Are humans simply too flawed to take climate action?
The notion of that humans have a design flaw when it comes to climate action is widespread. A recent paper not only dismantles this argument but has wider implications for applied behavioural science.
The tragic flood conditions in Pakistan are the latest example of the way global warming means we are living in a world that is becoming increasingly inhospitable to humans. It has long been agreed that it is human activity causing these conditions and yet it seems hard to find ways to deliver reduction in carbon emissions that offer the possibility of a reduction in risk. Why is this?
Many point to human characteristics that seem to suggest we are not ‘designed’ to deal with climate change. This argument suggests we are cognitively ill-equipped to take the action needed and as such we are destined to fail. Quentin Atkinson and Jennifer Jacquet recently reviewed the evidence for this claim in a paper which we are summarising here. Needless to say, they fundamentally challenge this widespread view.
While the authors offer a very convincing take-down of the notion of ‘human deficit’ as a driver of lack of action to combat climate change, the very same case can be made for a wide variety of other examples we cover here on Frontline Be Sci where humans are seen as not up to the job: from conspiracy theories and misinformation to debt management and health protection. Atkinson and Jacquet outline the way that psychological research is used to construct this argument of human failings, not only misrepresents the literature creating a misleading narrative, but also misses the opportunity to look to cultural and social mechanisms that are more potent tools for bringing about change.
To explore this more deeply, we outline the evidence that is often cited to suggest that humans are unable to respond to climate change, followed by a summary of how Atkinson and Jacquet dismantle the case.
The evidence of humans being unable to respond
In a New York Times opinion piece, psychologist Dan Gilbert argued that people in the US are less worried about climate change than terrorism due to the way that the human brain is not evolved to respond to threats like global warming. This notion is supported a wide range of work from cognitive psychology citing psychological ‘barriers,’ ‘biases,’ or ‘challenges’ that hinder climate action.
The most commonly cited barriers include the human tendency to discount events that are remote in time and space, problems perceiving slow changes, and conflict between self-interest and the common good. In addition to these sorts of ‘heuristics and biases’, Atkinson and Jacquet set out the way that a wide range of psychology theory is used to explain the lack of climate action, including tendency to conform to social norms and to moral tribalism, denial, habit, excessive optimism, rebound effects, tokenism, the fundamental attribution error, prospect theory, and excessive faith in the supernatural or technological fixes.
Of course, few psychologists claim that ‘psychological barriers’ are insurmountable, that humans are completely incapable of mitigating dangerous climate change, or indeed that there are not also important structural barriers to defeat. And clearly there is value in research seeking to understand how different people perceive, process, and act on the many challenges that climate change presents. But, as the authors point out, these sorts of findings nevertheless together suggest a reading of the psychological evidence that:
“essentializes humans’ lack of progress, either explicitly as a product of universal human nature or implicitly by portraying the human mind as a collection of evolved psychological barriers to climate action.”
Doing this not only distorts psychological research and theory but also creates a narrative that potentially reduces the propensity for tackling climate change.
Dismantling of this evidence
Atkinson and Jacquet set about dismantling the case that is presented for human failings, questioning the notion that humans are incapable of taking the steps needed to make change happen. These are set out below:
Minimizing variation within and between populations
Frequently cited psychological barriers are considered to be ‘universal’ such as when Dan Gilbert mentions in his article that
“the human brain evolved to respond to . . . features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks”
But as we know, behaviour is far from universal and a wide variety of polling suggests the way people respond to threat of global warming varies significantly. Added to this, work by people such as Dan Kahan suggests that cultural institutions, norms, values, and beliefs are frequently key determinants of our individual responses to climate change, not individual human nature.
Oversimplifying psychological research and its implications for policy
When broadly specified features of human psychology (e.g., future discounting) are identified as barriers to climate action, it risks (a) oversimplifying the link between current research evidence and effective action and (b) producing false confidence in possible strategies to address climate change.
For example, if human psychology is less sensitive to threats that are distant in time and space (future discounting), then action should, in principle, be motivated by emphasizing that dealing with climate change can provide benefits in the here-and- now. But the link between the oft-cited psychological barriers and climate action at scale is never straightforward. For example, a review of the literature in the effectiveness of future discounting actions found that the relationship between perceived proximity of climate change and incentive to act was complicated and contingent on many factors, not least how people valued the resources in question and how they felt about the ease and effectiveness of the actions available to them.
This means that focusing on findings such as psychological distance as a barrier to tackling global warming, can actually overshadow other weapons we have for tackling climate change—such as our ability to actually imagine scenarios in distant times and places. And we may underemphasize the role of structural and cultural factors; to locate future discounting purely as an attribute of human psychology, (a cognitive process), means we fail to examine the cultural values, norms, and incentives that mean we think and act in this way.
Framing climate change as an individual moral dilemma
A focus on psychological barriers and human nature pushes responsibility for climate change onto individual actions. This places responsibility for combating climate change on making changes to individual behaviour, rather through the cultures and behaviour of corporations, governments, and other institutions. For example, research has examined the fit between climate change and the human moral judgment system without considering the structural and policy issues that give rise to these moral dilemmas in the first place. This focus on individual behaviour reflects a broader pattern in psychology that underemphasises the role of cultural and social structures and is itself the result of a long tradition of individualism in the West.
Moreover, relatively little attention has been paid by psychologists beyond the individual consumer; therefore, the understanding of the psychological influences that shape behaviours of key players within our systems, like politicians, corporate executives, and prominent climate sceptics are poorly understood. What, Atkinson and Jacquet ask, are the prominent psychological characteristics of CEOs who encourage opposition to climate-change policy and research? We are starting to see the way that simply focusing on consumers invites recommendations for light-touch ‘nudges’ rather than the much wider range of interventions that are available if the wider organisational and political systems are the target of change initiatives.
Finally, Atkinson and Jacquet contest the idea that humans are not biologically designed to solve climate change risks, leading to the rationalizing of inaction. Of course, there is a long history of appeals to human nature or similar biological arguments to justify the status quo and challenge the possibility of change. Indeed, slavery, racism, sexism, and discrimination for sexual orientation have all used appeals to biological innateness as their defence.
While no-one is suggesting that those researching the psychology of climate change are intended to intentionally misinterpret evidence to preserve the status quo, there is an obvious relationship between psychological claims and social arrangements. As the authors put it:
“Perhaps most concerning is the possibility that essentializing climate inaction creates a false perception that a failure to act is not only natural but inevitable.”
Atkinson and Jacquet conclude that social scientists and communicators need to challenge the notion that people are simply a collection of psychological barriers to climate action or that any failure to remedy climate change is due to the evolutionary flaws of the human brain. Instead there is a need to emphasize the huge amount of individual and cultural variation in responses to climate change and be realistic about the generalizability of findings from psychology research. They point out that this is particularly true for WEIRD populations, frequently living in countries with very powerful institutional actors that are resistant to climate policy.
They also suggest that we need to spell out the way that the most challenging barriers to tackling global warming are not from human biology, but are in fact from human culture. And although psychology shapes the landscape in important ways, current institutions and policies are not biologically determined, no matter how ‘natural’ they seem. They point to the way that a highly individualistic worldview has come to dominate politics, creating a cultural matrix that psychological research needs to help people step outside of, and support a wider understanding of the way culture shapes climate action.
With this in mind, they cite bodies of knowledge that can offer a new agenda for addressing climate action. This includes work on the factors that gave rise to Western norms of self-interest and individualism; how ideology, moral tribalism and online networks influence climate change discourse; how culture trumps the individual conscience; the role of self-conscious emotions, social exposure, and reputation; people’s relationship to ‘the economy’ and curing their obsession with economic growth; how wealthy elites and corporate lobbying can sway decision makers and public opinion; and how new technologies and cultural norms can be harnessed to change the way people eat, travel, work and recreate.
They conclude their paper by citing philosopher Dale Jamieson who noted,
“Ultimately, the failure to take action on climate change rests with our institutions of decision making, not on our ways of knowing”
Clearly climate action is a hugely pressing issue of our time (indeed perhaps the most pressing) but the notion that humans are not designed to make change happen is not limited to this. The lessons learnt here are widespread across a range of issues, not only climate action.
The authors make a good case and point to an increasing body of evidence that suggests the widespread conceptualisation of humans is too narrow, failing to explain reality. We urgently need a broader reading of the psychology literature to inform public debate and to identify ways to make change happen.
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