Are we too irrational to stop climate breakdown?

The human mind isn’t made for long-term thinking. Is this why it’s so difficult to get action on climate change?

I’m going to have back problems in a few years, and it’ll be entirely self-inflicted.

I know what’ll cause it. It’s all the hours hunched over my laptop, all the weekends hauling too-heavy bags of compost across my veg patch. But even though I know it’ll lead to pain in the future, I just can’t be bothered to change the way I do things.

Every so often I get a sharp twinge in my lower back, as if my muscles are being plucked like guitar strings. That’s when I promise myself I’ll correct my posture, I’ll start lifting things properly. But as soon as the pain’s gone I’m back to my usual habits.

What’s this got to do with climate change? Worryingly, my attitude to my health is an example of a deep-seated irrationality within all of us: we just don’t care that much about the future. Many people think this could make the climate crisis impossible to solve – we humans just aren’t built to solve this kind of problem.

We should be optimistic, though: if we know how we’re irrational we can find ways to work around it. So let’s look more closely at the quirks of human thinking that make action on climate change so difficult.

Humans care less about future experiences

Our reasoning has a quirk known as ‘near bias’. And this quirk means we care less about experiences the further they are in the future.

An example of this is the famous marshmallow test. Children are presented with a marshmallow on a plate. They can either eat it immediately or wait five minutes and receive two marshmallows. Most of them eat the single marshmallow straight away – they just don’t see the value of having something better in the future when they could have something slightly worse now. Their future experience doesn’t matter as much to them as their present one.

But we grow out of it, right? Not exactly. Adults are slightly better at delaying gratification, but our near bias is still there. It’s why we don’t save enough for our pensions, why we put off doing unpleasant jobs, and why I keep failing to sort out my back problems even though I know it’s going to cause me pain further down the line.

Philosophers have written pages and pages about why it’s irrational to care more about things the closer they are to the present time. Political philosopher John Rawls wrote:

“Rationality requires an impartial concern for all parts of our life. The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.”

And philosopher Meghan Sullivan recently wrote a whole book about why our near bias is irrational. (As well as arguing that it’s irrational to care about the future more than the past – but that’s another story).

Does this really mean we can’t stop climate change?

This is why some people argue humans just aren’t built to deal with climate breakdown. Climate change requires concerted collective action over a long period of time – and one where the worst effects will be felt years into the future. Since we care about near experiences so much more than future ones, we just aren’t motivated to radically change our behaviour. Even if we think we’re going to have a terrible time in ten years, we just aren’t motivated to change our behaviour now.

So should we be pessimistic about climate change? Is it really a problem we’re inherently ill-equipped to deal with because we just don’t care about the future? I’m not so sure. There is a quirk of human rationality that’s preventing us acting on climate change, but it’s got nothing to do with time – and it’s something we can easily solve.

Our irrationality about the future isn’t the problem

We find it difficult to care about the long term, and this is a fundamental part of the way we think. But this particular irrationality can’t be the reason we’re failing to act on climate change.

That’s because the effects of climate change aren’t consigned to the far-off future. They’re already here. Droughts and record heatwaves in India and Europe, huge losses of biodiversity, raging wildfires and islands swallowed up by rising seas: it’s happening now. Our ‘near bias’ can’t explain why we’re able to so easily ignore these effects. So what’s the real reason we find it so difficult to act on climate change?

The culprit is another piece of human irrationality: we find it easier to care about things that are happening to us or those we know. When we can feel the effects of climate change, we care more about it – but as soon as the effects disappear our concern disappears too.

Just look at how the UK public’s concern about the environment reached its second highest level ever in 2014, following winter storms and flooding in the South East of England. Tellingly, it went straight back down again when the weather returned to normal.

Saving the drowning child

Philosopher Peter Singer came up with a thought experiment that illustrates this quirk of human psychology.

Imagine on your way to work you cut through a park and find a young child drowning in a pond. You could easily wade in and save her, but as you’re running towards the water you realise you’ll be late for work and miss an important meeting. Is this a reason not to save the girl? Of course not – being late for work is just a minor inconvenience, and we’re talking about saving someone’s life.

Now imagine that it’s not a girl drowning in front of you, but a child dying on the other side of the world. You can still save her with only minor inconvenience to you – logging on to a website and donating a few pounds. Do you still have the same moral obligation to save the child?

Many of us feel there’s a less strong obligation to the second child. Imagine how we’d treat someone who left a child to drown because they didn’t want to be late for work, compared to someone who failed to donate to a charity appeal to provide food for starving children in another country. We’d see the first person as some kind of monster, but could imagine ourselves getting along fine with the second person – in fact, many of us are that second person.

Singer wants to show us we’re inconsistent in our actions. The only real difference in the two cases is the distance of the child from you – and that shouldn’t make a difference to our moral obligations.

Singer’s example also demonstrates exactly the part of human psychology that makes it difficult to act on climate change. Things just seem less urgent when they’re happening elsewhere. A child dying in front of us requires us to act, while a child dying in another country doesn’t inspire the same reaction.

We only feel an urgency to act when something is happening right in front of us – so while the worst effects of climate change only seem to be happening elsewhere, those of us who aren’t seeing the effects aren’t so urgently motivated.

What can we do?

It’s not our lack of concern about the future that stops urgent action on climate change. It’s our lack of concern about things that are happening to other people, in other places. So how do we overcome this irrational aspect of human psychology?

The effects of climate change are becoming more and more obvious – just this week deadly heatwaves are hitting the UK and France. This may put climate change front and centre in our minds for now, but as soon as the heatwaves are over we’ll be back to caring less – just like what happened after the storms in 2014. Of course, if we wait a few years the effects of climate change will be staring us in the face constantly – but that’s not an option. We need to find ways to beat this irrationality before that becomes a reality.

What we can do is change the way we see the world around us, so that we notice what we’re doing to the planet on an everyday basis. Even when the devastating climate-induced events aren’t happening, there are constant signs that the world around us is changing because of climate breakdown.

We can make a good start by finding more opportunities to notice nature – to see the changes happening year on year, to see the effects we’re having on the environment. It’s not about having in-depth knowledge of nature – in fact, studies have shown that knowing facts about nature doesn’t correlate with connectedness to nature. Rather, it’s about taking time to notice what’s going on around us.

Most of us live in towns and cities, but there’s still a lot of nature to notice. How many butterflies are there compared to last year? What time of year do the swifts first appear? When are the spring bulbs starting to push through the soil? Twitter is full of people noticing little things like this that would never be reported otherwise – they’re all little indicators that add up to a bigger picture.

When we start to notice the little things we don’t need to wait for the huge devastating events to spur us to action. We see that climate change is something that’s happening here and now, and that we need to act.

We humans are irrational. But so long as we understand the reasons why, it shouldn’t stop us taking action to stop climate breakdown.

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