Don't Even Think About It- Why is Global Warming too much for our brains?
Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
George Marshall 2014
We've all heard the warnings. Our planet is warming due to the greenhouse effect, which is getting worse because of man-made carbon pollution. Greenhouse gases like Carbon Dioxide and Methane are keeping the sun's heat in, and as we keep adding more to the atmosphere, it will get hotter and hotter. Scientists are all in agreement that it is happening and the evidence from the last few decades show unmistakable trends all over the Earth of climate change, ice melt, and habitat destruction.
If all this is going on, why aren't more people talking about it? Why are politicians avoiding the topic and businesses only pretending to make a difference through climate theater? With the enormous stakes and challenges that global warming presents, why are we still stuck in a phony debate while clinging to fossil fuels like we always have?
These important questions are dealt with in this fascinating book by George Marshall. Marshall is a British environmentalist who has been at the forefront of the issue for 25 years. This book doesn't rehash all of the data and statistics on climate science, but instead looks into the human psyche and all of our cognitive biases that protect us from seeing the dangers that face us. Marshall calls global warming a "wicked problem", and looks at how humans tend to over-prepare for some disasters that never happen while ignoring hidden threats that don't fit their fixed mindsets.
If an alien species had a heat ray trained on earth and was rapidly warming the climate so that they could move in and take over, we would take quick and determined action to defeat them and destroy the heat ray. But with this wicked problem and there are no aliens- just us, and the heat ray isn't working rapidly, it's going ever so slowly, and like the frogs in gradually boiling water, we won't know what hit us until it's too late. Our defense instincts are stuck in the 20th century as we spend trillions on fighter jets, guns, and aircraft carriers. The real threats of the 21st century are turning out to be Mother Nature through pandemics, droughts, firestorms, and hurricanes, and we are devoting precious little time or energy to fighting them.
Marshall visits with victims of climate disasters in Texas and New Jersey, and they turn out to be even less likely to believe in global warming than people who haven't experienced natural disasters. Some of the states most threatened by extreme weather- Florida, Louisiana, and Oklahoma are also ones that elect politicians who are the loudest deniers of climate change science. He goes into an examination of cognitive biases like confirmation bias , hyperbolic discounting, and availability bias to try to explain why people refuse to accept the truth about what's threatening their homes.
The question that Marshall keeps coming back to over and over in this book is why isn't this being discussed more? Why is only one group of climate change believers such as himself worried about this while the rest of society ignores it? It all comes down to needing the right messenger for the message. Environmentalists have been pigeon-holed as tree-huggers and hippies for decades, and while most people say they care about the environment, they see the environmental movement as extreme and tend to discount most of their warnings as sensationalist. Global warming advocacy is dominated by many rich and famous celebrities like Al Gore, Bill Gates, Madonna, Jane Fonda, and half of Hollywood, all of whom fly private jets and live carbon-rich lifestyles that make them look like hypocrites. Then you have Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who is not a rich celebrity, but whose harsh rhetoric has turned off many who don't trust children to know anything of importance. The Green New Deal proposal from progressive activists is routinely mocked as a government takeover of energy and is a non-starter for many. And then there are the scientists- those pointy-headed know-it-alls who we suspect are probably right but who insist on not giving definitive predictions or exact timelines. The science of climate change is confusing for many, and the fact that any ambiguity exists at all is enough for some to shrug and say it's not a resolved theory (it is) and can be put off. Marshall's main take is that we need better communicators if the message is to get out to the deniers and skeptics that prevent any actions from taking place.
The book makes an interesting turn at the end proposing that climate change activists turn to the language of religion to make this a moral issue, not just an environmental one. Organized religion has the ability to reach people emotionally and prod them into action, and something like this could work for the climate crisis as well. Activists need to resist simple framing and create a heroic challenge with a narrative of cooperation and conviction using personal stories of struggle and redemption. Environmentalists need to stop preaching to the choir and instead try to reach the people who aren't getting how urgent this problem is. Reaching them will be an enormous challenge in this age of tribalism and polarization, but the stakes are high and there are many ways to look at the issues and questions without losing an audience.
One of the more interesting concepts that Marshall presents is that of the tailpipe and the wellhead. Most of our efforts today are in trying to control the emissions coming from our cars and factories- (the tailpipe), but no one is looking at cutting back oil and gas exploration and burning (the wellhead). Economies are still heavily dependent on cheap, carbon-laden energy. We will only get a grip on climate change if we can stop companies from pumping the stuff out of the ground, something that fossil fuel companies will be resisting with existential force as things get hotter.
A few other tidbits I got from this book:
- Climate had indeed been cooling for the last 2000 years, but that cooling has reversed to a warming trend starting with the industrial revolution (1900) onward. Climate deniers use this trend to confuse people and spread doubt.
- Noted climate skeptic and physicist Richard Mueller took on a climate study in 2008 that completely changed his mind after he saw the data. Climate deniers who had supported him dropped him and discounted his findings.
- The Smithsonian in Washington, DC has very little in its scientific exhibits dealing with climate change. David Koch and Shell Oil are huge contributors to museums and that causes them to steer clear of the entire controversy.
- Attitudes towards climate change in the US started to go downhill around 2007 with the financial crisis. When the economy goes bad, people's limited capacity for worry gets used up and climate change fades into the background.
- Carbon capture, or taking carbon directly out of the atmosphere, is our best hope of avoiding the greenhouse effect, but it is still hopelessly uneconomical. Unless this comes through, the only other hope is renewable energy and alternative fuels.
- Corporate America has been trying to shift the blame onto individuals when most of the big decisions are made by them. Recycling, electric cars, and energy-efficient light bulbs are nice but barely make a dent in the problem.
- People are losing sight of the future. Asking random people about what things will be like in 20 years brings about shrugs and pessimism. It's almost as if we've accepted our fate and are in denial about it at the same time.
The book closes with a dire warning about what could happen if mean temperatures go up as much as scientists fear- 4 degrees centigrade. At that level much of the earth will become unlivable with large crop declines and mass extinctions inevitable. Currently, it's estimated that global temperatures have warmed 1 degree since 1900 and fossil fuels first were used en-masse. The Paris agreement sets the goal of limiting it to 1.5 or 2 degrees for the rest of the century, but to get there a major restructuring of the economy has to begin NOW.
Global warming is both an urgent problem and one that's easily ignored. This makes it nearly impossible to solve given the level of denial that shows up in all levels of society. Books like this one at least ask the right questions, and hopefully more productive discussion will follow before it becomes too late.