The Time Press
Opinion

Our brains are simply wired to ignore climate change


On 3 August 2016, an Emirates aircraft on a flight from Thiruvananthapuram with 282 passengers on board caught fire after landing at Dubai International airport. The cabin crew asked all passengers to evacuate to safety immediately. But how did people react to this emergency? Surprisingly, there was no panic aboard the plane. Voices were even heard ‘reassuring’ others that there was nothing to worry about. Instead of rushing to the nearest exit and heading for an escape chute, many on board were more focused on opening overhead cabinets to take their cabin bags and laptops along. This lackadaisical behaviour in the face of imminent danger ended only after a flight attendant raised her voice asking passengers to evacuate the plane right away. But the crucial question is: Why were they more bothered about their belongings than lives?

Much like the individuals on that Emirates flight, all of us living on planet Earth are in the throes of imminent danger. Many eminent and knowledgeable persons have warned us about global warming and the catastrophes that will ensue. But like those unalarmed passengers, the residents of our planet, even those who might be the first to get affected by climate change, seem unbothered about its potential perils.

According to experts, when the planet’s temperatures increase, one of the first land masses to go under sea water will be the Kiribati islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are about 110,000 inhabitants on those islands. The danger is so pressing that the local government has bought 6,000 acres of land on the Fiji islands nearby to move the local population as and when their home islands get inundated. Yet, when a The New York Times reporter visited Kiribati, he found local residents, the very people on this globe whose lives would be endangered first by global warming, were not at all concerned about the problem. Their president Taneti Maamau had said this at the last United Nations Climate Change Conference: “We don’t believe that Kiribati will sink like the Titanic ship. Our country, our beautiful lands, are created by the hands of God.”

Why are humans so nonchalant in front of imminent danger? In the answer to this lies the fate of all the talk and awareness campaigns organized around the world in favour of achieving a more sustainable planet.

Sustainability is about preventing the depletion of natural or physical resources, so that they will remain available for the long term. But thinking about the future, more so the long term, is not in human nature. For millions of years, while roaming the savannas, our forefathers lived for the day. It is only with the introduction of agriculture that humans started of thinking of tomorrow, the future. But 10,000 years of thinking of a future crop is too short a time to make a dent in what millions of years of evolution have etched in the brain. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, one of the foremost experts on the irrational nature of human beings, once said, “Sustainability requires people to accept certain short-term costs and reductions in their living standards in order to mitigate against higher but uncertain loses that are far in the future. This is exceptionally hard for people to accept.”

There is a common belief that natural disasters are a great opportunity to teach humans about the consequences of climate change. First of all, even experts struggle to explain a causative relationship between natural disasters and global warming. So expecting ordinary humans to draw a correlation between natural disasters and slowly rising temperatures is a difficult task.

When a natural disaster happens, the pain and loss of the event creates an immediate desire in the minds of people for normalcy to return. During these recovery times, it is difficult to make people believe that larger disasters are under way. So extreme weather events are unlikely to result in much positive behaviour in favour of sustainability.

In his book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall reminds us that the human brain is disposed to an optimism bias and not geared to react to risks that are invisible, even more so risks that are in the future. Expecting individuals to be champions of sustainable behaviour will therefore be a non-starter. The main responsibility for building a sustainable world should be taken up by governments and companies. It is easy to govern the behaviour of these through policy decisions and appropriate legislation. The actions of governments and corporates can help create new social norms, and it is easier to guide individual behaviour once strong social norms are formed.

The actual contribution of each individual’s behaviour towards a sustainable future might be too insignificant to talk about. But if these small acts can be portrayed as signifiers or badges of a higher-order social identity that any individual can acquire, the rewards become emotional in nature. Emotional rewards are always better initiators of new behaviours. These emotional rewards that accrue to people, that too in the present rather than distant future, will go a long way in fostering sustainable behaviour habits.

The human sensory system is usually very efficient in detecting any potential threat. But, unfortunately, climate change contains none of the clear signals that are required to mobilize our inbuilt response mechanisms to a threat. So human brains have a tendency to ignore threats like global warming. To build a sustainable world, we have to get around this significant biological barrier.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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