Greed and Climate Change

A search for the word ‘greed’ in Robert Gifford’s “The Dragons of Inaction”—a 2011 paper in American Psychologist that lists 29 psychological barriers to action on climate change—leads to nothing. Greed is not mentioned.

In a paper that has been cited hundreds of times, that omission is absurd. Greed is clearly a significant factor limiting action on climate change.

Consider the industry-sponsored campaign to discredit research showing that smoking causes lung cancer as well as other diseases. Eventually the tobacco industry was convicted of crimes for covering up scientific studies, some of which they themselves had commissioned. Dozens of documents revealed during the trial indicated that industry executives knew very well that smoking killed people—but they did not want to stop reaping profits from selling tobacco products. The industry had to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in penalties for their greed, i.e. for continuing to cause disease and death by selling an addictive substance, in order to make money while covering up the truth.

More recently, the oil industry has directly and indirectly fought against action on climate change. Greed must top the list of reasons why the industry fights against the inconvenient truth that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change. The fossil fuel industry helps to subsidize the “merchants of doubt” who publish pseudo-science, thereby aiming to undermine the real science of climate change. As in the case of tobacco, one of the world’s most powerful industries is using its political and financial muscle to fight the truth, based largely on greed.

Politicians serving in places where coal, oil, and natural gas are important industries also are acting in a greedy way, placing their desire to hold office ahead of approaching the truth in an open-minded manner. We can be sure that scientists, including people working in every Congressional district, have tried to explain the well-documented science of climate change to each and every member of the House and Senate.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who currently chairs the Senate committee with major responsibility for climate change, has had ample opportunity to learn the science. However, in 2012 Inhofe published a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Inhofe’s bizarre ideas (thousands of scientists in dozens of countries are really part of a global conspiracy?) seem heavily influenced by his religious convictions. However, one should not forget that the oil and gas industry is powerful in Oklahoma and helps influence elections there, through funding and other means.

Greed has been identified as a harmful human trait for thousands of years, in cultures around the world. But compare the psychologist’s list of reasons for inaction to what Pope Francis has to say in his recent encyclical on “care for our common home” (the earth). The Pope writes directly and frankly about the need to curb greed, as well as to reduce wastefulness and over-consumption. He says, for example, “When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases.”

Greed is not the only obstacle to fighting climate change but nonetheless it is an important one. It is interesting and disturbing that in an increasingly secular culture a religious figure is willing to identify greed as a contributing factor to climate change while a respected psychologist fails to mention greed in a long list of human traits working against the future of mankind’s life on earth.

People’s tendencies to “keep up with the Joneses,” as well as for conspicuous (but unnecessary) consumption, are well documented. Yet it seems appropriate to ask whether some psychology “experts” are getting in the way of telling the truth. Is the idea of greed now considered out of fashion, or taboo, among prominent psychologists?

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