Have You Seen a Psychologist About Global Warming Lately?

Traits ingrained in the basic human condition may be preventing people from supporting more action against climate change.

Cass Sunstein, Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, poses for a photo in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington, in this photo taken March 16, 2011. Sunstein is at the center of the mammoth review of government rules and regulations. "The question is how to get it right, not do we want more or less," he said, promising members of Congress "everything is fair game".
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 29, 2013, 8 a.m.

If only we could find a couch big enough to fit the en­tire hu­man spe­cies, we could talk through what with­in our minds is pre­vent­ing us from act­ing more ag­gress­ively on glob­al warm­ing.

Bur­ied with­in fights over the sci­ence, eco­nomy, en­vir­on­ment, ex­treme weath­er, polit­ics, and lob­by­ing is a de­bate about how psy­cho­lo­gic­al traits in­grained in the ba­sic hu­man con­di­tion are pre­vent­ing people from sup­port­ing more ac­tion on glob­al warm­ing, des­pite the fact that most sci­ent­ists agree it’s only go­ing to get worse un­less hu­man­kind makes a con­cer­ted ef­fort to take ma­jor ac­tion soon.

In­deed, a United Na­tions re­port re­leased Fri­day con­firms with more cer­tainty than ever (95 per­cent) what most sci­ent­ists already know: that hu­mans, chiefly through our use of coal, oil, and nat­ur­al gas, are the key cause of the plan­et’s tem­per­at­ure rise.

This re­port is prob­ably not go­ing to trig­ger any sud­den sup­port for glob­al-warm­ing ac­tion. Sci­ence in and of it­self is not a ma­jor bar­ri­er to ac­tion; it’s the way people think about the sci­ence — and the oth­er factors that com­plic­ate the prob­lem of glob­al warm­ing.

“All the obstacles are daunt­ing — skep­ti­cism about the sci­ence, eco­nom­ic self-in­terest, and the dif­fi­culties of design­ing cost-ef­fect­ive ap­proaches and ob­tain­ing an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment,” Cass Sun­stein, Pres­id­ent Obama’s former reg­u­lat­ory chief, wrote last month in an op-ed for Bloomberg. “But the world is un­likely to make much pro­gress on cli­mate change un­til the bar­ri­er of hu­man psy­cho­logy is squarely ad­dressed.”

Sun­stein’s op-ed has helped bring in­to the main­stream what has for years been mostly an aca­dem­ic de­bate. A re­port by the Amer­ic­an Psy­cho­lo­gic­al As­so­ci­ation in 2009 came to a sim­il­ar con­clu­sion.

“Both struc­tur­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al obstacles need to be re­moved for sig­ni­fic­ant be­ha­vi­or­al change to oc­cur,” states the re­port, which was chaired by Janet Swim, a psy­cho­logy pro­fess­or at Pennsylvania State Uni­versity. “Psy­cho­lo­gists and oth­er so­cial sci­ent­ists need to work on psy­cho­lo­gic­al bar­ri­ers.” Swim wasn’t avail­able for an in­ter­view be­cause, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, she was in Europe for the Ger­man En­vir­on­ment­al Psy­cho­logy As­so­ci­ation’s bi­an­nu­al con­fer­ence.

The bar­ri­ers that psy­cho­lo­gists want to ad­dress in­clude how people dis­count risks per­ceived to be in the dis­tant fu­ture or to be more of a threat in oth­er places. An­oth­er hurdle is what’s known as the col­lect­ive-ac­tion prob­lem: People don’t act be­cause they feel they don’t have con­trol over the out­come. For a prob­lem such as glob­al warm­ing, whose cause is al­most every­where on earth, it’s easy to see why people feel this way. These bar­ri­ers are in­ter­twined with all the oth­er, more ex­pli­cit bar­ri­ers, such as polit­ics and policy.

Sun­stein fo­cused on a re­lated psy­cho­lo­gic­al obstacle: fear. He writes that people don’t view risk as­so­ci­ated with cli­mate change the same as a more tan­gible threat. “An act of ter­ror­ism, for ex­ample, is likely to be both avail­able and sa­li­ent, and hence makes people fear that an­oth­er such event will oc­cur (wheth­er it is likely to or not),” wrote Sun­stein, who now teaches at Har­vard Uni­versity Law School (he first met Pres­id­ent Obama when they both taught at the Uni­versity of Chica­go Law School). “By con­trast, cli­mate change is dif­fi­cult to as­so­ci­ate with any par­tic­u­lar tragedy or dis­aster.”

To be sure, many sci­ent­ists think cli­mate change is caus­ing more-ex­treme weath­er events such as Hur­ricane Sandy. But Sandy didn’t come bar­rel­ing up the East Coast with a flash­ing sign that said: “I’m Glob­al Warm­ing!”

“It is hard to prove that cli­mate change “˜caused’ any par­tic­u­lar event, and as a res­ult, the as­so­ci­ation tends to be at best spec­u­lat­ive in people’s minds,” wrote Sun­stein, whose three-year ten­ure lead­ing the White House reg­u­lat­ory re­view pro­cess was marked by con­sterna­tion among en­vir­on­ment­al­ists for his al­leged slow-walk­ing of en­vir­on­ment­al rules.

Fri­day’s re­port, is­sued by the U.N. In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change, could likely ex­acer­bate the already in­flated de­bate over cli­mate change. It seeks to ex­plain why the plan­et’s tem­per­at­ure has been slower to rise in re­cent dec­ades des­pite a con­tin­ued in­crease in car­bon emis­sions, and it ad­mits the dif­fi­culty of pre­dict­ing how glob­al warm­ing will af­fect loc­al re­gions dif­fer­ently.

To the non­scient­ists among us, these un­cer­tain­ties may be mis­in­ter­preted.

“Well-meant ef­forts by cli­mate-change ex­perts to char­ac­ter­ize what they do and do not know [can lead] to sys­tem­at­ic un­der­es­tim­a­tion of risk,” notes the 2009 APA re­port. “Sci­ent­ists are left with the prob­lem of how to present the risk hon­estly while not pro­mot­ing mis­guided op­tim­ism and jus­ti­fy­ing in­ac­tion.”

Even though the U.N. ex­perts can tell us with more con­fid­ence than ever that we’re largely re­spons­ible for a warm­er plan­et, they can’t of­fer clear pre­dic­tions of how that’s go­ing to af­fect us. Psy­cho­lo­gic­ally speak­ing, we seem to have no reas­on to care, let alone be afraid.

“We’re not try­ing to make people afraid,” said En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy, when asked about the ba­sic pro­pos­i­tion put forth by her former col­league Sun­stein. “God knows there is enough people can be afraid of. When people are afraid, they tend to stand still or run away. We’re see­ing some of that.”

Mc­Carthy has been tasked with craft­ing the heart of Obama’s cli­mate-change agenda through the first-ever stand­ards con­trolling green­house-gas emis­sions from the na­tion’s power plants. She spent last week trav­el­ing the coun­try talk­ing up the im­port­ance of these reg­u­la­tions and Obama’s plan to com­bat glob­al warm­ing more gen­er­ally.

“What we would like to do is bring sci­ence to the table and to make people un­der­stand why a chan­ging cli­mate poses a threat to them,” Mc­Carthy said.

She may want to en­list the help of a psy­cho­lo­gist.

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