In 2005, I was an assistant professor of psychology at a small midwestern tech school. I was fascinated with the ways that we rewrite our perceptions of the world to fit our beliefs and expectations, to fit our memories into neat stories. And I was fascinated with how these revisions play out in the world. I studied medical error, nanotechnology, and how we get swept up by really good books. And climate change.
It was climate change that stuck. Over the next few years, I moved from “studying sustainable behavior as one application of cognitive psychology” to “learning everything I can about climate change and sustainability.” In 2011, I found this interesting enough—and important enough—to leave academia for an environmental policy fellowship in DC. One way or another, I’ve been working on climate issues ever since.
The central climate change problem is, ultimately, a psychological one. People do things that make the problem worse, or don’t do things to improve it, because of what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they don’t believe the problem exists, or they think the costs of doing something are too severe. Maybe they don’t think any action they can take will do any good.
This is what has to change. We have a bucket of possible solutions, but instead of arguing over which ones are the best, too much of the debate is taken up by the “question” of whether we should use any of them. Change minds, and we’ll be able to spend more time implementing and improving solutions.
So we need to know the baseline facts in order to know what accurate, action-provoking mental states might look like. Here are some things I’ve learned:
- The causes of climate change are simple. We know exactly what sorts of emissions cause it, and what the sources are. We know that reducing those emissions would not only address climate change, but improve human health, and end up with more of the world’s energy being produced locally and peacefully. We know that these changes in energy sources need to be made eventually, because the current sources will eventually run out. We know that the longer we delay these changes, the more they will cost. We know that longer delays would still allow us to compensate for many climate change effects, but would also be much more expensive.
- The effects of climate change are complicated. Raise the average global temperature, and the effects on weather and climate vary from place to place. Some places will actually get colder, some of the time. In the Midwest, you can expect a longer growing season, but with less rain, and shorter winters with more snow compressed into more extreme storms. In DC, we’re planning for sea level rise, worse storms, and higher temperatures (but relatively little temperature rise relative to much of the rest of the U.S.). In parallel with atmospheric effects, the ocean temperature changes at a different rate, along with acidity. Ocean and air temperature interact in only semi-predictable ways. There is genuine controversy over the effect on hurricanes and other major storms–maybe there will be more of them, maybe fewer but more extreme.
- Systems theory is crack, even when the system in question is your own planetary climate. Everything interacts with everything else in a way that is both scary and beautiful.
- Humans react badly to fear. We would rather “understand” a situation than be right about it. We’d rather be wrong than lose something we care about. The people most likely to deny climate change are those whose career and status depend on the current energy infrastructure. The best way around this is to offer them outs. Some of these are useful–getting oil companies to start making money off of wind power is good. Some are greenwashing–getting massive polluters to improve their office recycling rate isn’t exactly bad, but it’s not exactly addressing the core issue either. Meanwhile, some of the people who believe there’s a problem also believe it’s too late to do anything about it, which is an excellent way of making it too late to do anything about it. People who feel helpless likewise need outs–things that can be done that are affordable for the recession-pressed household.
I still think the human mind is fascinating in all its screwed-up glory—I can get kind of boom-de-yada about it if you catch me in the right mood. This is my attempt to explore how we can use that awesomeness to solve one of the biggest problems our species has ever faced. What features can we hack to make the planet a better place? What bugs do we need to find workarounds for? What can we do to make our minds more green?
I’m a scientist, and source obsessively. Parts of this essay appeared a couple of years ago in my private blog, in substantially different form. Hello to the two people who saw it first there!