Facing Climate Disruption

As I write these words, a wild card storm has just blown through the area, dumping a foot of heavy snow atop trees still holding their leaves. It was the second nor’easter in two weeks to slam this coast. Branches and limbs rained down in high winds. Through much of the blizzard, we took turns wallowing through knee-deep drifts to shake bushes and small trees – trying to save them from the unbearable weight.

The storm was a potent reminder that our weather is getting less predictable and more extreme. In the deck I hold, this wild card affirms just what scientists predict: that bizarre weather will become the norm as the climate warms and systems destabilize.

Yet for others, this storm reaffirms that climate change is a political guise to impose governmental restrictions. “A foot of snow and barely November,” they scoff, cranking up snowblowers. “NOW who’s talking about global WARMING?!”

How we select and interpret new information clearly depends on what knowledge, attitudes and beliefs we already hold. We’re not the empty vessels that teachers and scientists would have us be, ever-ready to absorb facts and statistics. We’re a muddy mix of values, far more biased by group dynamics and deep-seated fears than we care to admit.

Present us with new information about a potentially devastating threat to all life – as climate scientists are doing with disconcerting frequency, and we respond unpredictably or fail to react at all. No one wants, as New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan observes, “to face the heartbreak of unprecedented change.”

Climate disruption on a planetary scale represents a threat that our brains have not evolved to grasp. As a species, we’re well-equipped to confront immediate dangers – hungry predators or marauding tribes, but not a threat that is largely invisible, slow-moving, uncertain and complex.

Climate change presents no apparent enemy and “none of the clear signals that we require to mobilize our inbuilt sense of threat,” notes George Marshall in his book, Don’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

Perception of risk is modulated – not by the rational, analytical part of our brains – but by the amygdala (what some call the reptilian or emotional brain) that operates more on intuition, narrative and impulse. Consequently, all the data-laden charts and graphs offered up by climate scientists as evidence of impending disaster don’t stir us to action.

Stories that might speak to the emotional brain and motivate us are rarely shared. People shy away from discussing climate change – even with friends and family – not wanting to risk the hostility this topic can incite. In his research, Marshall was struck by the depth and breadth of this “socially constructed silence” grounded in denial and anxiety.

That silence can be broken, and has been in past struggles to extend civil rights in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. In those movements, blatant examples of injustice and discrimination helped ignite moral outrage and build momentum to act. Climate change has not yet prompted a widespread awakening because few impacts have hit us head-on.

It’s still possible to sidestep all the hard moral and practical challenges that climate change presents by telling ourselves that it’s remote in space and time (something happening to those poor Arctic polar bears or a concern for hypothetical great-grandchildren). We succumb to what Cara Pike of Climate Access calls the “not me, not here, not now” syndrome.

Climate disruption is inherently unpredictable – making it hard to anticipate what the future will hold. Humans’ ability to look ahead is “still in the early stages of R&D,” jokes Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert. And being the economic creatures we are, we don’t like spending money now with a payback that could be decades out.

Marshall’s insightful and surprisingly humorous book traces the psychological labyrinth in which we’re caught – seemingly unable to act on what is a glaring global threat to all life. It also illuminates how a highly technical scientific discipline populated by researchers committed to careful science has become a lightning rod for charged political debate.

The story that climate science portends evokes deep anxiety, but the very nature of the threat makes it difficult to mobilize a constructive response.

The magnitude of societal change required to move beyond fossil fuels is daunting, and leads some people to conclude that we can’t successfully negotiate such a transition. But fatalism, Marshall writes, “short-circuits” the moral responsibility we have to address a problem we unwittingly created. It is unconscionable to turn away from a challenge with such far-reaching consequences.

In another time fraught with anxiety and distrust, the musician Sting wrote a song for the world’s children. Its refrain affirmed that “we share the same biology regardless of ideology.” Both psychological challenges and political differences have held us back from tackling the unprecedented threat of climate disruption. Yet across all divides, we do love our children. We must act to shelter them from the coming storms.