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Climate change and our evolutionary weaknesses

By Dale Jamieson


In the reality-based community outside of Washington D.C. there is a growing fear and increasing disbelief about the failure to take climate change seriously. Many who once put their faith in science and reason have come to the depressing conclusion that we will only take action if nature slaps us silly; they increasingly see hurricanes and droughts as the only hope.

This helps to explain why two articles published recently in scientific journals garnered such attention. Their message: It may already be too late to save the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The slap is on the way. As glaciologist Richard Alley put it, “we are now committed to global sea level rise equivalent to a permanent Hurricane Sandy storm surge.” This sea level rise of 4-16 feet may be the “new normal,” and on top of that there will still be additional Hurricane Sandy style surges. Daniel Patrick Moynihan anticipated such a sea level rise in a 1969 memo he wrote to President Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Ehrlichman: “Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington…” He might have added, “goodbye Shanghai, London, Mumbai, and Bangkok. Goodbye South Florida and goodbye to the California coast.”

Photo by NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by NASA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nature’s slaps have begun and they may soon become punches, but as any parent knows, slaps do not always help. Those who reject decades of climate science will not be swayed by two new scientific papers, while those who care about climate change may come to see their actions as increasingly futile. We need to get out of this cycle of denial and depression and get on a road to recovery.

The first step to take is to recognize that climate change is the most difficult problem that humanity has ever faced. Climate change deniers, greedy corporations, and opportunistic politicians deserve all the blame they get and more, but they are not the only problem. The most difficult challenge in addressing climate change lurks in the background. Evolution did not design us to solve or even recognize this kind of problem. We have a strong bias toward dramatic movements of middle-sized objects that can be visually perceived, and climate change consists of the gradual build up in the atmosphere of an invisible, odorless, tasteless gas. We are built to respond to sudden movements of middle-sized objects in our visual fields, so action would all but be assured if the threats that climate change posed were immediate and proximate. If carbon dioxide was sickly green in color and stank to high heaven, we would have done something about it by now.

Another feature of climate change that makes it difficult for us to respond is that its causes and effects are geographically and temporally unbounded. Earth system scientists study the earth holistically and think on millennial timescales and beyond, but this perspective is foreign to most people. Most of us pay little attention to events that occur beyond national boundaries, unless they are “one-off” disasters. The idea that turning up my thermostat in New York can contribute to affecting people living in Malaysia in a thousand years is virtually beyond comprehension to most of us.

The challenge is obvious once we see the problem in this way. We need to design institutions and policies that can help us to overcome our natural frailties in addressing climate change, and we need to make the threat as immediate and sensible as possible. The presentation and rollout of the US National Climate Assessment was a welcome attempt to do this. The report’s message was that climate change is here to stay and will only get worse. Some cities and states are already starting to take action, and administration officials fanned out across the country to make sure that local opinion leaders understood what climate change means for their communities.

We also need to strengthen and create institutions that provide credible knowledge of such long-term threats. Life in a large-population, high-consumption, high-technology world brings new risks, especially when nature is starting to wake up from the relatively stable period that it has been in for the last 10,000 years. We need the kind of knowledge that will enable us to anticipate and adapt to these unprecedented challenges. This was part of the thinking behind President Lincoln’s establishing the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, and Congress’s creation of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1972 (which was shut down in 1995). The media, educational establishments, and the general public have important roles to play in supporting and creating these institutions. All of us need to become more critical consumers of information. Reports from Washington “think tanks,” for example, are often highly partisan, and yet they are still treated as having the same authority as scientific assessments. What should matter when it comes to information is credibility, not insider influence, and this should be reflected in our airwaves as well as our scientific journals.

Finally, to address climate change we need new political and legal institutions that are specifically designed to restrain our tendency towards short-sighted behavior. There are many proposals and experiments from around the world designed to support us in addressing long-term threats, including various mechanisms for representing future generations in governmental decision-making, creating an atmospheric trust, and reforms in statistical, accounting, and decision-making procedures so that they better reflect the future effects of our present actions.

Climate change is not a single problem. It presents us with a wide range of challenges that will only become more severe as time passes. One of the most important steps to take is realizing how ill-equipped we are to deal with climate change and reforming our institutions and policies accordingly, but we should not lose sight of the need to mitigate the emissions and land-use practices that are bringing it about. No matter what we do, we are in for a rough ride, but by taking simple actions at present and recommitting ourselves for the long haul, we can preserve what we most value about the world that our ancestors have given us, and provide a livable future for our descendants.

Dale Jamieson is the author of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future (Oxford University Press). He teaches Environmental Studies, Philosophy, and Law at New York University, and was formerly affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

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3 Responses to “Climate change and our evolutionary weaknesses”
  1. Jamie says:

    I doubt floods, hurricanes and Tornadoes will be enough to wake up the deniers. About the only thing that might work is a really good plague. If there are fewer corporations and people spewing garbage, it might get their attention.

  2. Kathy Moyd says:

    It’s not necessary to “wake up the deniers”; it’s only necessary to get others to ignore them. After all, tobacco restrictions were adopted even though the CEOs never admitted they were wrong. The key was when the dangers of second-hand smoke were recognized. In the case of greenhouse gas emissions, the key is likely to be “it’s happening now” and “it affects everyone.”

  3. [...] University Press explores why it is so difficult to meaningfully address climate change. Dale Jamieson, author of Reason in [...]

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