The Hot Spot

Greater Good Magazine jpeg
Lisa Bennett, Communications Director for the Center of Ecoliteracy recently wrote a piece that was included in The Greater Good Magazine about why some people just can't seem to care about global warming.  She analyzed the many psychological and innate obstacles that keep humans from understanding the global warming risk.

Posted Fall 2008

Lisa Bennett, The Greater Good Magazine

The hot spot jpeg
Three years ago, I became obsessed with global warming
Practically overnight, my worries about its potential effects
outstripped my worries about so many other national and global issues,
even personal ones.

Indeed, as the mother of two young boys, I began to think it a bit
crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape on my children's little
bodies and budding egos, but largely ignored the threat likely to put
sizeable areas of the world, including parts of the coastal city where
we live, underwater within their lifetime.

That year, 2005, marked a turning point for many people. After
decades of observation, speculation, and analysis, the world's climate
scientists had reached a consensus, and increasingly the general public
was accepting it. As USA Today reported, "The Debate is Over: Globe is

The next step, scientists advised, was action. We needed to take
significant and urgent steps to cut our dependence on fossil fuels by
25 percent or more, something NASA's top climate scientist, James
Hansen, said we had only a decade to do if we were to avoid the great
global warming tipping point—that level at which increased temperatures
would unleash unprecedented global disasters.

So how are we doing?

Surely, some things have changed. Sales of the Toyota Prius and
other hybrids have skyrocketed. Many of us have converted to the new
energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. A flood of books are
hitting the market offering tips about how to save the Earth. And there
is a frenzy of advertising about everything from "eco-friendly" houses
to "green" hair salons, showing just how widespread Americans' desire
is to do the right thing for the environment.

Yet none of this adds up to the significant and urgent action
scientists have called for. The question is why: Why don't more of us
respond more seriously to the most serious threat to the planet in
human history?

"Many climate scientists find the response to global warming
completely baffling," says Elke Weber, a Columbia University
psychologist and the chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change's
Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group. According to Weber,
climate scientists just can't understand why government and the public
have been so slow to act on the extraordinary information these
scientists have provided.

But now a growing number of social scientists are offering their
expertise in behavioral decision making, risk analysis, and
evolutionary influences on human behavior to explain our limited
responses to global warming. Among the most significant factors they
point to: The way we're psychologically wired and socially conditioned
to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to react to the abstract and
seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. Their insights are
also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people
to take action—including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing
on people's fears.

Our misleading emotions

There are a significant number of researchers now devoted to
studying how people decide that something is truly bad for them. They
are called "risk-analysis scholars," and they believe there are, in
general, two ways we may assess a risk such as global warming. One is
through our analytic abilities, by which we examine the scientific
evidence and make logical decisions about how to respond. This is the
process that was used by climate scientists to reach the strong and
clear conclusion that the risks of global warming are momentous and
require immediate and significant action.

But most of us do not rely on our analytic abilities to evaluate the
risk of global warming—or any risk, for that matter. Instead, we rely
on the second and more common way of perceiving risk: our emotions.

"For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a statistic. Risk is
a feeling," says Weber. We are swayed by our feelings, and those
feelings—while an essential part of the decision-making process—can be
misleading guides, depending on the type of risk involved.

For example, in a recent paper on how emotion shapes risk
perception, Weber cites the growing number of parents who choose to
forego having their children vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus,
and pertussis. To most physicians, this is a highly irrational
decision, since vaccinations help prevent serious illnesses and pose
very slight risks. So why do parents make such decisions? Because when
they learn that roughly one child out of 1,000 will suffer from high
fever and one out of 14,000 will suffer seizures as a result of
vaccinations, their emotions lead them to imagine that their child will
be the one to suffer.

"If I feel scared," says Weber, "that overshadows any amount of pallid statistical information."

And perhaps most importantly, emotions, more than anything else, are
what motivate us to act. As decades of behavioral decision research has
shown, most people have to feel a risk before they do something about

In this way, our limited response to global warming is similar to
our limited response to mass murder or genocide, according to Paul
Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the
president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies human
judgment, decision making, and risk.

In a series of research papers, Slovic has explored why reports of
genocide so often fail to stir us to action. These reports, he writes,
usually stress the thousands or even millions of people who have been
killed. In doing so, they speak to our analytic abilities but not our
feelings. Slovic has found that people are much more likely to donate
money to a cause after reading the story of a single victim than after
reading a statistic citing a million victims.

Like genocide, the long-term consequences of global warming are so
enormous we can't wrap our heads around them. Scientists predict in 40
years global warming will displace 20 million people from Beijing, 40
million from Shanghai and surrounding areas, and 60 million from
Calcutta and Bangladesh. These statistics are daunting, but they're
abstract; they don't inspire us to feel for the one individual whose
life will be put at risk. As a result, we fail to take appropriate

And as with others, so with ourselves: It is emotions, such as fear
or worry, that motivate us to protect ourselves from risk. With global
warming, this presents an even more challenging situation because, says
Weber, our emotions are shaped by two forms of past experience: either
direct personal experience or evolutionary experience that still guides
human behavior.

We feel the hairs stand up on the back of our necks if someone in a
dark alley appears dangerous. This happens because, from an
evolutionary perspective, deep in our psyches we know what it feels
like to have another human being physically threaten us. There's also
the chance that we've been threatened or assaulted personally.

But we have no innate experience of global warming that tells us,
from personal or evolutionary experience, that when we burn too many
fossil fuels, it causes the build-up of greenhouse gases that trap warm
air within the Earth's atmosphere, which, in turn, melts ice caps and
glaciers, raises ocean levels, and causes hurricanes to intensify,
floods to worsen, droughts to increase, lakes and water supplies to
disappear, and, as in any such dire and threatening circumstance,
famine and warfare to spread. As dramatic as these scenarios are, we
can't feel them because we haven't experienced them (yet). Human-driven
climate change is simply unprecedented.

"Global warming doesn't make evolutionary sense to us," says Weber.
"Our minds haven't adjusted to the much more complex technological
risks that are removed in space and time."

Timing is everything

Our lack of past experience with global warming is also exacerbated
by the fact that global warming is not a clear and present danger but,
rather, something that is projected to reveal its most dramatic
consequences decades from now.

"It's a very well established fact about human behavior," says
Slovic, "that we discount future negative outcomes a great deal,
especially if it means having to postpone some immediate positive
benefit, such as the convenience of driving our car." He likens our
attitudes toward the future risks of global warming to how teenagers
discount the risk of smoking, despite abundant evidence of its risks.

"Young people tend not to be quite clear about whether there will be
consequences from their smoking, what they would be, and what it would
be like for them," he says. "The future risk is not imaginable, and
that tends to make people more complacent."

The fact that global warming appears to represent a hazard of nature
also leads people to underestimate the risk. "People don't respect
nature and what it can do," says Slovic. "They feel nature is benign,
even though it really isn't."

Case-in-point: He contrasts the response to Hurricane Katrina with
the response to September 11. "After Katrina, people started to pay
more attention to strengthening the levies even though the information
was available in advance. There was a short period of time when there
was a heightened response, then it dampened."

The response to September 11, in contrast, has been far more
significant and long-lasting, even though, he says, "from a physical
damage standpoint, 9-11 was relatively smaller." The difference was
that Katrina, which many scientists believe was fueled by human-driven
global warming, seemed like an act of nature, and that failed to
trigger our millennia-old fears of having our homes and lives invaded
by a stranger—fears evoked by September 11.

Reality vs. worldview

A third obstacle that limits people's response to global warming—and
even their willingness to believe in it—is also one of the most
intractable. In a series of recent studies, a group of scholars from
Yale and other universities have been studying how cultural values
shape our perceptions of risk. Based on the premise that Americans are
culturally polarized on a range of societal risks, from global warming
to gun control, Paul Slovic, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan, and
others analyzed the results of surveys and experiments that matched the
risk perceptions of some 5,000 Americans to the worldviews of those
Americans. Their finding: People may simply reject evidence that
clashes with their worldview.

"To a certain extent our attitude toward risk and behaviors are
conditioned not just by the raw facts of the matter, but by the
orientation that we have to the world," says Slovic.

In the case of global warming, researchers found two general
worldviews that seemed to have the most significant influence on
perception and action. One group consists of egalitarians, or people
who prefer a society where wealth, power, and opportunity are broadly
distributed. Researchers called the other group the hierarchists, those
who prefer a society that is linear in its structure, with leaders on
top and followers below.

"What we've seen through this research is that egalitarians are
generally more concerned about environmental risks over a range of
hazards, including global warming. Hierarchists tend to be less
concerned," says Slovic. In fact, he says, when it comes to perceptions
of risk, one's worldview is vastly more influential than other
individual characteristics, such as race or political ideology.

The researchers also found that when proposed solutions to global
warming clash with people's worldviews, those people are more likely to
reject evidence of the problem altogether. For example, in one
experiment, Kahan and his colleagues gave two groups of people two
contrasting newspaper articles about global warming. Both reported the
problem in similar terms: temperatures were rising, human behavior was
the cause of climate change, and global warming could lead to
disastrous environmental and economic consequences if left unaddressed.
But the articles then went on to offer different solutions: one called
for increased regulation of pollution emissions, while the other called
for revitalization of nuclear power.

When people with a hierarchical worldview received the article that
called for increased regulation—policies currently associated with a
more egalitarian and liberal worldview—they were more likely to reject
that global warming was a problem than when they received the article
that called for a revitalization of nuclear power.

This research helps explain the attitudes and behaviors of global
warming skeptics. Slovic says it also shows how difficult it is to
communicate persuasively when people feel their worldview is
challenged. "The truly disconcerting thing about this work is that it
shows how difficult it is to change people's views and behaviors with
factual information," says Slovic. "People spin the information to keep
their worldview intact." They do their best to hold onto their
worldviews, says Slovic, because so much of their personal identity and
social networks are tied up in maintaining it.

Fearful futures, hopeful actions

With such significant obstacles to spurring action on global
warming, what can social scientists recommend about how to inspire the
necessary response?

First, communication about global warming needs to reach people's
emotions and trigger fear, and that means emphasizing the dramatic
consequences to come. "It is only the potentially catastrophic nature
of (rapid) climate change (of the kind graphically depicted in the 2004
film The Day After Tomorrow) and the global dimension of adverse
effects, which may create hardships for future generations, that have
the potential for raising a visceral reaction to the risk," Elke Weber
writes in a recent paper on why global warming doesn't scare us yet.

This means making future hardships vivid, imaginable, personalized,
and credible, says Slovic. For example, he suggests that people
communicating about global warming answer the questions: "How will it
change the whole economy and whole quality of life in a particular
region? Will the forests die out? Will the summers be so hot and dry
that the Earth will be uninhabitable?"

In setting out to evoke fear, however, one must tread judiciously.
"If people are being scared without seeing a way out, it makes them
dysfunctional and freeze," says Weber. "They will switch channels and
watch Britney Spears instead."

And that leads to a second recommendation: People need to be offered
a set of actions they can take to combat global warming. "In general, a
good guide is: Where does most of our energy get used?" says Susanne C.
Moser, co-editor of the 2007 anthology, Creating a Climate for Change.
The top three categories of energy-consumption for individuals are
transportation, home-energy use, and food consumption. Already, plenty
of books and websites offer tips on how to reduce energy use in all
these areas. (Many are listed in the "Resources for the Greater Good"
on page 49.) Reports on global warming need to draw on these resources,
so that people feel there is something concrete they can do about it.

Finally, beyond the many small energy-saving solutions people can
take, combating global warming will require making people more aware of
the large-scale lifestyle changes that will really make a difference.
"I don't want to have to make a zillion little decisions," says Baruch
Fischoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the former
president of the Society for Risk Analysis. "I'd like to see people
working out for me some alternative ways of organizing my life where it
will really be a sustainable way to live."

Indeed, figuring out these big lifestyles changes, Fischoff
suggests, is the practical work that now lies ahead for climate and
social scientists.

As for ordinary Americans like myself, I believe that significant
collective action on global warming will come from a very personal
place—such as love for our kids, who will, after all, be among those
most likely to experience its greatest consequences. But perhaps even
more significantly, I'm finding hope in knowing that the drive to
protect our children is another universal desire for which most of us
are, in fact, hard-wired.

Lisa Bennett
is the
communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit
dedicated to education for sustainable living. She is writing a book
about parenting in the age of global warming and can be reached at [email protected].

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply