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Local school children join Greta Thunberg's initiative on climate strike during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland December 14, 2018. Photo by Agencja Gazeta/Grzegorz Celejewski via REUTERS

How your brain stops you from taking climate change seriously

Action on climate change has been stymied by politics, lobbying by energy companies and the natural pace of scientific research — but one of the most significant barriers is our own minds.

Think about how every town seems to have a traffic intersection that’s needlessly dangerous. No matter how many times you think to yourself, “They should really put in a stoplight here,” you don’t call the proper authorities. (You’re already late for work, and it feels like someone else’s problem to solve.)

Our mental responses to global warming and climate change follow a similar script. What needs to be done is clear enough — stop greenhouse gases from occupying the atmosphere — and yet progress moves at a snail’s pace. Three decades passed between the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the international community’s pledge for action through the Paris climate accords.

It took another two years for these governments to decide — at the COP24 conference in Poland — on how to keep each other accountable. And keep in mind, the Paris agreement still carries no legal powers of enforcement.

Part of the reason it takes us so long to act is because the human brain has spent nearly 200,000 years focused on the present. “Find food. Make shelter. Mate!” We only began to contemplate time, and by extension the future, within the last few hundred years.

Making the future tangible is only one of the psychological barriers that have made climate change into an elusive problem — one for which we must cut global carbon emissions in half within the next 12 years to prevent serious devastation.

Our minds — regardless of one’s political or socioeconomic status — are constantly looking for ways to tell ourselves that business as usual is OK. News of disappearing glaciers fails to inspire serious change because of this cognitive shield — indeed certain efforts to educate only harden partisanship on the issue.

But it’s still possible to train your brain to get over these hurdles. Here’s how.

Apathy and discounting (why news stories about polar bears don’t inspire action)

Overcoming these hurdles relies on the careful intersection of three key dimensions — almost like trying a Rubik’s Cube, said Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

The first dimension centers on finding the best way to change a person’s behaviors toward the environment.

To do that, you need to tap into another dimension: a person’s demographics — how much money they make or where they live.

A polar bear outside Churchill, Manitoba, which is located on the animals' annual migration route. Photo by Tim Auer/Polar Bears International

A polar bear outside Churchill, Manitoba, which is located on the animals’ annual migration route. Photo by Tim Auer/Polar Bears International

Finally, there are what Gifford calls “dragons of inaction” — the specific cognitive barriers that dominate someone’s view of climate change.

“The perception of not having control over the situation is certainly one of the biggest” barriers, Gifford said.

Whenever the NewsHour covers climate change, the most common responses we get from those who don’t believe that humans influence climate change point to the ice ages. They cite how the Earth has experienced natural cycles, between extreme cold and heat, for millennia.

These beliefs are known as nature-benign worldviews, because they suggest the planet is impervious to carbon pollution or any activity performed by Earth’s creatures — even it is done by billions of them, repeatedly in developed countries, for more than a century.

Research shows some deniers may espouse these opinions because they have a personal stake — whether it’s stock investments in fossil fuel companies or they simply enjoy a drive in their gas-powered car.

“But these people are honestly ignoring the fact that the temperature is rising at a rate beyond anything that anybody’s seen for thousands of years,” Gifford said. “It’s pretty clear that it’s not a natural cycle.”

Cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort created by holding more than one conflicting belief at once, plays a part in these dismissals too, Gifford said.

No one wants to believe their daily activities — from switching on a light to checking your phone to washing your hair to going to work — are responsible for a global disaster that has already turned millions of people into climate refugees and killed scores of others.

So people change their minds about the issue rather than changing their habits because it’s an easier way to cope, Gifford said.

Gifford’s lab has found this cognitive tension runs alongside another barrier known as discounting, wherein people undervalue climate change because its hazards don’t feel immediate or nearby. When they surveyed 3,200 people across 18 nations, they found a majority — those from 15 countries — believed incorrectly that climate change wasn’t a local problem.

Spatial discounting helps explain why people maintain the status quo — or become more polarized — even if their news feeds are swamped by viral stories of giant icebergs breaking off Antarctica, or polar bears swimming until they drown.

If the message lacks personal or local relevance, research shows that people will be less engaged.

Ignorance (why people don’t know how to live environmentally)

Another of these “dragons of inaction” is ignorance — not in a negative sense, but rather a lack of information. People often recognize that climate change is bad but don’t know quite what to do about it in their own lives.

For instance, even if many people know that the average American emits about 17 tons of carbon every year, they don’t realize half of those emissions could be eliminated with simple fixes.

“The average house has air leakage equivalent to a small window being open all year round,” said Richard Heede, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute. “If people can caulk these leaky areas, it would help reduce cold infiltration and lower heating bills.”

Heating and cooling account for 53 percent of household emissions, which can be cut by switching to energy-efficient appliances or brushing your teeth with cold instead of hot water.

“Lower the water heater temperature from the normal preset of 140 degrees Fahrenheit to 120,” Heede said. “That’s easy enough, and it prevents scalding by friends and visitors.”

Washing clothes in cold water can save up to 15 pounds of carbon emissions per load, depending on your washing machine and your energy supplier.

You can check your home’s carbon footprint and ways to shrink it with this tool or this one.

Awareness (why so few are driving electric cars)

Experts view the abandonment of gas-burning vehicles as essential to meeting climate goals. In 2014, nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions were created by transportation, a sector that accounts for 70 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption, most of which — 99 percent — is used by cars, trucks and airplanes. In the U.S., transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet even though every major automaker produces electric or hybrid models, most lack mainstream brand recognition. Car dealerships — even in California, which leads the nation in electric cars — express an annoyance toward selling green vehicles.

Go ahead, name an electric car brand. Let me guess: You said Tesla.

Consumers in Canada and the U.S. are “aware that electric vehicles exist as a thing, but don’t understand anything beyond that,” said Jonn Axsen, who directs the Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team at Simon Fraser University. “We find this repeatedly in our in our survey work.”

When his lab examined a survey of 1,700 new car buyers in Canada, they learned only 18 percent knew of a nearby electric car charging station. A second study found a mere 22 percent reported being familiar with how plug-in cars work. Buyers said these things dissuaded them from purchasing electric vehicles.

But in what might be the biggest misconception about the transition to electric vehicles, many respondents assumed that they need abundant access to charging stations before they can invest in an electric car to help the climate, Axsen said.

That’s because most folks are confused about the difference between plug-in hybrid vehicles, which can be plugged in or use gasoline, and pure electric vehicles, Axsen said. “While niche groups of enthusiasts want to go pure electric, that’s proven to be a small share of the market.”

Once a town or community becomes aware of plug-in hybrids and how they operate, Axsen’s group found, there is far more — about 75 percent — expressed demand for that type of vehicle. Consumers can charge them at home for daily city commutes, but still go on unplanned road trips with the gasoline engine.

Contrary to concerns about how far you can drive, “your range is even longer than a conventional vehicle because you have both the battery and the inefficient gasoline engine to work with,” Axsen said.

On the long road to decarbonizing vehicles, the IPCC views hybrid vehicles as “instrumental,” given that transportation emission must drop by 15 to 30 percent in the coming decades to stop the calamity of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Delusions and procrastination (why politicians are taking so long to act)

Washington, D.C., the city proper, is the definition of a liberal stronghold. The District has elected a Democrat in every mayoral race since 1961 and has never voted in favor of a Republican president in its history. The nation’s capital is also a car city, with more than 310,000 registered vehicles. That’s about 5,000 vehicles per square mile, which rivals megacities like New York (7,200); it’s three times as congested as Los Angeles (1,700).

Despite its liberal core, only 1 percent of new vehicles on D.C. streets were electric in 2016, a lower percentage than in Detroit and Salt Lake City. Its total fleet of electric vehicles falls outside the top-10 for U.S. cities.

So how can a government like D.C.’s, which often touts its leadership on energy efficiency, not take steps to boost the city’s supply of electric vehicles?

One of Axsen’s colleague’s at Simon Fraser University — Mark Jaccard — says it happens because policymakers are deluding themselves.

Even after politicians become convinced that climate change matters, they set ineffective policy goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a basic premise that Axsen said other scholars have noticed for decades.

“Time after time, [lawmakers] either put in no effective policies or very few effective policies — where there is no evidence that those policies will get anywhere near their targets,” Axsen said. “It has been happening for decades, and it is everywhere.”

He cites the slow national adoption of the zero-emission vehicle mandate as the starkest example. This policy, which was first implemented in California in 1990, requires automakers to ensure that a certain number of electric vehicles are on the road.

“The beauty, at least from a public policy perspective, is that it puts the onus on automakers,” Axsen said. “When carmakers are required to make, develop, market and sell electric vehicles, then they will channel their resources into doing that,” and it has a snowball effect.

Zero-emission vehicle programs could nearly eliminate petroleum use in passenger vehicles by 2050 in the U.S., yet only nine states have followed California’s lead in 30 years. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Zero-emission vehicle programs could nearly eliminate petroleum use in passenger vehicles by 2050 in the U.S., yet only nine states have followed California’s lead in 30 years. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

It usually goes like this: Automakers begin swapping subsidies, which lower prices for consumers. These backroom deals also reduce the number of government-funded incentives — tax credits — needed to promote electric vehicle adoption. Such incentives can become prohibitively expensive for a city and its citizens as the market grows.

More money going into research and development to bring the cost down for batteries eventually means “a wider range of makes and models of electric vehicles and more marketing efforts in order to make people aware of the different vehicles,” Axsen said.

Research shows that the zero-emission vehicle programs could nearly eliminate petroleum use in passenger vehicles by 2050 in the U.S., yet only nine states have followed California’s lead in 30 years. Automakers and their lobbyists argue that the mandate places too high a burden on vehicle manufacturers. D.C.’s landmark climate bill, which would transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy, does not include a plan for reaching zero emissions from vehicles.

The political reluctance around the zero-emission vehicle mandate mirrors what happened with solar energy, which only ballooned in the last decade thanks in part to government support.

Carbon capture and storage technology, which sucks carbon dioxide out of the sky, has also faced a slow rollout.

As of 2018, there are 18 large-scale carbon capture facilities operating in the world, up from a tally of 17 the year before.

Akshat Rathi, who has thoroughly covered this issue for Quartz, reports that the world needs at least 200 of these facilities by 2025 to hit zero emissions. Meanwhile, there are 500 coal plants currently under construction worldwide, and another 1,000 planned for the near future.

Based on every climate scenario studied by the IPCC, the Earth cannot stop the coming devastation wrought by global warming without carbon capture and storage; the global dearth of carbon capture continues to threaten the Paris accords emissions targets for 2030.

Internal motivation (why you can still make a difference)

Every expert interviewed for this story said that if people want to stop this slow, collective demise by a thousand political half-steps, the best weapon is you.

People tend to mold their behaviors around what they already favor. If you favor patriotism, you’ll attend parades. If you favor the outdoors, you’ll go camping or hunting.

So how we internally frame our discussions about climate change is one of the keys to motivating action, Gifford said. (Alternatively, if you give people outside incentives to do the right thing environmentally, the behavior stops pretty much when the incentive stops.)

“The goal is trying to get people to have a green identity, an intrinsic motivation instead of an extrinsic motivation,” Gifford said.

One way to shape environmental attitudes is to explain how climate change will directly affect a person’s lifestyle, such as by threatening national security or national parks, he said.

“Another messaging strategy that works across the board is not telling people that they’re going to have to sacrifice,” Gifford said. “Research shows that pro-environment messages stick best when you tell people that they can be a hero by helping others.”

Public pressure led to a $6 trillion divestment from fossil fuels. Photo by REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Public pressure led to a $6 trillion in divestment from fossil fuels. Photo by REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Heede echoed this sentiment, pointing to massive efforts by investors toward green energy. One student-inspired campaign has pledged to divest $6 trillion from fossil fuels since 2011, and global investments in clean energy have exceeded $200 billion for the last eight years.

Heede said this investor pressure has led most oil and gas companies to pledge reductions in carbon emissions — at least with their field operations. Shell has even developed a global plan for reaching zero emissions, though it calls on increases in coal, natural gas and oil for decades.

Grassroots efforts have also spawned political pressure and movements like the Green New Deal in the House of Representatives.

“Increasingly shareholders are more activist with respect to climate,” Heede said. But you don’t have to be a millionaire to make a difference. “Consumers have a lot of power to adjust their spending habits, what they invest then and what their concerns are. We vote with our dollars.”

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