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Why are we wired to ignore climate change?

As news of climate catastrophes washes over us, is it an aversion to considering our own mortality that stops us from facing the facts?

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It’s been another one of those summers in which we’re being inundated with apocalyptic weather events.

Wildfires have ravaged Greece and Hawaii, the ambient temperatures of the ocean and air have been nudged a little higher into the record books, and as I write, Japan is bracing for flooding and disruption from Typhoon Lan. It’s sobering to think that however concerning the climate is this year, it’s likely to be the best year of what’s yet to come.  

This unrelenting crescendo of bleak news provokes a salvo of different responses, not all of which are helpful. There are of course some understandably alarmist responses, an example of which finds catharsis in the questionable approach of Just Stop Oil campaigners. Though in another (larger) camp, are those who either ignore or deny climate change, or at least the human contribution to it. The researcher and campaigner George Marshall authored a book in 2015 entitled Don’t even think about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change in which he points out that just as we’re wired to protect our welfare, we’re also wired to ignore threats that are too big to deal with, much like animals who are under serious threat and continue to groom themselves as if nothing is happening. It’s in this vein that we might hear the familiar bromides of it’s not my responsibility/they will find a way to fix it/the climate has always been changing/I haven’t seen anything to complain about”.  

Having a cognitive dissonance between our beliefs and our behaviour is hard to live with; when behaviour is too hard to change, our beliefs will adapt to find some measure of consistency. 

And yet, as writer and campaigner Alistair McIntosh points out in his book Riders on the Storm, “The price of denial, such deficit of courage, is that we lose our grounding in both truth and how the world is. We sacrifice…our capacity to respond in truth to the way it really is.”

It’s on a narrow line between alarmism and denialism that there is the potential for meaningful and profound transformation. The Greeks used the word kairos to describe a time that is opportune for change. Recognising the realities and implications of climate change seem to fit the definition of a kairos moment. As McIntosh puts it, climate change “…highlights our neurotic relationship with reality – our being out of kilter with nature, self and one another – and it may leave few things ever quite the same again.” Staring down the barrel of this realisation should precipitate a re-evaluation of priorities.  

Seeing reality from a different perspective often leads to transformation, sometimes dramatically so. Astronauts have often reported a cognitive shift in values and self-concept resulting from viewing the earth from space, a phenomenon called the ‘overview effect’. Though perhaps a more accessible parallel to us non-astronauts, is the shifting perspective we are likely to experience as we age. In a recent Hidden Brain podcast, Stanford Professor Laura Carstensen highlighted the counterintuitive finding that as people age they become happier, despite their diminishing prospects and failing bodies. One of the key reasons behind this is that one’s time horizon shrinks, such that you will only really spend time doing things that you really value. As Carstensen puts it, “We focus. We Savor. We see better what’s important and what’s not.” The same impact is seen on those who have near-death experiences (Laura Carstensen has her own account of this); it precipitates a reframing of values. This is perhaps why having memento moris was historically common; they acted as helpful reminders of one’s impending death (a topic that is pretty much taboo in modern Western culture). They remind us that life is fleeting, and the light of this knowledge can help us to spend our lives better. 

An awareness that we are destroying our only home might force us to pause and think about what we value, and evoke appropriate reverence towards this planet and all who sail on her. Like those escaping wildfires and being forced to decide what is worth throwing in a bag to escape with, we might experience a transformation in our values, something which should have very practical implications.  

I previously mentioned ‘apocalyptic’ weather events- the language of which is of course biblical. The word apocalypse literally means ‘unveiling’, which can be a helpful way of seeing climate change events. As we bear witness to these ongoing climate catastrophes- if we are paying attention- they will also reveal our orientation towards reality. Ancient wisdom has always compelled us to see the facts of a situation, and the biblical writers in particular frequently caution against delusions and distraction (especially those driven by self-interest), for life is vanishingly brief, fragile, and precious. It’s only in light of this reality that we’ll really seek out and prioritize what is important. Like Scrooge’s transformation in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, visions of a terrifying future have much to teach us about what is actually of value, and what it means to live well now. 

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