Boy oh boy do some folks love bashing the climate skeptic. It’s become an intramural sport on-line. But when we focus so much attention on those who outright deny the reality of climate change, do we end up overlooking our own climate denial? Oliver Burkman at the Guardian raises this questions and muses on the psychological challenges that interrupt our understanding of the crisis.
He explains that humans are far better at responding to immediate risks than dangers that unfold over time.
We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.
Drawing on George Marshall’s book, Don’t Even Think About It–Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, Burkman raises the complication that most of us have blind spots when it comes to climate change.
Even once you grasp that people in general are terrible at responding to a threat such as climate change, though, there’s another hurdle: it remains much harder to accept how far you’re prone to such psychological pitfalls yourself. (This bias against perceiving your own bias has its own label: the bias blind spot.) It’s easy enough for any of us who aren’t climate-change deniers to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of them: they’re mired in denial and defence mechanisms, busily constructing online communities of like-minded people to help shield themselves from guilt, from accepting the need for personal sacrifices, or from contemplating their mortality. It’s much more difficult to accept that, in a subtler sense, you might be a climate change denier yourself. But the drive to eliminate cognitive dissonance – to rid yourself of the discomfort that comes from holding contradictory beliefs, or failing to act in accordance with your beliefs – is an awesomely powerful thing.
The article is well worth reading if for no other reason than to give a helpful overview to the most important points in George Marshall’s excellent book. I have found this book to be very helpful in understanding climate change and especially in communicating it. I’ve applied some of Marhall’s ideas with real success and talk about it in Episode 25 of Climate Stew, How to Talk about Climate Change in 3 Easy Steps.