The Situationist

The Heat is On

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 9, 2007

melting-iceberg.jpg

Last week, the United Nations made public the fourth IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on climate-change. The report, collaboratively prepared by many of the world’s most authoritative climate scientists concluded that there is at least a 90 percent chance that we humans are the cause of current increasing temperatures around the planet. Among other consequences, that temperature rise is likely to cause an increase in sea levels of between seven and twenty-three inches, contribute significantly to the disappearing alpine glaciers, and lead to still more severe weather events.

Viewed in context, that’s the good news. The bad news is that our goose is already cooking, and the longer-term consequences of our environmental predicament seem dire and inevitable. It as if we have dialed up the oven and have no way to dial it back down. Whatever we do today, the heat will linger and the bird will continue to roast. Like it or not, the heat is on.

This is a challenge whose solution requires that we think and act in new ways across unfamiliar time frames, borders, languages, and cultures. Forget short-term solutions. Any hope for improvement calls for immediate and dramatic changes that, at best, will yield only gradual and ambiguous results. Improvements will be measured not in years or even decades but in lifetimes.

ipcc-graphs.jpg

The IPCC’s science-based conclusions and the visibly dramatic weather-related anomalies of the last few years are the sort of thing that are finally getting through to the public and undermining the credibility of doubt-mongerers. But why has it taken so long to get this far? How has it happened that we humans have been for so long obliviously turning up the heat in our own oven? And why aren’t we taking dramatic steps to begin addressing the causes of this planet-altering and species-threatening tragedy?

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman claims that the law of “unintended consequences” cautions against enacting significant reform any time soon. That sounds sensible until one remembers that just as regulatory actions can have unintended consequences, so can regulatory omissions. After all, the long-term absence of meaningful regulation seems likely to have contributed to the unintended climate change. Something else is contributing to our sluggish and half-hearted reaction. Social psychology and related mind sciences have much to teach us about what that something else is.

We humans think we see clearly all relevant causal factors, though many are all but invisible to us. We have a difficult time identifying, much less monitoring, much less understanding slow and non-salient changes in our environments. We have an aversion for complexity and unanswered questions. We have trouble connecting bad outcomes with benign intentions. We are motivated to deny the existence of threats to our system or to alter our behavior from that to which we have grown accustomed. Those motivations and others are easily exploited by wealthy powerful industries that have made it their business to criticize, mock, and otherwise raise doubts about the emerging scientific consensus. But wait! There’s more! Daniel Gilbert

Below you will find a terrific essay by Dan Gilbert, who has generously agreed to share some of his short, popular writings on The Situationist. (Thanks, Dan.) This piece reveals how some of our psychological proclivities and vulnerabilities have contributed to our environmental predicament. If you haven’t read his work before, you are in for a special treat. Dan is clever, eloquent, and hilarious. But, be warned, his message is also quite sobering.

 

If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming
Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2006

No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won’t involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

The second reason why global warming doesn’t put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn’t force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain’s call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

The third reason why global warming doesn’t trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That’s what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

global warming from davidllorito.blogspot.com/search/label/governanceOur ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain’s most stunning innovations, and we wouldn’t have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.

There is a fourth reason why we just can’t seem to get worked up about global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn’t happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem..

The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.

It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness

(To visit the Climate Change Project, click here. To watch a Stephen Colbert Report interview of Tim Flannery, author of The Weathermakers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change, click here.)

(Dan Gilbert is also the author of best-selling book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” which The Situationist highly recommends. To read a New York Times review of “Stumbling,” click here.)

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7 Responses to “The Heat is On”

  1. “Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

    “The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb.”

    The upper limit of the current IPCC estimate is a bit under a centimeter a year–say thirty centimeters in the next few decades. So you are either asserting that lower Manhattan is substantially less than thirty centimeters above sea level or that it is more likely that the IPCC has underestimated the rate of rise by about an order of magnitude than that there will be a shoe bomb incident. I’m pretty sure the former claim is false, and the latter seems at least dubious, especially when considering the near end of the period their estimate covers.

    I will happily agree that humans are not entirely rational. But their failure to react decisively to imaginary perils–such as the near term flooding of lower Manhattan–is not evidence of it.

    “Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.”

    The use of drugs isn’t visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, and yet the war on drugs has been one of this nation’s top priorities (unfortunately) for some decades now. When making generalizations, a modest effort to test them against reality is usually worth the trouble.

    “Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry.”

    Humans have moral feelings with regard to both pollution–note the adoption of a pejorative religious term to describe it–and waste. A very brief examination of modern literature and modern law on environmental issues suggests that environmentalism is driven mainly by moral and symbolic arguments, not practical ones–that, although there are real problems to be dealt with, our response looks more like a religious movement than a rational one.

    “Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly.”

    The damage done by changes often depends on how fast they happen. A sea level rise of a meter in a week would cause substantial damage in parts of the U.S. and create massive problems in several other parts of the world. The same rise over a century represents an engineering problem rather less difficult than the one that the Dutch solved several centuries ago–with a much poorer society and a much more primitive technology than we have now.

    “If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.”

    If we accept the IPCC estimates, that day would be about two degrees warmer than average. Sea levels would be about eighteen inches higher than they now are–considerably less than the current difference between low tide and high tide. Why would you expect him to be shocked and awed?

    In any case, thanks to David Yosifon for pointing me at the blog.

  2. For a little extra information on Manhattan flooding due to sea level rise due to global warming, take a look at:

    The substantial blue areas are areas that would flood under current circumstances due to storm surge from a category 3 hurricane. The much smaller red bits show the additional flooding if sea level were 37.5 cm higher than it now is. The almost invisible yellow bits show the further flooding at 47.2 cm.

  3. Here are responses to Mr. Friedman’s critiques of my essay.

    The upper limit of the current IPCC estimate is a bit under a centimeter a year–say thirty centimeters in the next few decades. So you are either asserting that lower Manhattan is substantially less than thirty centimeters above sea level or that it is more likely that the IPCC has underestimated the rate of rise by about an order of magnitude than that there will be a shoe bomb incident. I’m pretty sure the former claim is false, and the latter seems at least dubious, especially when considering the near end of the period their estimate covers.

    It is handy to have the IPCC estimates now, but they were not available when this essay was published last summer. But does it really matter if we’re talking about this block of Manhattan rather than that one? If it makes you happier, you can substitute your favorite likely-to-be-flooded place and read the essay again. The point remains that our government will spend more money fighting some small and unlikely threats (shoe-bombers) than some larger and more likely ones (climate change).

    I will happily agree that humans are not entirely rational. But their failure to react decisively to imaginary perils–such as the near term flooding of lower Manhattan–is not evidence of it.

    Human beings often fail to take action to prevent outcomes that are both terrible and foreseeable (“If I don’t save more money each month I will have to live on cat food when I’m old” or “If I keep forgetting to brush my teeth I will have painful dental problems later in life”). This is the hallmark of irrationality. If a person who will not get out of the path of an oncoming train — even when the train can’t yet be seen around the bend and even when there is some chance that it isn’t really oncoming — is not irrational, then what is she? Prudent?

    The use of drugs isn’t visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, and yet the war on drugs has been one of this nation’s top priorities (unfortunately) for some decades now. When making generalizations, a modest effort to test them against reality is usually worth the trouble.

    I said that people are designed to react more strongly to human than to nonhuman threats. You are merely pointing out that people can react to nonhuman threats too, which does not speak to my claim. (BTW, the Columbian cocaine cartels are probably better examples of evil empires than Russia was). Also, when you make sarcastic comments about the people you are criticizing (“When making generalizations…”) you undermine your own credibility and not theirs. Please stick to the issues.

    Humans have moral feelings with regard to both pollution–note the adoption of a pejorative religious term to describe it–and waste. A very brief examination of modern literature and modern law on environmental issues suggests that environmentalism is driven mainly by moral and symbolic arguments, not practical ones–that, although there are real problems to be dealt with, our response looks more like a religious movement than a rational one.

    I’m not sure what your point is here. Are you saying that people have the same visceral reaction to air pollution that they have to finding their father in bed with their sister? I argue that environmental problems don’t push our moral buttons as hard as incest does, and you respond by saying that environmental problems can push our moral buttons. Once again, I made a relative claim (X is bigger than Y) to which your response (Y is nonzero) is irrelevant.

    The damage done by changes often depends on how fast they happen. A sea level rise of a meter in a week would cause substantial damage in parts of the U.S. and create massive problems in several other parts of the world. The same rise over a century represents an engineering problem rather less difficult than the one that the Dutch solved several centuries ago–with a much poorer society and a much more primitive technology than we have now.

    I said that we are less likely to react to gradual than sudden changes. You note that gradual changes are sometimes less threatening than sudden ones. This is a nice observation but it does not challenge my point.

    If we accept the IPCC estimates, that day would be about two degrees warmer than average. Sea levels would be about eighteen inches higher than they now are–considerably less than the current difference between low tide and high tide. Why would you expect him to be shocked and awed?

    See first answer.

    Your response is a lawyerly attempt to manufacture disagreement with details of sentences, but it ignores the essay’s main argument, which is: “People are designed by evolution to respond to threats with certain features and climate change doesn’t have them. This may help explain why we under-react to the serious threat that climate change poses.” If you have nothing to say to this other than “Your estimate for a particular block of Manhattan is off by several centimeters of water” then I’ve done my job well.

  4. Ross Levatter said

    Actually, Dan, David’s response was a logical attempt to demonstrate that rather than under-reacting to a major threat of global warming, we are over-reacting to a minor threat, pushed by over-heated but illogical rhetoric such as you offered. Friedman did his job well.

  5. Jon Hanson said

    As I read the exchange, I don’t see it as Ross Levatter does — a contest between cool logic and hot rhetoric. Yes, I see the humor and emotive power of Gilbert’s examples and the seeming attention to scientific precision in Friedman’s reply. But there is rhetoric aplenty in both. Indeed, it seems to me that Friedman has simply used a scientistic cover to create credibility for an implied position that would otherwise be dubious from a scientific perspective, while Gilbert has used compelling narratives to make accessible otherwise complex scientific findings. But put that to one side for the moment.

    It seems to me that the key difference is in starting points. Gilbert is assuming that climate change is real and significant. He accepts as true the conclusions and concerns expressed by a growing consensus of scientists who have been studying the question (as reflected, for instance, in the IPCC report). Gilbert is focused on a puzzle that begins at that point of departure: how can it be that such a significant problem could be so widely discounted and so easily eclipsed in policymaking agendas and public discourse by concerns that seem relatively small. As he explains, social psychology and a better understanding of human behavior helps to solve that puzzle. That is his point. It is about human psychology.

    Friedman starts somewhere else, as does Levatter. They begin with the assumption that climate change, if real, should not be a significant concern. So, when Friedman is describing “imaginary perils,” and when Levatter asserts that “we are over-reacting to a minor threat,” they are challenging Gilbert at a place where he was not really focusing — the question of whether climate change poses any major threat that would require a significant policy response. To that extent, Friedman and Levatter are missing Gilbert’s point. (It is true that Friedman foments some doubts about Gilbert’s analysis, but Gilbert has more than adequately addressed those.)

    There may be more going on in Friedman’s and Levatter’s responses. They, too, seem to be offering to resolve a puzzle — namely, how is it that the scientific community can be making headway in getting the public and lawmakers to take seriously a problem that, at most, looks like little more than a minor engineering task?

    To resolve that puzzle, they also suggest a kind of psychological theory. Their implicit answer (which is intimated in their tone as much as it is by their arguments) seems to be that certain so-called scientists are bent on scaring us with their “over-heated but illogical rhetoric” about “imagined perils.” Friedman and Levatter seem to be suggesting that the real threat we face is not climate change but these ill-motivated or misinformed charlatans.

    I, too, worry about charlatans. But that only begs the question: who does one trust? That’s a question that each of us should probably ponder.

    I, for one, am inclined to trust the IPCC and the other climate scientists who seem to be telling us that the climate-change problem is more significant than many of us, including our lawmakers, have assumed. And as to why such a gap between the actual threat and the perceived threat may exist, I think Gilbert has brilliantly summarized an important part of the story by focusing on how evolution has shaped how we respond differently to different types of threats.

    In addition, I believe that the gap is probably also attributable in part to the vocal and influential individuals and entities who have been busy assuring us that any problem we can’t clearly see is imagined, and any problem that doesn’t come with clear villains and simple, short-term solutions is not a problem worth our time.

    So, in the end, I suppose I’m in partial agreement with Friedman and Levatter’s implied admonition: beware of charlatans.

  6. […] read a related Situationist post, see “The Heat Is On.” For a remarkable (24-minute) talk by Edward O. Wilson, view the video below, in which he […]

  7. […] To read all of the press release, click here. To open a pdf version of Bandura’s article, click here. To review some previous Situaitonist posts providing a situationist perspective on environmental challenges, see “Edward O. Wilson’s Situationist Plea,” “Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” and “The Heat Is On.” […]

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