Why our brains make it hard to grap­ple with global warm­ing

We care a lot more about the tan­gi­ble present than dis­tant dan­gers, no mat­ter how cat­a­strophic.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By David G. Vic­tor, Nick Obradovich and Dil­lon Amaya David G. Vic­tor is a pro­fes­sor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Pol­icy & Strat­egy and codi­rec­tor of the Ini­tia­tive on En­ergy and Cli­mate at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Nick Obradovich is a re­search sc

Hous­ton is barely be­gin­ning to dry out from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, and Florida faces a mas­sive re­build­ing ef­fort af­ter the Irma catas­tro­phe. Th­ese two storms, among the most pow­er­ful in Amer­i­can his­tory, are typ­i­cal of the ex­treme weather events that are likely to be­come more com­mon as the planet warms. A third hur­ri­cane, Jose, waits off­shore and the storm sea­son is far from done.

So why isn’t the public heed­ing sci­en­tists and de­mand­ing cli­mate ac­tion by politi­cians that could help deal with th­ese de­struc­tive ex­tremes? You can point fin­gers at the in­flu­ence of fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, at mis­in­for­ma­tion from cli­mate de­niers and at po­lit­i­cal ob­struc­tion­ism, no­tably from a frag­mented Repub­li­can party. But a much deeper force is also at work: the way our brains func­tion.

Hu­mans aren’t well wired to act on com­plex sta­tis­ti­cal risks. We put a lot more em­pha­sis on the tan­gi­ble present than the dis­tant fu­ture. Many of us do that to the ex­treme — what be­hav­ioral sci­en­tists call hy­per­bolic dis­count­ing — which makes it par­tic­u­larly hard to grap­ple with some­thing like cli­mate change, where the big­gest dan­gers are yet to come.

Our men­tal space is lim­ited; we aren’t primed to fo­cus on ab­struse top­ics. Ex­cept for a small frac­tion that are highly mo­ti­vated, most vot­ers know lit­tle about the details of cli­mate change, or the pol­icy op­tions re­lat­ing to it. In­stead, vot­ers’ opin­ions about such things de­rive from heuris­tics such as po­lit­i­cal party af­fil­i­a­tion and ba­sic ide­ol­ogy.

It isn’t sur­pris­ing, then, that most peo­ple don’t process in­for­ma­tion about ex­treme events the way sci­en­tists do. And they don’t do a good job of hold­ing politi­cians ac­count­able when the ef­fects of po­lit­i­cal in­ac­tion are far re­moved from the pol­icy fail­ures that cause them.

The ar­rival of ex­treme events — hur­ri­canes, wild­fires, drought and tor­ren­tial del­uges — is not proof to many peo­ple that sci­en­tists are right and that a com­plete re­think­ing of cli­mate pol­icy is over­due. In­stead, vot­ers see th­ese shocks more as ev­i­dence that things are out of whack. Change is needed, and vot­ers de­liver that ver­dict not by reeval­u­at­ing pol­icy but by cast­ing politi­cians out of of­fice.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists call such de­ci­sion-mak­ing ret­ro­spec­tive vot­ing, and it too is rooted in how the brain deals with com­plex top­ics. It seems less than ra­tio­nal, but for busy vot­ers, fo­cus­ing on im­me­di­ate, vis­i­ble re­sults and sit­u­a­tions is a prac­ti­cal way to as­sess politi­cians, even if those re­sults and sit­u­a­tions are many steps re­moved from elected lead­ers’ ac­tual re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

When it comes to cli­mate change, this sort of brain-driven be­hav­ior tends to cre­ate churn in po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship rather than the con­ti­nu­ity needed for longterm plan­ning. It ejects who­ever hap­pens to be in of­fice, rather than the real cul­prits. It doesn’t help that when politi­cians know they are at risk of los­ing of­fice due to dis­as­ters, they may pur­sue quick pay­offs, ne­glect­ing longert­erm poli­cies like those needed for emis­sions mit­i­ga­tion and cli­mate adap­ta­tion.

Cal­i­for­nia’s cli­mate ac­tions prove there can be ex­cep­tions to th­ese rules. But what mat­ters for global warm­ing is ul­ti­mately what hap­pens across the na­tion and the planet. Over­all, the pol­i­tics of con­trol­ling emis­sions, es­pe­cially given the time hori­zons we face, will con­tinue to bring out the worst in how we make im­por­tant pol­icy de­ci­sions.

Quick, deep cuts in emis­sions would im­pose high costs on ex­ist­ing well-or­ga­nized in­ter­est groups for ben­e­fits that will be dif­fused across all nations and that will ac­crue mainly in the dis­tant fu­ture. Fail­ing at emis­sions con­trol, we will have to grap­ple with the pol­i­tics of adap­ta­tion — aban­don­ing vul­ner­a­ble re­gions and sub­si­diz­ing the con­struc­tion of var­i­ous forms of pro­tec­tion, like sea walls to deal with wors­en­ing storm surges.

Vot­ers con­sis­tently re­port be­ing wor­ried about cli­mate change. But asked to rank their pri­or­i­ties, they rarely put cli­mate pol­icy high on the list. Nor does the public in­di­cate that it is will­ing to spend what is needed to ad­dress the prob­lem. What vot­ers know is mixed, mud­dled and sparse.

This grim anal­y­sis ex­plains why po­lit­i­cal sys­tems will al­ways be play­ing catch-up. Even with the con­spic­u­ous sig­nals of reg­u­lar ex­treme events, public sup­port for the poli­cies needed to stop global warm­ing will be fleet­ing. But that re­al­iza­tion can also in­spire new pol­icy strate­gies that are bet­ter suited for our po­lit­i­cal brains.

First, in­vest­ments in tech­nol­ogy can help im­mensely be­cause they lower the cost of re­duc­ing emis­sions, mak­ing change ap­pear less costly and eas­ier to adopt. New en­ergy tech­nolo­gies also cre­ate new in­ter­est groups that can help keep pol­icy mak­ers fo­cused on con­trol­ling emis­sions when vot­ers’ minds drift.

Sec­ond, we’re likely to do bet­ter with poli­cies that gen­er­ate im­me­di­ate and tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits. A good ex­am­ple is ef­forts to con­trol soot — a po­tent warm­ing pol­lu­tant and also a cen­tral in­gre­di­ent in nox­ious lo­cal air pol­lu­tion. Even coun­tries and so­ci­eties that care lit­tle about global goals find it in their self-in­ter­est to pro­tect the air their cit­i­zens breathe.

Third, our po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions can help peo­ple fo­cus on the long view by sur­vey­ing cli­mate im­pacts on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, so that each ex­treme storm is less a novel event and more a part of a pat­tern that needs sus­tained pol­icy at­ten­tion. One model is Cal­i­for­nia’s pro­gram of lo­cal­ized cli­mate as­sess­ments that in­form de­ci­sions about land-use plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment. An­other is the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s reg­u­lar, na­tion­wide as­sess­ments, which are at risk of ter­mi­na­tion un­der Pres­i­dent Trump.

Our brains are un­for­tu­nately not wired to tackle prob­lems like cli­mate change. With some help we can build poli­cies that en­able us to do bet­ter. What the storms in the Gulf and At­lantic are re­mind­ing the public — for now, if not for long— is that the con­se­quences of fail­ure are big.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA Getty Images

WHEN STORMS as strong as Hur­ri­cane Irma hit, why doesn’t the public de­mand a change in cli­mate pol­icy?

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