Why is the World Combating Climate Change So Slowly?

I do not believe the United States is primarily responsible for the world’s slow response to climate change, but I am angry nonetheless at individuals, news media, and other organizations in the U.S. that have intentionally or carelessly supported disinformation campaigns. I am appalled that so many Republican candidates for President seem willfully ignorant and childish about climate change (and many other issues). It seems a shame that the United States has not played an even more significant leadership role than it has, say by investing more heavily in renewable energy, or by placing a carbon tax on gasoline and other fuels decades ago.

Who or what is mainly responsible for slowing the world down? After all, humanity has acquired far more scientific knowledge and technological capacity than ever in history. Why, then, has the world moved so slowly to replace old technologies based on burning fossil fuels with safer and more sustainable technologies?

Answers include personal and corporate greed, lack of imagination (e.g., believing the transition will be impossible or too expensive), and the tragedy of the commons, meaning that individuals, corporations, or nations perceive that their self-interests are not aligned with the interests of all. Although this list might be extended, just two reasons for the world’s slow response to climate change seem paramount.

First, research published during the past 50 years, and discussed often on this blog, documents the many ways in which human minds can become biased and reach erroneous conclusions—about economics, government, race and ethnicity, probability, and a nearly endless number of other topics, including climate change. It is easy to believe that psychology researchers are talking only about someone else’s biased mind, or that the problem of flawed thinking is restricted to evil and stupid people. But that is not the case; everyone, even an expert, is more prone to errors in thinking than one would wish.

In discussing climate change I saw how common it is for many intelligent, accomplished people to make errors in thinking. One friend, a university scientist, told me, “that’s a problem for our children”—but experts and President Obama say that if we don’t deal with the problem soon our children won’t be able to act in time. Other smart people have been much too skeptical about the reality of climate change, and its imminent threat, in the face of near unanimity among the world’s climate scientists—apparently not wondering how unlikely it would be for hundreds of experts to be wrong in issuing warnings that are based on decades of research  and that are vetted by governments around the world. Too many people I talk with demonstrate a lack of curiosity about the issue, despite alarming headlines. In contrast, an educated friend who is well connected around the world told me she finds climate change terrifying—but does not want to discuss it with friends or family and, like many people, has not acted on what she believes (a sure recipe for no progress, if everyone adopted the same attitude). A state legislator accepts that climate change is happening but focuses his energy primarily on reducing the price of electricity rather than on reducing GHG emissions, not willing to see renewable energy as essential, or that total electricity costs ought to include not only consumer prices but also the immense damage done by GHG emissions.

The second big reason the world has acted slowly is related to culture. The prevailing world view today is far different than in ancient Rome, or medieval Europe, or among primitive tribes (now mostly a part of history). In the main, people today have different views than people in the past about science, religion, morality, government, humans’ place in the universe, world interdependence, gender roles, etc.

Modern culture has achieved many remarkable things, but at the same time seems prone to certain particular errors in thinking more than did past cultures—which, of course, had their own blind spots, ones that we are glad to have left behind. This is a main argument that Oreskes and Conway make in The Collapse of Western Civilization, where they focus on some modern cultural beliefs—such as the virtues of the corporate free market, and the sacrosanct 95% confidence interval in science—as significant barriers that help explain why humanity is not coming to grips with climate change more rapidly.

To reiterate, humans’ prevailing thinking has changed over thousands of years (adopting a scientific world view; or the growing acceptance of democratic governance; or expecting standards of living in the world to grow without limit, which would have been an alien idea for most of human history). In trying to understand why it has been difficult for the world to combat climate change, the most useful explanation I find is to point to well-documented biases in the way human beings think, and presumably always have thought throughout history, combined with certain inadequate or erroneous beliefs prevalent especially in the modern world.

Individual and cultural blinders, operating separately and together, have made it surprisingly difficult for large numbers of people to clearly see, understand, and then act to mitigate the dangers of climate change. There are numerous of these blinders, and by definition for many people they are not visible, making the task of moving quickly to combat climate change exceptionally challenging. In short, and to repeat an idea from the last post, the problem is: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as in Walt Kelly’s 1971 Pogo cartoon.

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