Are we wired to ignore climate change?

Does climate change bypass our fear circuits?
28 February 2017

Interview with 

George Marshall, founder of climate outreach


See no evil monkeys


While 98% of scientists are agreed on the problems facing us due to climate change, why are we - as a species - so bad at doing stuff about it? It’s a complex issue, but could it be partly down to the way we’ve evolved? That’s what George Marshall argues in his book ‘Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change’’, as he explains to Georgia Mills...

George - Climate change is a really tricky challenge for us because the rational side of our brains can appreciate it for being a major threat. Anybody that looks in any detail at this, especially the underlying science, comes away very concerned but it’s hard to hold onto that concern because, unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem to have many of the qualities that trigger that visceral, emotional sense of concern. It’s distant, it’s dispersed, it’s quite difficult to get your head around. It doesn’t make a kind of intuitive sense really that we’re putting invisible gases out into the atmosphere which change the weather. We don’t have any real precedent for this or things to draw on.

These are all the qualities which make us concerned about things is that they’re issues that are here, that are now, that we’ve seen before. And really, the quality that alerts us most to things that we should worry about is that there’s an enemy that wants to cause us harm. That’s why we respond so strongly to issues like terrorism and the problems of climate change fits very badly with that as well. We get very upset and angry about unfairness where people want to cause harm, where people want to cause violence. Climate change will be violent in terms of its impacts, but nobody at any point in this actually wants to cause harm.

So what I’d say of it is it’s almost perfectly constructed to bypass all of the systems we depend upon to tell us that something is dangerous. That’s why you get into this very tricky situation where people rationally accept it’s a problem, but emotionally don’t.

Georgia - What is it about our biology or the way or brains are built that makes us ignore it in this way?

George - One of the arguments out there, as I said, is that it doesn’t seem to fit very well with what we have been historically adapted to deal with. But, underlying that is is the fact that we have been adapted to not be too worried about things. People who are constantly anxious, and are constantly being triggered by concern perform less well. So, therefore, what we have in our brains is a very interesting balance between the capacity to be worried about things, and become engaged, and take action, but also the capacity to ignore things and not take action and it’s those two qualities.

The problem of climate change is that it works quite well to the capacity to push things on one side. We tend not to think about things that are somewhat in the future because, who knows, situations might change. We tend to prioritise things in the present, for example. These are all very very deeply embedded, long term, evolutionary behaviours which are sensible. They’re part and parcel of our survival.

Georgia - How do you tackle this when no-one wants to hear about it, no-one wants to address it, we’re just built that way? What do we do?

George - The really simple, in a nutshell answer is we give it a social shape and form. What makes all of a difference for whether people accept or deny climate change is whether it speaks to their culture, their values, and their identity. It’s not impossible. There are very large numbers of people who are deeply concerned about climate change and some of those people vote on their principles, some of them even get arrested, they demonstrate. There were 400,000 people on the streets of New York protesting about it. It’s not impossible, but the reason they could do that is because it had come to be built around a set of narratives and values that spoke to them and who they are. Similarly, very, very intelligent, well educated people will deny the existence of climate change because that denial narrative speaks very well to who they are.

Really, the way we bypass this is we make it social. Climate change is something that people like us believe in whoever we are. This is a faith issue, this is a muslim issue, this is a conservative issue, this is a business issue, this is an artist’s issue. And then it becomes persuasive because we start hearing of it from people like ourselves, and if there’s one thing that galvanises us into action it’s the fact that we think that something is part and parcel of the identity of a group around us.

Georgia - How does that happen? Is that the responsibility of people in those parts of society to persuade everyone else in their group?

George - I think it has to happen, as it were, proactively and reactively. Proactively I think that governments, organisations, scientists who wish to galvanise action on this enable people to have that conversation and they help to give climate change a shape that can be passed on in that way. I think networks that have different identities and different ways of reaching people proactively engage with it.

I was hugely excited, of course, by what Pope Francis did where he started a conversation within the catholic church based around catholic social teaching around climate change. I’d like to see that happen within every faith group or, indeed, any group where people have a set of shared values.

But I also think as individuals, as anyone listening who is concerned about climate change, you have to recognise that there is a social silence around this issue whereby people actively suppress conversation about it. And I think we need to recognise there’s an enormous amount of power and importance in the conversations you have with the people around you.

Georgia - What way is it best to bring it up because, when you see an article, all you hear is someone constantly bringing up climate change? You can, even if you completely agree, a part of you is saying “oh no, not again, here they go again.” What kind of message should you be giving out to people when you are trying to change their minds?

George - I think it’s like any kind of conversation. Imagine a situation where people are very passionate about a lifestyle issue like, for example, their diet. If you just lecture people about it and say “oh no, you really shouldn’t be doing that. That’s very, very bad.”  You push people away and you're just generally irritating. I think the important thing to do is just to hold something as a core value that you bring up where it’s appropriate and you share it where you can.

I think certainly it’s important we talk about climate change around extreme weather events. I think talking about it in the workplace saying are we as a company, are we as an organisation thinking about this? Are we prepared for this? The most important conversations, of course, are not just the ones we have with each other but the one’s where politicians ask us what we think. That is really, really important. If you have an opportunity to engage with key decision makers - absolutely put it on the table.


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