Our psychology makes us neglect the victims of climate change

November 30, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As a psychologist it is both fascinating and frightening to see how the threat of climate change is dealt with. In the magazine Nature, in June this year, a group of scientists claimed that in about fifty years time, the global average temperature will be higher than it has ever been during the time humans have lived on Earth. James Hansen, leading climate researcher from USA, says that if we extract all the fossil fuel that is contained in the ground, we will probably not survive as a species. And already several hundred thousand humans die every year as a consequence of global warming and floodings and extreme heat waves all over the world. This summer gives us a hint of what is to come.

Most climate researchers say we need to start to decrease green house gas emissions this decade. We have been given the task to change our societies within a few years so that a human disaster might be avoided.The reaction of society to this threat ought therefore to be akin to that before an approaching world war: Big headlines, fierce debates in parliamentary extra sessions and demonstrations that demand immediate measures. Instead the debate is dominated by the ordinary issues about unemployment and economic growth. The climate threat is not perceived as an imminent reality.

The lack of ability to deal with the climate issue is a moral crime against future generations. How is it that we have the knowledge that humanity is heading to a dire future but do so little to prevent the catastrophe?

I believe the explanation is psychological. One explanation is that we, to a high degree, are driven by short-term benefits. Psychological experiments show that we find it hard to consider the future negative consequences of our decisions. This can also be described as saying that the danger with climate change is too abstract to be emotionally perceivable. An attempt to make the consequences clear has been made by the American professor in philosophy, John Nolt. He has tried to calculate how many people will be injured or killed in the future as a result of US emissions of green house gases. The estimate is that every US citizen will harm or kill two other people. Even if we write this off as merely an estimate, it gives us a hint about the consequences of global warming. The emission per capita in a country like Sweden is about a third of that of the USA. Based on Nolt’s estimations, this means that most Swedes would cause injury or death to another person, and Sweden as a country would cause suffering and death to about 6 million people.

The thought that other people will be inflicted by our way of living doesn´t in itself make us motivated to propose measures that decrease the emission of green house gases. It has to do with a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility. No sane person would take a flight if she knew that that specific flight would lead to Maruf, a farmer in Bangladesh, getting his house flooded or that his youngest daughter Sumi would die. But that is not the way global warming works. Instead the results of my particular emissions are invisible. Thus no specific individuals have any direct responsibility for any specific negative event. The idea has been formulated as follows by the American philosopher Dale Jamieson “Today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible. This is a new problem.” Or note the words of the American psychologist Dan Gilberts: “global warming lacks a moustache”.

Gilbert has also stated that one of the problems with the global warming is that it, paradoxically, can be said to be too slow. Even if we succeed in limiting global warming to two degrees, it is likely that the sea level in a hundred years time will rise by about a metre. If this level were to increase over a period of 1000 years, the human population might be able to adapt in a reasonable way. If the sea level instead rose by a metre over 10 years, the global population would face a shocking realisation. It would be noticed even in a country like Sweden that something was wrong. A rise of that speed would thereby create a motivation to make sure the rise wouldn’t reach three or five metres. What is happening now – that the sea level will rise by at least a metre over the next 100 years – will affect millions of people when fertile land is submerged. At the same time, the long time perspective makes it hard for us humans, living at present, to take measures that are radical enough to prevent this and other bigger threats from becoming a reality.

A diabolic aspect of the global warming is thus that it proceeds too fast for us to adapt in a lenient way but too slow for us to realise it’s reality. And we don’t get any help from our inherent fears (such as fear of the dark or of snakes) since carbon dioxide is neither visible nor does it have any smell and in suitable amounts it is even beneficial for life on Earth. The threats are instead transmitted through bone dry research papers. And reports like that don’t create strong emotions of fear and anger but rather lead to a vague anxiety. So, if we look to our emotions we will think it’s not that dangerous anyhow. Because the human has evolved from the monkey and from a combination of luck and skill (abstract thinking) and created a technological world, we aren’t fitted to take consideration of the atmospheric consequences of our actions.

The conclusion is that as long as we humans are driven by our normal psychology – giving more attention to advantages in the present than to disadvantages in the long run – we will not do enough to limit the global warming. We will be like the frog that allows itself to be boiled just by warming the water slowly enough.

Does this mean that the situation is hopeless? Not quite. For society to enter a new phase of direction, three things is needed. One is fast public general education; to break what Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström call “the great denial” and make people accept knowledge about the state of the planet. The second is for us to try to visualise the consequences climate change has on our own close environment to make it easier to understand emotionally what we are doing. The third is to start to address the climate issue as an ethical issue and not a technological problem.

To view the climate issue as an ethical matter means that we don’t have the right to give future generations of humans worse living conditions than the ones we have at the present. Thus we need to use measures radical enough to prevent this from happening. To be able to succeed we first need to be more psychologically sophisticated. We need to reassess what’s important in life. Deal with the illusion and attraction of an ever increasing consumption, and instead prioritise an ethic with global consideration. So we need to get a psyche that is adapted to a globalised world where one person’s own life is dependent on how other people live their lives. In short, get values that lead to a mental adjustment, and realise that another way to live is possible.

Only by being governed by a globalised ethic will we be able to use our common sense to advocate enough political decisions. Our emotions will not be strong enough until the disaster is perceivable by our senses. That is, when we see that Titanic actually is sinking.

If we don’t learn to be governed by such an ethic, but claim that the aim is to be focused on better living conditions for current living citizens (though of coursed garnished with talk that we should, at the same time and in the meantime, also solve the climate issue) the cynicism becomes obvious. Or is there really anyone that believes there is any realism in handling such a monstrous difficult problem as global warming if it isn’t even on the top of the agenda?

As a result of a global ethic we see to it that countries like Sweden quickly cut emissions. Furthermore we need to allocate resources to alleviate the ones worst affected by climate changes, for instance by reforestation of land. Take funds from the defense budget because it is not fighter jets that will give security in the 21stcentury but investment in more equal living conditions in a global world. The result is a society with a lower rate of consumption, but with a sustainable way of living. Because the second half of the 20thcentury was oil-intoxicated and consumption-inflated society that we need to leave behind us, whether we like it or not. Instead we can live in a society that gives us a moral dignity.

If we despite warnings from scientists chose to do politics as business as usual, we have to expect that the verdict of the future will be a harsh one. Already during the 2020’s and the 2030’s the ones that grow up will see their parents as rather peculiar creatures. Self occupied and psychological primitive, that had a chance to make a difference for the future of the world, but declined to take it. Then we are unable to say that we didn’t know, because we know. And we can’t blame it on our psyche. It might be peculiar that our meat eating, our commuter queuing to our jobs, and that desired air flight to the sun and the warmth, increase the risk for yet unborn people to starve to death in a future. It is an insight that is hard to take seriously and know how to handle. In that way we are to be pitied: it’s in a way very hard to grasp that we kill people in the 21stcentury. It’s not direct and it’s not intentional. But we have knowledge that we sacrifice other human beings lives for our own comfort and convenience. The fact that we know this makes us morally accountable. If we aren’t prepared to propose necessary measures we therefore will be accused for our passivity.

The objection against the demand that a mental adjustment must be initiated immediately is obvious: It’s impossible, and when it’s possible, it’s not possible other than in the long run. Against such objections there are two answers. One is: as the situation in the world is at the moment, it’s only the things that seems unrealistic, that is realistic. The second answer is: we make the changes now because it is necessary. Everything else is a waste of time.

Billy Larsson, Ph D in Psychology, is a licensed psychologist and therapist, who has studied environmental psychology at Gothenburg University.


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This post was written by Billy Larsson

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