Thursday, 22 October 2009

Climate Change Threats and Public Response

Humans are not well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought

A potential explanation for the muted response of the public to the threats posed by climate change is put forward in an article 'When Our Brains Short-Circuit' by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. The ideas he puts forward amplify those expressed in my post 'A Failure of Public Response to Climate Change'.

Kristof suggests that humans' perceptions of risk, and their response to threats, are not tuned to the gradual development of large scale threats so that dangers such as climate change do not evoke an instinctive reaction of fear or engender action.

Quoting evidence from eminent psychologists Kristof postulates that the human brain still retains programs, laid down early in human evolution, which respond to the types of threat that were extant for most of the millions of years that humans have existed on earth. In hunter gatherer groups threat categories took the form of 'snakes or enemies with clubs'.

Such threats are in nature personal, imminent and require immediate response.

In contrast, the modern dangers embodied in climate change appear diffuse and remote. For many people the threats from climate change do not have locally discoverable, visible effects; knowledge of them originates from distant sources and is couched in scientific rather than everyday language.

Climate change threats are complex, are long term rather than about immediate personal danger, and will probably affect people in remote lands rather than family first,..... so they do not 'activate our warning system', they 'sneak in under the brain’s radar', consequently action seems to be unnecessary.

Hedgehogs, programed to respond to threats by rolling into a ball, are unable to distinguish between the immediate threat from a fox and the danger signaled by the headlights of a distant lorry. Their inbuilt response is inappropriate to modern conditions.

In a similar way, despite acknowledging the scientific evidence, humans may discount or deny the threats of climate change which seem too complex, long term and large to fully comprehend because the ancient programs in their brains for response to threats are social, immediate and local in scale.

Humans are not well prepared to respond to dangers needing forethought.

In my earlier post the concept of 'socially organised denial' of climate change was discussed, where climate change information is known in the abstract but 'people work to avoid acknowledging disturbing information'.

It may be that lack of public response to the dangers of climate change is caused by a very deep seated psychological phenomenon due to ancient internalised response patterns, and that societies will need to make great efforts to overcome these primeval predispositions which inhibit human response to threats perceived as complex and remote.

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