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Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?

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By Lisa Bennett, Greater Good

Climate scientists wonder why people don't do more about

global warming. Social scientists have some troubling



Three years ago, I became obsessed with global warming. Practically overnight, my worries about its potential effects outstripped my worries about so many other national and global issues, even personal ones.

Indeed, as the mother of two young boys, I began to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape on my children's little bodies and budding egos, but largely ignored the threat likely to put sizeable areas of the world, including parts of the coastal city where we live, underwater within their lifetime.

That year, 2005, marked a turning point for many people. After decades of observation, speculation, and analysis, the world's climate scientists had reached a consensus, and increasingly the general public was accepting it. As USA Today reported, "The Debate is Over: Globe is Warming."

The next step, scientists advised, was action. We needed to take significant and urgent steps to cut our dependence on fossil fuels by 25 percent or more, something NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, said we had only a decade to do if we were to avoid the great global warming tipping point-that level at which increased temperatures would unleash unprecedented global disasters.

So how are we doing?

Surely, some things have changed. Sales of the Toyota Prius and other hybrids have skyrocketed. Many of us have converted to the new energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. A flood of books are hitting the market offering tips about how to save the Earth. And there is a frenzy of advertising about everything from "eco-friendly" houses to "green" hair salons, showing just how widespread Americans' desire is to do the right thing for the environment.

Yet none of this adds up to the significant and urgent action scientists have called for. The question is why: Why don't more of us respond more seriously to the most serious threat to the planet in human history?

"Many climate scientists find the response to global warming completely baffling," says Elke Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change's Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group. According to Weber, climate scientists just can't understand why government and the public have been so slow to act on the extraordinary information these scientists have provided.

But now a growing number of social scientists are offering their expertise in behavioral decision making, risk analysis, and evolutionary influences on human behavior to explain our limited responses to global warming. Among the most significant factors they point to: The way we're psychologically wired and socially conditioned to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to react to the abstract and seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. Their insights are also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people to take action-including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing on people's fears.

Our misleading emotions

There are a significant number of researchers now devoted to studying how people decide that something is truly bad for them. They are called "risk-analysis scholars," and they believe there are, in general, two ways we may assess a risk such as global warming. One is through our analytic abilities, by which we examine the scientific evidence and make logical decisions about how to respond. This is the process that was used by climate scientists to reach the strong and clear conclusion that the risks of global warming are momentous and require immediate and significant action.

But most of us do not rely on our analytic abilities to evaluate the risk of global warming-or any risk, for that matter.

Instead, we rely on the second and more common way of perceiving risk: our emotions.

"For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a statistic. Risk is a feeling," says Weber. We are swayed by our feelings, and those feelings-while an essential part of the decision-making process-can be misleading guides, depending on the type of risk involved.

For example, in a recent paper on how emotion shapes risk perception, Weber cites the growing number of parents who choose to forego having their children vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. To most physicians, this is a highly irrational decision, since vaccinations help prevent serious illnesses and pose very slight risks. So why do parents make such decisions? Because when they learn that roughly one child out of 1,000 will suffer from high fever and one out of 14,000 will suffer seizures as a result of vaccinations, their emotions lead them to imagine that their child will be the one to suffer.

Like genocide, the long-term consequences of global warming are so enormous we can't wrap our heads around them. Scientists predict in 40 years global warming will displace 20 million people from Beijing, 40 million from Shanghai and surrounding areas, and 60 million from Calcutta and Bangladesh. These statistics are daunting, but they're abstract; they don't inspire us to feel for the one individual whose life will be put at risk. As a result, we fail to take appropriate action.


                                               Look at the flowers

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Based on the fact most people don't boycott Gas, yes, most people are Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change.

Those who fight deplorables should see to it that they themselves do not become deplorables.

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