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Science & Environment

Why Climate Change Threats Don't Trigger An Immediate Response From Human Brains

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As world leaders meet in Madrid to talk about slowing down climate change, I find myself returning to a nagging thought. What am I doing about climate change, and why am I not doing more? I wanted to take a step back from what governments can do, what corporations can do, and think about what drives behavior at an individual level.

So I turned to Dan Gilbert. He's a psychologist at Harvard, and he focuses on the human mind, not climate change. But it turns out those two things are totally connected when it comes to explaining why people don't do more about the environment. He wrote about this all the way back in 2006, but what he said then still holds up today. Gilbert argued that climate change lacks four fundamental features that typically trigger an immediate response. And those features all start with the letter I, so bear with us.

The first one is intention. Global warming isn't trying to kill us, he writes. And that's a shame.

DAN GILBERT: The human brain, you've got to remember, is a fantastic threat detector. The problem is that the brain is especially attuned to threats from agents.

CHANG: Like people, creatures.

GILBERT: Exactly. The greatest threat to our well-being for the last few million years has been a man with a big stick.

CHANG: Your point is that climate change isn't this personal, deliberate assault against us by other humans.

GILBERT: Exactly. There's no evildoer. I mean, just imagine that the things happening today in the United States with regard to climate were a nefarious plot by the Iranians. We'd be dropping nuclear bombs. But when it's the climate, which doesn't seem like it's a person at all, we just kind of ho and hum.

CHANG: Which kind of leads to the next thing - this idea that it doesn't feel like climate change is someone inflicting a wrongdoing on us. Your next I-word is the word immoral. Global warming doesn't violate our moral sensibilities.

GILBERT: Well, that's right. As a social creature, we are deeply concerned with morality, the rules by which people treat each other. Climate change is meteorological. It doesn't present itself as an affront to our sense of decency.

CHANG: But this makes me think of Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, because she is kind of reframing the problem as, you older people, you older generation - you did this to us, and what you did is reprehensible. It is immoral. Let me have you take a listen to part of a speech she gave last September at the U.N. Action Summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA THUNBERG: People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?

(CHEERING)

CHANG: So do you think that's effective - to make climate change, this wrongful act inflicted by some humans, on other humans?

GILBERT: Of course it's effective. Name any other 16-year-old whose speech we're discussing today.

CHANG: (Laughter).

GILBERT: She is challenging the moral rectitude of the people who are not solving this problem for children.

CHANG: Right. Your third I-word is the word imminent. We see global warning as a threat to our distant futures, but not to our afternoons.

GILBERT: Well, that's true. It's very hard for the human brain to get very excited about things that aren't happening now. That's why people have trouble getting up and flossing in the morning - because the dental problems that they're going to accrue are pretty far off.

CHANG: But then with some people, climate change is actually more of an imminent threat. I mean, I'm thinking about farmers who are seeing more ruined crops. I'm thinking about people who live in certain regions that are definitely getting more extreme weather.

GILBERT: Well, exactly as the theory predicts, these are the very people who are now up in arms about climate change...

CHANG: Yeah.

GILBERT: ...Because they're being personally affected by it today. But it's still a very small minority of people.

CHANG: Which leads us to our fourth and final I-word, and that is instantaneous. And that is this idea that global warming isn't happening overnight. We accept gradual changes more than we do abrupt changes.

GILBERT: Yes. There's no doubt that if 30 years ago, Miami Beach had totally flooded, people would've been outraged...

CHANG: Yeah.

GILBERT: ...And thought, what must we do about this? But as long as it's an inch more of water every year, people just get used to it. They start building higher roads. They - we become habituated to almost anything.

CHANG: So do you think the human brain can be retrained as far as climate change is concerned?

GILBERT: Well, I guess I'd say two things. The first is, no, you can't rewire the human brain, but what you can do is appeal to it. The human brain is indeed designed to respond to certain kinds of threats. So why not make climate change into one of those? And as you pointed out, a 16-year-old is already helping us do that.

CHANG: That is Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert.

And it's not just Greta Thunberg. Tomorrow, we're going to talk to someone else who's figuring out how to appeal to the human brain when it comes to climate change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.