Today the scientific community is in almost total agreement that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activity, and that this represents a huge threat to the planet and to us. According to a Pew survey conducted in March, however, public opinion lags behind the scientific conclusion, with only 69% of those surveyed accepting the view that the earth is warming — and only 1 in 4 Americans see global warming as a major threat. Still, 69% is a solid majority, which begs the question, Why aren’t we doing anything about it?
This political inertia in the face of unprecedented threat is the most fundamental challenge to tackling climate change. Climate scientists and campaigners have long debated how to better communicate the message to nonexperts so that climate science can be translated into action. According to Christopher Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, the usual tactic of climate experts to provide the public with information isn’t enough because “it does not address key underlying causes.” We are all bombarded with the evidence of climate change on an almost a daily basis, from new studies and data to direct experiences of freakish weather events like last year’s epic drought in the U.S. The information is almost unavoidable.
If it’s not a data deficit that’s preventing people from doing more on global warming, what is it? Blame our brains. Renee Lertzman, an applied researcher who focuses on the psychological dimensions of sustainability, explains that the kind of systemic threat that climate change poses to humans is “unique both psychologically and socially.” We face a minefield of mental barriers and issues that prevent us from confronting the threat.
For some, the answer lies in cognitive science. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has written about why our inability to deal with climate change is due in part to the way our mind is wired. Gilbert describes four key reasons ranging from the fact that global warming doesn’t take a human form — making it difficult for us to think of it as an enemy — to our brains’ failure to accurately perceive gradual change as opposed to rapid shifts. Climate change has occurred slowly enough for our minds to normalize it, which is precisely what makes it a deadly threat, as Gilbert writes, “because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.”