Climate Change: A Faceless Villain

Why do so many of us persist in doing nothing about global warming? Blame it on psychology.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

If only global warming were caused by ISIS declaring a “weather war” on the west, perhaps by gleefully releasing 18 tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every day and gloating when droughts, deluges, heat waves, killer storms, wildfires, or floods ensued. That might incite more people to get upset about it.

In fact, global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of all those events, as well as raising sea levels. But it comes from something quite different from an evil-looking terrorist. The sources—such as power plants, vehicles, farms, and factories—are impersonal and invisible, and close to home—the way we use energy, not the machinations of a foreigner. Faced with a threat with these attributes, the brain reacts with an unimpressed meh: Our minds evolved to detect and respond to threats that have certain features, and global warming has none of them.

In terms of getting people to care about global warming enough to demand a government response or to take personal action, “you couldn’t design a problem that’s a worse fit for our psychology,” Andrew Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, told me.

Countless polls have documented…