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 the lack of concern about global warming and the resulting climate change, which threatens to exact an enormous financial and human toll. The Yale Project’s 2015 survey, for instance, found that about 16% of US adults are die-hard climate deniers, rejecting the scientific research that has documented how the rise in greenhouse gases from human activities (primarily burning coal, oil, and natural gas) is trapping heat in the planet’s atmosphere and altering Earth’s climate. While another 63% believe (correctly) that global warming is happening, only 48% believe (also correctly) that it is due to human activities. Just 41% know that the vast majority of climatologists have reached that conclusion. This has been widely and repeatedly reported in the media, so when people say they do not “believe” these facts, or don’t care about them, it suggests something in their psychology is at fault.

Psychologists think they know what.

Perhaps the most important reason people don’t care, and don’t take the threat seriously, is that global warming lacks a face. Humans are social mammals, with brains fine-tuned for thinking about other humans. The price we pay for our ability to notice and understand humans is a blind spot for threats that don’t come from identifiable individuals. As a result, we worry more about health-care workers (identifiable individuals) bringing Ebola back from Africa than we do about influenza (sources unknown).

Climate change also fails to connect psychologically because, as Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University has pointed out, “it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced.” People are wired to rail against threats that do incite such emotions. “If climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets,” Gilbert argued.

What risks do incite emotional outrage of the kind that leads to mass action? Those with several characteristics. We become most outraged when a threat is visible (oil slicks, not the carbon dioxide behind man-made global warming), clearly tied to consequences (a toxic spill poisoning a town’s drinking wells, not the complicated chain of cause-and-effects from carbon dioxide to weather), and scarily exotic (dimethylhexachlorochemical, not the very gas that we exhale). Global warming fails on all these counts and therefore doesn’t trigger the outrage that goads us into action.

Global warming is also hobbled by being distant in time and space. Our brains don’t react to threats to our futures and to far-off places as strongly as they do to threats that are here and now. Activists erred badly a decade ago in making the polar bear and its melting arctic home the symbol of global warming, which conveyed the message that this isn’t a threat right here, right now (or soon). “When it’s about polar bears or Pacific islands sinking sometime in the future, it seems too psychologically distant to care about,” said Leiserowitz. “People might know global warming exists and wish someone would do something about it, but they don’t have an inexhaustible capacity for worry”: They have to focus their concern first on immediate worries—things like feeding their kids and holding a job and getting from Point A to Point B alive.

The pace of global warming also keeps our brains from caring. Our senses are sensitive to—and alert to threats from—changes in light, sound, temperature, and the like, but only if the rate of change is detectable. Global warming, however, brings increased temperatures of fractions of a degree per decade. “We’re not very good at picking up slow changes, much less convincing ourselves to care about them,” Leiserowitz said.

“We don’t respond to ‘natural’ events with the outrage we bring to a terrorist strike or a nuclear accident. Psychologically, we’re wired to respond to a human enemy that’s coming to get us.”

—Andrew Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications

While extreme weather does get our attention, it fails to incite mass concern because it carries the “natural” label: In common parlance, floods and storms are “natural disasters” or “acts of God.” Scientists can tell us repeatedly that global warming increases the frequency and severity of weather extremes, but the events just don’t feel like the result of human activity. “We don’t respond to ‘natural’ events with the outrage we bring to a terrorist strike or a nuclear accident,” Leiserowitz said. “Psychologically, we’re wired to respond to a human enemy that’s coming to get us.”

If the polar bear campaign was a misfire, so have been the related attempts by climate activists to guilt people into conserving energy and decrease the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Guilt feels lousy; rather than allowing guilt to motivate us to change our behavior, we mentally flail around for ways to deny the purported reason for the guilt someone is trying to lay on us. What’s easier than denying that global warming is even a problem?

Guilt-avoidance isn’t the only psychological foible that sabotages environmentalists’ efforts to win over the public on global warming. When we deeply, emotionally, believe something, and that belief is linked with our identity and worldview, we are primed to engage in “motivated reasoning,” in which emotions bias how we absorb and weigh information.

In this case, climate change has become so politically polarizing that one’s stance on the matter is a nearly foolproof indication of one’s political ideology. People who believe in individualism and limited government interference in the free market tend to be climate-change doubters because recognizing the reality of climate change is the first step in a slippery slope toward acknowledging that combatting it will require collective action by national governments and international organizations such as the UN, as well as interference in individual choice (get your hands off my Hummer!) and the free market (if, say, carbon emissions are capped or taxed). That is abhorrent to many conservatives, libertarians, and free-marketeers. The brain therefore rebels, and instead denies the existence of global warming. According to a Pew Research Center analysis released last summer, 71% of self-identified Democrats say the Earth is warming due to human activity, compared with 27% of Republicans.

How strong is motivated reasoning? When it snowed in Washington, DC last February, climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe threw a snowball in the US Senate, contending that winter snow in Washington disproved global warming. Against our primitive brains and their psychological defenses, even science and the cleverest communication strategies are often helpless.