VT Digger Editor’s note: Deb Markowitz served as Vermont’s secretary of state from 1999-2011, and as secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources from 2011-2017. She now works as the director of policy at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute of Environment.
Did you ever wonder why it’s so hard to say no when you are offered a piece of cake, even though you know it isn’t good for you? Or how hard it is to save money for retirement? In both of those situations, our brains are working against our own better judgment, in surprising ways.
This helps explain why we’ve been so slow to take significant action to reverse climate change. Research shows that, even when people are worried about climate change, it’s hard to move them from understanding to action. The issue is just too big, frightening, and far away in time and space for our brains to adequately process. And it’s human nature to stop listening when we are being told we are “wrong” or “bad,” especially when it is unclear what can be done, or inconvenient to engage in the behavior that is “right” or “good.”
In a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, even though over 75 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, less than half (46 percent) rank climate change as a top priority for congressional action, well behind other issues like terrorism (73 percent), education (72 percent) and health care (68 percent). It’s notable that the survey also shows that while most Americans believe climate change is already having an impact in the world, they also believe that climate change has not yet affected them personally.
In George Marshall’s new book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, explains that “people have limited capacity for worry, and select what to worry about and what to ignore in order to get through daily life.” He writes, “the vastness of issues to worry about” produces “emotional numbing – a protective indifference to issues that are not of immediate personal concern …” This helps to explain why, even in Vermont, and even for those who make a career out of protecting the environment, our actions don’t always match our sense of urgency when it comes to addressing issues climate change.
For the quarter of Americans who are not concerned about climate change, and think the whole issue is overblown or made up, again, it’s the brain at work. Researchers point to how the rational and emotional functions of human brains compete, and the way our brains tend to find shortcuts to help us understand the world around us. This means that when people are exposed to facts that conflict with their emotional beliefs, they tend to dismiss the facts, rather than change their beliefs. This is particularly true when those beliefs are closely tied with their sense of self or their community identity. I saw this firsthand when I had occasion to debate the finer points of climate change with a self-described “conservative” colleague from a coal-producing state. He was well aware of the science of global warming but focused on areas of scientific uncertainty to support his view that the concerns about climate change are overblown.
It is notable that, despite attempts to roll back greenhouse gas regulations by the Trump administration, the country continues to make progress to address climate change. Coal plants are closing at record rates, and electric cars sales increased by 81 percent in 2018. Even my conservative colleague is a strong supporter of renewable energy, especially now that that wind energy in his region is cost-competitive with conventional fuels.
Even so, at the current rate of progress we will not avoid the most significant impacts of global warming. As a rule, people are slow to make changes in their own lifestyles and prefer to leave it to the experts to come up with technical fixes to a problem of the scope and scale as climate change. But without personal, social and economic changes, technological advances will not be enough.
Brain science can help us approach this challenge. Research indicates that the best way to motivate people to act is to match worry with hope. This means that, while it’s vitally important to continue to align government and economic policies with ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals, it’s equally important to identify specific things each of us can do to be a part of the solutions. That is the power of the Green New Deal and a new report by the Energy Action Network that lists, with specificity, the many ways we can be a part of the solution to climate change. Working together, we can make the world safe for our children and future generation.