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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
LOGISTICS, TRAFFIC AT ISSUE
Everyone’s Taking Their Best Shots at Philly
55 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE

Not since Eagles fans booed Santa Claus have this many people been dismayed at Philadelphia. Traffic gridlock, poor logistics, and the inevitable summer heat and thunderstorms are drawing the ire of convention goers, as "peeved" delegates complained about "Homerian odysseys" to get from place to place. "On Twitter, out-of-town media complained about the logistics of the convention, spread out between the sports complex in South Philadelphia, media tents a hike away, and the daytime events at the Convention Center in Center City."

Source:
PRIEST KILLED IN SMALL NORTHERN TOWN
France Wakes Up to More Terrorism
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Two attackers killed a priest with a blade and seriously wounded another hostage in a church in northern France on Tuesday before being shot dead by French police. The attack took place during morning mass at the Saint-Etienne parish church, south of Rouen in Normandy. Five people were initially taken hostage." The case has been referred to anti-terrorism officials in Paris.

Source:
6PM VOTE
Roll Call Sets the Stage for More Drama
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Sometimes, unity is procedural. Mr. Sanders’s delegates will get the chance to back him in a roll-call vote from the convention floor on Tuesday, a largely symbolic gesture intended to recognize the breadth of Mr. Sanders’s support as the former rival campaigns negotiate an awkward peace." Around 6 p.m., they'll begin calling the states to vote. Sanders won't be in a generous mood—at least at the beginning. Last night from the stage, he said, "I look forward to your votes during the roll call tomorrow night." Indeed, in 2008, Clinton herself insisted on a roll call, before halting it "midway through, asking that Mr. Obama be approved by acclamation."

Source:
“CLINTON MUST BECOME THE NEXT PRESIDENT”
Bernie Sanders Seeks to Unite the Party
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Instead of his usual stump speech, Bernie Sanders tonight threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, providing a clear contrast between Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump on the many issues he used to discuss in his campaign stump speeches. Sanders spoke glowingly about the presumptive Democratic nominee, lauding her work as first lady and as a strong advocate for women and the poor. “We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor,” he said. “Hillary Clinton will make a great president, and I am proud to stand with her tonight."

“MUST NEVER BE PRESIDENT”
Elizabeth Warren Goes After Donald Trump
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a stark contrast from Michelle Obama's uplifting speech, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the rigged system plaguing Americans before launching into a full-throated rebuke of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Trump is "a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone," she claimed, before saying he "must never be president of the United States." She called him divisive and selfish, and said the American people won't accept his "hate-filled America." In addition to Trump, Warren went after the Republican Party as a whole. "To Republicans in Congress who said no, this November the American people are coming for you," she said.

×