How our psychology prevents us from acting on climate change

I have written here and originally for other forums brief essays and briefer comments on life and the future of humanity in the light of what we know about human evolution (including evolutionary psychology) and the human situation in the 21st century. A list of all the essays is at the foot of the page.

1. First, a note on climate change (3 November 2008)

It’s apparent that Andrew Bolt has never done any original scientific research, let alone research on climate change. He is standing well outside the science chucking stones. He can deny all he likes that global warming is occurring, or that it’s significant, based on the anomalies he picks. There are also sound criticisms of the use of mathematical models (hence we read almost weekly that "observations of phenomenon X show that climate change is occurring faster than predicted by the IPCC" – those IPCC guys have a lot to answer for [5]). His criticisms are irrelevant to the facts of climate change. What he needs to understand is that 'global warming' is just a label that is conventionally associated with recent measures of a vast range of weather and other natural phenomena that are changing markedly from these phenomena as observed in the past. Scientists have drawn these observations together and some have called it 'global warming'; others 'climate change', others 'global drying'. Perhaps a more apt name if we want – like Bolt – to focus on weather anomalies, would be 'climate chaos' [1]. Any name we use is bound to fail to pick up all the subtleties. So he’ll always be able to throw stones at the label 'global warming', and score a few hits, but the evidence is accumulating convincingly of unusually wet, cold, dry and hot weather observations, changes in weather, glacial extent, bird migrations, ocean acidity, spread of diseases, and much, much more.

2. Why are we doing so little about climate change? (this section begun 14 February 2009)

There are many reasons, some of them are real (the psychological inheritance of Homo sapiens can explain them all) and other reasons that are not really reasons for not acting in response to climate change, but are justifications brought from other areas of human experience to which people are already emotionally committed (that is, they are committed for reasons that go deeper than mere rationality) and draw on that commitment to determine the role they will take in the climate change debate. Evolutionary psychology tells us that the human mind creates these justifications within a third of a second wholly subconsciously, so the person creating them is not conscious of what is happening and adopts the justifications as logical consequences of ‘the way the world works’.[2]

Illustration 1 –  participants in the debate over climate change often bring to it their political commitments to left or right politics, a commitment which they have settled and daily reinforced in their minds long before climate change became an issue. The left propose strategies which imply the surrender of national sovereignty to an international course of action, and a reduction in the power of corporations which drive industrial civilization and the comforts of consumers in those cultures. Right-leaning humans find such a price too high and they reinforce their objections in discussion with like-minded humans in a process which builds up a phalanx of objections from which individuals select a small number which are most compatible with their world view or which (to their mind) are the most convincing put-downs in debate (Homo sapiens’ propensity for politics makes put-downs feel good [3] to those uttering them, or repeating them to themselves).

Illustration 2 – participants in the debate also bring to it their perspective on human exceptionalism. A commitment to human exceptionalism appears to be hard-wired and those who do not manifest it have to work relentlessly at their conscious rejection to counter their subconscious acceptance. I have written elsewhere on this site about human exceptionalism and the way humans structure their language to confirm their exceptionalist position. Human exceptionalism manifests itself in two different and contradictory ways in respect of attitudes to climate change: (a) a view that humans could not (because they are so wonderful, benign, exceptional) impact the planet’s systems in a way that seriously impairs them, and (b) humans will come up with a solution to climate change, just as they have come up with solutions to other problems in their history of progress and advance.

Illustration 3 - In September 2008 Lisa Bennett provided her own perspective on this issue in her article for Greater Good magazine.

Illustration 4 - Our system's problems can't be solved with practical solutions to immediate problems (which is the way we humans evolved to behave). Joseph Tainter observed in 1996 that "A few years ago I described about two dozen societies that have collapsed (Tainter 1988 [4]). In no case is it evident or even likely that any of these societies collapsed because its members or leaders did not take practical steps to resolve its problems."

3. A note on blockages to resolving the economic crisis and climate change (31 January 2009)

On 31 January 2009 I was sent a smart solution to the economic crisis. Technically it was flawless, the logic was tight. In his final paragraph the author wrote: "Comments welcome - especially interested to know why people think this wouldn't work (except for the political reality that the US oligarchs would lose out big time)." I replied, telling the author that the reason he himself gave for why it would not work (political) is even more convincing that the reasons he gave for how it could work (technical). This is the same general problem we have with solutions to climate change etc: technical solutions are blocked by political expediency - and political expediency is driven by the way humans think (which is explained by our evolutionary psychology). Scientists who focus on the technical solutions without addressing necessary political steps (and for this they must understand the evolutionary psychology of the species Homo sapiens) are doing less than half the job they believe they are doing.


1. "Climate disruption" is the term used by Peter Cundall on ABC Radio National's In Design program on 25 April 2009.

2. On 15 March 2009 in the BBC World Service program The Forum, Gregory Berns (author of Iconoclast) and a panel explained the evolutionary psychology behind our justifications as being due to over-efficient categorization based on what’s perceived to have worked in the past and maintained by fear of transgressing group norms.

To go into this in a bit more detail, Berns described the process of perception which passes through the area of the brain that categorizes visual information in two ways: ‘where?’ is the perceived phenomenon and ‘what?’ is the perceived phenomenon. As there is so much information to process, we need to categorize quickly and take short cuts as a strategy to maximize efficiency. When we fail to identify novel phenomena as requiring conscious categorization in a new way these short cuts can be erroneous or faulty when. We miscategorize most readily when we are in a comfortable familiar environment (e.g., dealing with work problems in the workplace) and can help ourselves resolve anomalies by shifting to a new physical or mental environment (a restaurant, gardening, having – or reviewing – an uncomfortable argument).

Imagination uses the same area of the brain that processes visual information; it is therefore subject to the constraints of this area. A deep fear we all have is the fear of being shunned, rejected, ostracized from our group. In our evolutionary past if humans were shunned from their group they would not reproduce and would probably die. Being shunned was inimical to survival. This makes it difficult for individuals to think in genuinely innovative ways. Humans evolved as social animals and part of being a successful social animal is conforming to and being supportive of group norms. This means accepting the group’s judgement whether you believe it or not. When individuals realize they are going beyond the group consensus they have a hair-trigger response in their amygdila that urges them to pull back.

The group can, however, comprise individuals committed to innovation and new ways of thinking. In these cases, belonging to a small iconoclastic group which appreciates novelty can motivate that small group by encouraging showing-off one’s ability to push the boundaries, to overturn a paradigm of a larger group.

3. “feeling good” is the feeling we are familiar with when we win an argument, feel that we have scored a debating point, fall in love, take recreational drugs (including tobacco), have an orgasm, buy highly-desired consumer goods. It is the effect of dopamine on our dopamine receptors and is a physiological reward system which reinforces dopamine-generating behaviour.

4. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990)    Back to text

5. Remember, the "I" in IPCC stands for Intergovernmental. That is, the scientific results are subject to political editing before the IPCC reports are published. As to the science, James Lovelock says: It’s a complex story, really; most of one’s thinking that’s worth anything comes not from reason but from intuition. Many of my scientist friends don’t like that – they’re still back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries where you did everything rationally and the word “irrationally” implied loose or bad thinking. I’m afraid it isn’t like that; all the things that really matter are intuitive. Understanding the Earth’s system is one of those things you cannot express in mathematical terms easily. The climate scientists tried to do it – there was a man called Lorenz, many years ago, who discovered that if you try to model a system containing more than two differential equations – and you need hundreds, thousands of them to look at the Earth’s system – it goes chaotic, as soon as you put real world data into it. So what they tend to do, because they have to model it that way, with hundreds of thousands of equations, they either fudge the equations with linearizing modifications, so that the model never goes chaotic, or they never run it beyond what they call equilibrium conditions, that is they never allow it to behave dynamically as a living thing. Now this is absolutely fatal as far as modelling goes and it applies both to biology and to climate science (geophysiology) and this is why we are finding now that the great gathering of scientists that formed the IPCC – some of the best climate scientists in the world – with the very best of intentions and the most modern and expensive equipment, are failing to predict the climate that is with us today. The most glaring error is that the sea level is rising nearly twice as fast as they were predicting; now this is a serious matter if you live [here] in London and you get an error that big. So to understand the Earth’s system, you can’t avoid approaching the whole problem to a certain extent intuitively and this is where I think Gaia came in because most of the first part of it was intuitive rather than rational. And I think it has some deeper significance in that one of my reasons for being somewhat pessimistic about the future of the present generation of humans is that I think the problem is right beyond us: we do not have the intellectual capacity to solve the problem of living successfully with our planet.

James Lovelock, speaking in London early 2009, at a function in his honour and coinciding with the publication of John Gribbins’ He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia.    Back to text

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List of the essays on the future of humanity:

Essay 1: Human = reindeer
Essay 2: Hope
Essay 3: I=PAT
Essay 4: Evolutionary psychology and climate change (this page)
Essay 5: Conservation - the passing of the word and the idea
Essay 6: The 2008 economic crisis and evolutionary psychology
Essay 7: The purpose of life and evolutionary psychology


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Page up-dated 25 June 2009