Global Warming: It's All In Your Head

GENERIC: Global Warming CBS

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



There's big news on climate change: Global warming is all in your head. The thing is, that's bad news for the planet.

How so? Well, as much as you would like to think that your opinions on the risks and realities of climate change are based entirely on your rational and purely objective assessments of scientific evidence, they aren't. They are shaped by primordial human brain wiring and anthropological patterns of behavior.

The most basic "facts" of climate change are what they are and the disputes on those basics are relatively narrow in the scientific world. How people perceive those "facts" — the threats or non-threats they inspire — varies wildly and for entirely nonfactual, emotional reasons. (Interestingly, the most animated disputes generally are poorly informed battles allegedly about what the facts are.) And if you aren't prepared to entertain that notion, this column will irritate you immensely.

So what is it that makes some human brains dismiss or ignore global warming and others, far fewer, feel worried, threatened and called to action? Answering this question properly is probably far more important to future behavior and policy than endless arguments about how hot it will be in Cincinnati in 2077.

Charles Darwin explains a lot of this. Global warming simply does not present the kinds of stimuli that the human nervous system evolved to respond to in order to survive threats from bears, lightning, rolling boulders and mean cavemen.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who wrote "Stumbling on Happiness," summed up evolutionary psychology's perspective by noting how global warming lacked four traits "the human brain evolved to respond to."

First, the threat is not human and we "social mammals" are especially sensitive to dangers from other humans — and dangers that are intentional (terrorism) rather than accidental (floods). Similarly, homo sapiens respond with greater instinctive power to threats that violate group sensibilities or "moral emotions;" global warming doesn't spawn visceral feelings (for most) of something "indecent, impious or repulsive."

Third and most obvious, the threat of global warming is far, far away, not immediate, not something that makes you duck or twitch. In fact, a person really has to use the analytic brain hunks to get in a global warming lather, not the affective or emotional mechanisms that detect common threats and risks. As another scholar said, "risk is a feeling." Statistics and reports don't enter the brain through feeling portals. So after Hurricane Katrina, polling found concern about global warming ticked up.

Similarly, climate change is gradual. Indeed it is invisible; there are no "affective" sights and sounds to switch on the neurological special alert system — no infernos, poxes, pests and plagues.

The problem with the Darwinian angle here is that it doesn't explain why some human brains do feel threatened and worried by global warming and some don't. The biggest variable here is probably simple anthropology: as social mammals, we use the group to survive and thus tend to share the beliefs of our own group.

In modern society, groups are intangible and amorphous; they aren't discrete tribes gathering walnuts and spearing bison. Group ties are as often emotional or even ideological as geographic or even familial. You may identify, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, as a Catholic, a Green, a Jew, a small businessman, an African-American, a geek, a recovering alcoholic, a Republican, a liberal, a lesbian, an Italian-American, a Blue Blood, a Texan, an artist or a stamp collector. Most people cross-pollinate.

But these group affiliations are likely to be a strong determinant of your feelings about global warming (feelings you will call a "position"). Do you think global warming is an urgent problem because you are a Democrat or are you a Democrat because you think global warming is an urgent problem? Some variant of the former is most likely, I'm sorry to report.

Scandinavians and Germans have been the most alarmed and politically active about global warming. Why? Diet? Too much existentialism?

Compared to other countries, Americans display an unusually large disconnect in describing themselves as environmentalists by being broadly unwilling to support voluntary restraints and vigorous laws and regulations. (This comes from a paper called "The American Paradox" by Dale Jamieson of New York University, part of a fascinating collection of papers on "Global Warming: The Psychology of Long-Term Risk" in the July 2006 edition of a journal called, "Climactic Change.")

Group identification not only orients specific positions but what might be called the distribution of alarm. Elke Weber, also writing in "Climactic Change," notes that societies have a "finite pool of worry." Neither a group nor an individual can stay at red alert about terrorism, salmonella, bird flu, identity theft and global warming. We don't prioritize threats and risks rationally; we do it emotionally and through the genius or dumbness of crowds.

On top of all this very cool psycho-babble are some common-sense factors that keep global warming from triggering our inner worry monkeys. It's a hard problem to solve; OK, the world is warming, but it's not like you can go out and buy a Glock, duct tape or Cipro and do anything. Global warming is also the classic other guys' problem: leave it for the next generation; let the Chinese cut their pollution then we'll talk. It is also susceptible to optimism: American ingenuity will fix it.

"Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain's alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed," Daniel Gilbert wrote.

Scientists, economists and "ists" of all sorts have probably done all they can do to trigger our humanoid alarm systems. American politicians will probably hurt, not help. Bizarre and inconvenient as it sounds, effective and affective warnings and information about global warming will likely come from novelists, moviemakers and comedians.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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