Friday, December 28, 2018

Climate Change is Scary But It's Nothing Compared to Us.

Climate change may be poised to begin killing us off en masse in the coming decades but the real killer will be us or, more precisely, human nature.  An insightful article in The Globe and Mail contends that climate change is the very sort of threat our ancient brains are not capable of thwarting. It's not our fault, we're just not wired to respond to this sort of peril.
Climate change doesn’t dominate elections. It doesn’t dominate headlines, airtime and social media. It doesn’t dominate consumer choices. 
It doesn’t even dominate Google searches. For the past decade, “climate change” and “global warming” have been searched about as often as “terrorism.” People search far more often for “autism,” and more still for “flu.” Terrorism, autism and influenza are all serious hazards, but none of them has even an outside chance of ravaging the natural world and collapsing civilization. (It should be noted in passing – for the edification of the alien archeologists investigating the ruins on Earth – that every year for the past decade, “Kardashian” has been searched far more than any of the foregoing terms.)
Now, compare that to the reality we face: In the coming decades and centuries, climate change will be a major challenge in the best-case scenario and something truly terrifying in the worst case. What we do now will significantly determine whether the future unfolds closer to the former or the latter. In any scenario, the poorest and weakest will suffer most.

Most people know and accept all this. And those three sentences are reason enough to conclude that climate change is the greatest threat we face, save for nuclear war. But we sure don’t act like it. So why isn’t our collective concern remotely proportionate to the danger? 
The problem isn’t ignorance. Most people get the basic idea. And when yet another dire report is issued by scientists, people do pay attention – for a few minutes, at least, before their thoughts return to the latest political imbroglio, taxes, work, the hockey game and the thousands of other concerns that consistently beat climate change in the battle for our attention. 
It’s also not selfishness. The brunt of the storm may be suffered by future generations and poor people far away, but researchers do not find that the old shrug while the young quake. In fact, one U.S. newspaper found that "millennials have similar or less engagement on global warming than other generations.”
...The cause of this divide is evolution. Our species evolved in environments where subatomic weirdness was irrelevant to surviving and reproducing, so we never developed an intuitive grasp of it; while we may understand it, we cannot feel it. 
We struggle with climate change in much the same way and for much the same reason.
Like us, our Stone Age ancestors were constantly looking into the future and imagining alternative courses of action. They had to predict the weather, foresee how an ambushed deer would try to escape and plan to return to a rich berry patch at harvest time. And most important for survival, they had to decide what to worry about. Whether it was lions, food shortages or sub-zero temperatures, the future was packed with threats that had to be anticipated and managed. 
But note three features of this ancient forecasting and risk analysis.
Firstly, it didn’t look decades ahead, let alone centuries. Seasons would have been important frames of reference, but generally, the outer limit of prospection would have been one cycle of seasons – a year. Our ancestors’ forward-looking thoughts were overwhelmingly measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds. 
Secondly, it didn’t concern itself with problems far away. The only information available to our ancient ancestors came from personal experience, the experience of others in their little band of perhaps 40 or 50 and stories passed from one person to another. As forward-looking as our species was, ancient risk analysis was about survival in the here and now. Or at least the nearby and soon.

Finally, it had nothing to do with statistics, probability and the other tools of modern risk analysis. These didn’t exist. Its raw material was experience, and its analytical mechanisms were intuitive. Risks were not calculated. They were felt.
...Even today, much less has changed than we might imagine. We routinely encounter risks – even eating breakfast can kill – so we routinely decide which risks are worth worrying about. 
Overwhelmingly, these judgments are felt, not calculated – or at least far more felt than calculated. And what dominates our forward-looking thoughts is the here and now, or the nearby and soon. Replace the word “quarter” with “season” and the thoughts of the average MBA would sound at least a little familiar to a Stone Age hunter-gatherer. 
Of course, today, we also have science, statistics and computer modelling capable of churning out sophisticated risk analyses. Sometimes these confirm System One’s intuitions. Sometimes they suggest they are a little off. Occasionally, they say our feelings are seriously wrong.

The lessons of the decades-long struggle to defeat Big Tobacco offered lessons in human frailty, how at times feelings dominate even science.
When head and gut clash, it is not inevitable that gut has its way. After all, the evidence tying smoking to lung cancer did bend the trend lines in the 1950s and 1960s. But intuitive judgments are empowered by biology and evolution, so modifying a strongly felt conclusion is deeply unnatural, and rejecting it entirely can be a Herculean challenge. 
This is why people build homes on floodplains and volcano slopes. It’s why earthquake-insurance sales spike immediately after a major earthquake then slowly decline, exactly the opposite of the risk
And it’s why we aren’t remotely as concerned about climate change as we should be.
...Climate change is distant in every dimension. The worst of it lies decades in the future, to be suffered in far-off lands by foreigners very different from us, and the worst scenarios are highly uncertain. It would be hard to design a threat more likely to induce highly abstract thoughts. And shrugs. 
And there’s another big problem with climate change: It’s right there in the first word. 
What is climate? It’s not weather. Weather is rain, wind, snow, sunshine. We have a feel for weather. Our species has been intuiting it as long as we have existed.
But climate? It’s the probability of weather
...As the philosopher Ian Hacking showed, the modern idea of probability didn’t even exist until the mid-17th century, while the first mathematical examination of probability was only published in 1713. For a species that is about 200,000 years old, 1713 is the day before yesterday. And so, when we handle probability, we are often like cavemen with smart phones – confused by even the simplest functions.
...So why is our concern about climate change so small relative to the threat? The problem is not that we are ignorant or selfish. The problem is how we think. 
The decision-making system capable of understanding the danger is incapable of ringing our internal alarm bell. The system that can raise the alarm cannot grasp the threat because it was shaped by the world as it was millenniums ago, not the world we live in now. 
Our past endangers our future.
This theory, swimming in a pool of sometimes conflicting theories seeking to explain our climate change predicament(s), does seem plausible. It certainly reaches the threshold where 'what if it's right' eclipses 'what if it's wrong."  For if author Dan Gardner's analysis is right, it offers support for pursuing adaptation strategies in priority to mitigation efforts if only because human nature, left unaddressed, seems likely to undermine our collective will to decarbonize on time, emphasis on "on time."

As I wrote previously, global warming is indeed a global crisis of all humankind and, now, nature itself. Climate change, however, is a regional phenomenon varying in impacts according to a host of factors including latitude, proximity to oceans and currents, biological and botanical resources and the local population's ecological footprints.  It is those localized or regional forces that determine one region's climate change challenges and differentiate region from region.  Proof of that emerges when the conversation turns to geo-engineering, a basket of climate altering technologies that, while they may benefit a particular region are thought to gravely threaten other regions with unforeseen or ignored blowback impacts. Think of it as Paul robbing Peter to enrich Paul. Just another way to wreck any global consensus.


Northern PoV said...

"we're just not wired to respond to this sort of peril."

Well, until approximately 1975-1980 we were in the process of re-wiring our brains as part of our evolutionary destiny... manifested in the political/social/economic process.
The reptile brains of the ruling class put an end to that.
We are currently on an extended evolutionary detour that may well end in a dead-end.

Lorne said...

thanks for a fascinating explanation, Mound. From the perspective of our slow evolution, it makes eminent sense. Clearly, climate change has happened far faster that the time needed for our brains to evolve.

Anonymous said...

Told you Mound that truth long time ago.
Enjoy "while you are still in the pink."

Purple library guy said...

I've heard this thesis before and I generally agree with it. However. Humans are not hard-wired. And I mean that in a more basic sense than it seems--humans are not even wired to be hard-wired.
All your more thoughtful evolutionary psychology people will tend to strongly qualify their general claims with the idea that humans are actually built to be somewhat socially plastic. How, or how much, one or another trait is expressed depends also on the environment. Humans have an instinct to be violent--but how much they shoot each other depends hugely on other social factors, hence far fewer mass shootings in Switzerland than in the United States. The degree and the ways in which human violent tendencies are played out varies massively depending on the social and economic environment. And this itself is an evolved trait with big advantages, allowing humans to emphasize different traits depending on the environment.

So in this case, yes, humans are evolved to emphasize short-run thinking over long, to have their gut reactions driven by simple and local things rather than distant complicated ones. But it's not an absolute. If our society tended to push individuals towards reflection and away from gut reaction, short-term fears and spectacle, we would have a much better chance of coming up with decent policies. I think it's no co-incidence that those countries with political/economic environments which are fairly stable, inclusive, and emphasize the social, and where politics are less driven by fear, tend to have better policies around climate change. It is unfortunate that the dominant global culture right now is high-speed hypercapitalism, economics driven by instant gratification and politics driven by fear and distraction (often one and the same). Thus, our culture encourages and emphasizes exactly the evolved traits which make us fail challenges like climate change. Sucks to be us.