Climate Change. The Fear of the Physical Threat is Starting to Trump Ideology.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Human behavior is controlled by a lot of neural wiring and chemistry, and an incredible range of cognitive shortcuts and instincts, over which we have practically no conscious control. A lot of this behind-the-scenes “thinking”, which often leads to decisions and behaviors that seem to fly in the face of the facts, is driven by one of the most fundamental imperatives – survival. The brain’s job is first and foremost to get us to tomorrow.
But the brain relies on several instincts to help us survive, and sometimes they conflict. One fear can literally contradict another. That’s the case with climate change. The bad news is that at this point, the wrong ones are winning. The good news is, things may be changing.
The three players in this subconscious cognitive battle are;
1. Tribalism. We are social animals, and our survival depends on belonging to a tribe that helps protect us. So we do lots of things to remain members in good standing of our tribe(s). One of them is subconsciously shaping our opinions so they agree with those in the group(s) with which we most closely identify. (This phenomenon is known as Cultural Cognition.) By adopting ‘the party line’, we are accepted as members in good standing of our tribe, and by reinforcing tribal solidarity we increase our tribe’s influence in competition with other tribes for overall control of society. This survival instinct of tribalism grows more intense the more threatened we feel about how society is going - economically, morally, politically.
With climate change, you can see this in the strong correlation between those who deny the evidence and their conservative or libertarian political and ideological affiliations. A Republican who fails to deny climate change is labeled a RINO…a Republican In Name Only…and shunned by “the base”, the self-anointed true believers. Jon Huntsman acknowledged an open mind on climate change, and for his admirable honesty was resoundingly rejected in the GOP primary. Open minds are bad for tribal solidarity.
2. The Hubris of Cartesian Reason. We think we can keep an open mind, and reason, and use the facts to make the ‘right’ decision, more than we actually can. This is particularly true of liberals, who generally score highly in one of five major personality traits known as Openness, which “…reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety… sometimes called "intellect" rather than openness to experience.” The problem is, this pretense of open mindedness is a dangerous deceit, because liberals are no different than other social human animals. They feel safer when their tribe wins too. So when liberals argue with climate change deniers, to a large degree they aren’t really trying to change the deniers’ minds. They’re trying to WIN…to get the deniers not just to change their minds but in the process to abandon their tribe. But that feels threatening to the deniers, and in response their denial grows stronger. And that enrages the liberals, whose stridency grows. In the end, then, this survival instinct for tribal solidarity makes the whole fight about climate change an unwinnable battle over underlying worldviews, and counterproductively leaves us further from progress and solutions, and less safe.
3. Fear. Often the penultimate survival instinct of plain old fear – a direct worry about your physical health and safety - trumps almost everything else in human cognition. Think back to the frightening days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Remember how all the angry ugly divisive tribal polarization between so many groups in America just disappeared?! In an instant, the mantra became “We are ALL Americans”. That fear (and don’t forget the anthrax attacks that hit a month later) made a lot of liberals ready to believe the Bush Administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons of mass destruction and his non-existent connection with Al Qaeda, and support the invasion of Iraq. Fear – 1, Tribal Cohesion – 0.
The problem with climate change, so far anyway, has been that for all its monstrous potential harm, very few people truly fear it, down in their gut. It just doesn’t ring the right psychological risk perception alarm bells. (Those ‘risk perception factors’ are described in Chapter Three of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts”, available free here.) It is seen as delayed, not a current danger. It’s abstract and global, not tangible and local. Most of all, the threat doesn’t feel personal. Even among the those really worried about it, few can honestly say to themselves “I’m worried something really bad is going to happen to ME.”
So climate change has yet to hit trigger our powerful self-protective instinctive fear response. Instead, climate deniers remain more worried about the social and political and economic changes that responding to climate change might mean, changes they see as a threat to the way their tribe wants society to operate. Deniers even use the word “threat” when they talk about climate change, but to them the greater threat is to freedom, and the free market, not to human and environmental health.
Sooner or later, that will change, and the bad things that climate change is likely to do…really bad things…will start happening. Fear of climate change…real, visceral, good old-fashioned in-the-gut “I’m in serious physical danger” fear…will start to kick in. When it does, it will likely supercede the ideological/tribal concerns of many climate change deniers. And that shift may already be underway. Heat waves and droughts and fires in tinder dry forests, torrential rains and flooding, storms that cut off power to millions…lethal extremes that experts say are consistent with how climate change is likely to alter local weather…are starting to make the threat of climate change more tangible, current, and personal, psychological characteristics that make any risk scarier. And not just for ‘those poor people in Africa’ but all across the developed world, including places that are home to concentrations of conservatives and climate deniers. Weather, after all, makes no distinctions based on local politics.
History teaches that fear trumps everything. Fear unites, and fear motivates, and fear for our physical health and safety dominates most other instincts. As the threat of climate change becomes big enough and real enough and ‘now’ enough, increased concern will first motivate the general public, the majority not caught up in the Climate Wars. At some point the fear of climate change will even trump the fear that divides us into tribes, and climate denialism will move even further into the fringe it is already heading towards (see the recent Heartland Institute embarrassment)
It is harsh to say, but more of the extreme weather we’ve been suffering may be just what we need to help trigger the fear – our deepest and most powerful survival instinct – that we need to protect ourselves from one of the biggest threats we ALL have ever faced.
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