impassioned speech on the steps of the bank, I am both humbled and envious. I wonder why it is that I don't seem to care about the climate crisis as much as he does. The best explanation from my perspective as a cognitive scientist involves a fundamental flaw in my human psychology: the inability to care all that much about what happens in the distant future. But I wondered how Peter Kalmus might explain the public's apparent lack of enthusiasm when it comes to fighting the good fight. So I wrote him to ask.

"I think climate denial in the media plays a huge role here," he wrote back to me. "Bits and pieces of the emergency are reported (and they are scary) but they are not related to the future and how they will impact civilization, i.e., potential collapse of civilization is never mentioned."

There are solid numbers to back up this claim. "Less than a quarter of the public hear about climate change in the media at least once a month," wrote Mark Hertsgaard, editor of Columbia Journalism Review, and one of the co-founders of Covering Climate Now, a media collaboration fighting to get more news coverage of the climate crisis.  And when these stories are reported, they rarely talk about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, but instead present hopeful (and often delusional) solutions.

"The effectively irreversible nature of most climate impacts is never mentioned either," wrote Kalmus. "Instead, usually tech 'solutions' are highlighted, or a sense that we still have 'budget' for some heating milestone (e.g., 2°C) which is implied to be 'safe.' So there is no urgency in the news media."

The thing is, I do understand the urgency. And yet, I do almost nothing about it. I spend most of my days reading books, watching Netflix, and planning supper. Like almost everyone on this planet, I am not acting like there is a climate emergency.

The thing is, I do understand the urgency. I have read the findings presented in the third volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on April 4th. It was a document full of unequivocally dire warnings, and the catalyst for Kalmus' protest. It warns that we are on course for a rise in global temperature well beyond the 1.5 °C goal set by the Paris Agreement (and possibly headed up toward 3°C) by the end of the century with no functional plan in place to stop it from happening. Just to be clear, that could render most of the planet uninhabitable for our species. I know this. And yet, I do almost nothing about it. I spend most of my days reading books, watching Netflix, and planning supper. Like almost everyone on this planet, I am not acting like there is a climate emergency.

It's possible that I, like many others, am behaving in a way common to someone processing the threat of impending cultural trauma. This is a term to refer to a horrendous event that irrevocably changes a society's identity or destroys the social order. A common response to an impending threat of this magnitude is to fight to maintain the status quo. In doing so, a kind of social inertia crops up where people do everything they can to keep living their lives the way they always have, despite the looming implosion of society. Perhaps I, like so many others, am fully aware of the horrific outcomes of climate change, but my mind generates a kind of trauma-avoiding denial that shields me from reality. It helps me tune out the IPCC report and tune in to "Bridgerton" instead.

There is, however, and even older psychological response than denial that could explain why I, like so many others, am not chaining myself to banks in the face of the impending extinction of humanity.

Edward Wasserman is a psychologist studying animal behavior and author of the book "As If By Design" who offered an elegantly simple explanation as to why humans are so bad at dealing with climate change. It boils down to the way all animals — including humans — have been designed by evolution to deal with common everyday problems like finding food, safety, or sex.

The problem is that humans, like all animals, evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions — the primary driver of behavior — are designed to force us to act based on the potential for an immediate reward.

"Being the first to spot a ripe berry or a deadly predator might give an organism only a short-lived interval of time in which to engage in adaptive action," Wasserman wrote in his blog for Psychology Today.  "This reality prompts organisms to act impulsively. However, such impulsivity is obviously at odds with appreciating and contending with the slowly rising warning signs for climate change."

The problem is that humans, like all animals, evolved to solve problems in the here and now. This means that our emotions — the primary driver of behavior — are designed to force us to act based on the potential for an immediate reward.

Humans are unique in that, sometime in the past 250 thousand years, we evolved the ability to think about the distant future. We can contemplate what our lives might be like months or even years down the road — something that no other animal species can do (as far as we know). But this recently evolved cognitive skill functions separately from the ancient emotional system that generates everyday animal behavior.

If you, for example, decide to invest in a retirement savings scheme, it's because you appealed to a complex intellectual calculation concerning what your life might be like decades in the future. There is nothing immediately satisfying about saving money right now. Retirement schemes are not impulsive acts that generate dopamine rushes, like drinking a daquiri, solving Wordle, or eating a chocolate chip cookie. Far-future planning is a purely intellectual exercise.

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I use the term prognostic myopia to denote this disconnect between the human ability to think about the distant future and our inability to actually feel strongly about that future. Prognostic means one's ability to predict the future; myopia means nearsightedness. It's prognostic myopia that explains the inertia that individuals, societies, and governments have when it comes to solving climate change. The IPCC report was clear that fossil fuel extraction needed to cease as soon as possible, lest we set ourselves on a course for extinction. And yet, on April 11th, less than a week after the IPCC report, the Canadian government approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil project, which will extract 300 million barrels of oil off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. On April 15th, the Biden administration announced that The Bureau of Land Management will resume and thus increase oil and gas leasing on public lands (breaking a campaign promise). In both cases, this is exactly the thing the IPCC report said we have to stop doing immediately if we want to prevent human extinction. This is prognostic myopia in action. It feels more important to address the threat of rising oil prices or the stability of the economy in the here and now even if it hastens our extinction in a few decades. It's both unforgivable and completely understandable within the context of human psychology.

Kalmus, however, is different. He is reacting to future threats as if they are a present danger, seemingly sidestepping the problem of prognostic myopia. His emotional reaction is raw, unyielding, and driving him to act. This is both exceptional as far as the human conditions goes, and admirable. If we heed his warnings and act with the urgency outlined in the IPCC report, there is hope that our species will avoid extinction.

To admit that humans are governed by impulsivity and cowed into nonchalance in the face of cultural trauma by prognostic myopia is not an excuse for inaction. We might not all feel the same way about the future as Peter Kalmus, but we can concede that we should be listening to him. "People should be joining together, putting in significant effort, and taking risks to wake up society," he wrote me. "Civil disobedience is the most effective thing I've found so far for pushing back against the cultural wall of inaction and despair."

It's more than likely that I, like most people, will never feel the emotional connection to the problem of climate change that Kalmus does. But knowing that there is a psychological explanation for our lack of emotional investment, we can instead appeal to our intellect to guide our actions. We can decide to listen to those scientists literally yelling at us to do something. Perhaps it's time that we let those who can feel the future guide us into it.

Read more on climate change and psychology:

By Justin Gregg

Justin Gregg is a Senior Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project and an Adjunct Professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he lectures on animal behavior and cognition. Originally from Vermont, Justin studied the echolocation abilities of wild dolphins in Japan and The Bahamas. He currently lives in rural Nova Scotia where he writes about science and contemplates the inner lives of the crows that live near his home. His new book, "If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity" will be published by Little, Brown in August 2022. More info or to pre-order: https://tinyurl.com/NietzscheNarwhal

Follow Justin on Twitter @justindgregg. Justin's website: justingregg.com

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Climate Change Explainer Ipcc Report Prognostic Myopia Psychology