Climate Blindness: Why Your Moral Alarm is Malfunctioning

What psychology says about why we’re still sitting around doing nothing about Climate Change.


WHO:  Ezra M. Markowitz (Psychology Department, University of Oregon)
Azim F. Shariff (Psychology Department, Environmental Studies Program, University of Oregon)

WHAT: Why the majority of people are not getting outraged about climate change when the scientific consensus is so strong

WHEN: April 2012

WHERE:Nature Climate Change, Vol 2, April 2012

TITLE: Climate Change and Moral Judgement (subs required)

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of current climate change – it’s us. Humans. We’ve spent the past several hundred years since the Industrial Revolution burning fossil fuels and pouring gigatonne after gigatonne of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is starting to get pretty weird because of it.

Yes, climates have changed before, but on scales of millions of years. Currently, we’re pouring so much pollution into the atmosphere at such a great rate that we’re causing changes in decades that would normally occur over millions of years.

So why are we all still sitting around twiddling our thumbs hoping it will go away instead of trying to minimise the kickback the atmosphere is going to give us? Well, these two researchers had a look at all the recent psychology papers on morality and climate change and tried to find out why.

Firstly, there’s a problem with climate change itself as an issue. It’s kinda abstract, so you have to think about it pretty seriously, which is way too hard for a [insert day of the week] afternoon. It’s also unintentionally caused – we didn’t know we were ruining the atmosphere until recently, and as anyone who has siblings knows; if you didn’t create the mess – you’re not cleaning it up.

There’s also guilty bias – we don’t want to think about how we’ve loaded the climate dice for extreme weather and are now playing Russian roulette with our futures – that’s a massive downer that makes you feel guilty. Is there something on TV we can watch instead?

Uncertainty also plays a part. While most scientists are currently trying to work out which level of unbalanced the atmosphere is from around 2c (mildly unpleasant) to +6c (catastrophic, humanity pretty much over), all people hear when they’re only half paying attention to the news is ‘uncertainty’ which leads to unreasonably wishful thinking. Oh, we don’t know for sure? Excellent, let’s grab a beer till they’re sure eh?

Another problem is what the researchers call moral tribalism, which is where you want to listen to the people you know and trust. Which is great, until it leads to things like ‘my uncle is really smart and he says climate change isn’t real’ regardless of the lack of facts in the statement.

And finally, there’s the long term timelines. When a scientist somewhere tells you we’re all pretty screwed in 2100 if we don’t stop our carbon addiction now, it seems REALLY far away.

These things are definitely all issues. Some of the suggestions the researchers came up with to try and get us up and doing something were:

  • Highlighting things of concern to conservatives as well as liberals (social justice and fairness doesn’t resonate as well with conservatives)
  • Highlighting things like profaning the purity of nature for religious people who react well to purity framing (eg. the What Would Jesus Drive campaign that I almost can’t believe is real)
  • Talk about the bad things we’re leaving for our children rather than the diminished good things we’re leaving for our children (negative qualifiers generally don’t stick in people’s minds)
  • Use emotional carrots rather than sticks (because telling people exactly how much we’ve ruined the planet makes them just shut down)
  • Go for things that encourage and reinforce positive behaviour, civic pride and peer pressure
  • Increase affinity for future generations (it’s not some abstract children – it’s YOUR child)

Now, all of these suggestions are excellent, and as Jim Hoggan (who I greatly admire) says – smashing heads doesn’t open minds. But I don’t think they go far enough in trying to reach through people’s psychology and get them to wake up. I’m a climate hawk, which means I believe in being realistic about exactly how much we’ve messed up the planet and exactly what kind of very serious ramifications we as humanity are going to face.

The thing is, climate change is no longer 100 years away – it’s here and now. It’s in the record lows of ice in the Arctic this year, the record heat in the US, the tropical storms on steroids, the unstoppable wildfires, massive floods and the unprecedented melting in Greenland.

These stark realities that increasing numbers of people across the globe including the first world are facing will be our new ‘mild summer’ if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels in the next fifteen years. Yes, fifteen years.

I think the time for being positive and allowing people to think they’ve ‘fixed it’ once they’ve changed their lightbulbs is over, because the scope of what we’ve done, intentionally or not is much greater than the emotional carrots of what kind of SUV Jesus would drive.

Psychology is going to play an increasingly important role in dealing with climate change as the rest of the world wakes up to the reality that is hurtling towards us about 100 years ahead of schedule, so all these messages now need a large dose of reality contained within them.

When I was training to be a violin teacher, we were taught that repetition is the key to learning things. You’re not going to play the violin if you’ve been shown how to do it only once – you need to do it over and over again.

So let’s do this and repeat it 100 times: we have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.

We have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.

Your Dice Just Got Hotter: Summers on Climate Change

How can we know when we’re actually feeling climate change and not just another weird summer?

WHO: James Hansen (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University Earth Institute)
Makikio Sato (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University Earth Institute)
Reto Ruedy (Trinnovium Limited Liabilty Company (a data analysis company that works with NASA))

WHAT: Working out how you can perceive and feel climate change

WHEN: 6 August 2012

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 2012 (109)

TITLE: Perception of Climate Change

Climate vs weather: which one is which? And how can we tell if the extreme weather that’s been occurring around the globe this year is because of climate change? Dr James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute and the guy who has been doing climate models since the 1980s before most people had heard about climate change is here to show us how we can tell our climate dice are loaded and we’re currently playing Russian roulette with our futures.

In quite a readable paper, he looks at average weather data from 1951 through to 2011 and compares them decade by decade. The standard used by the World Meteorological Organisation is that while weather is what you see out your window, climate is 30 years worth of data (because the climate is the long term trends, and you can’t get a trend from today vs tomorrow).

To find a base of ‘normal’ to compare with, they picked 1951-1980 which gives a 30 year period of stable and normal weather that also had detailed records kept across the globe. They then compared it with the next three decades to see how quickly our climate is changing.

Firstly, the base of normal. Stretch your minds back with me to high school statistics and your friend the bell curve (yay!). It’s a great way to show variation across a population – with the majority of people falling into the middle and the outliers to the tails. Same works for weather. The majority of the temperatures day to day fall into the middle and the tails of extreme heat or extreme cold are much rarer.

In a bell curve, the odds of being more than two standard deviations from the average are 2.1% and the incidence of averagely hot or cold summers from 1951-1980 was about 33% (either side of the middle).

Bell curve with standard deviations (signified by σ) from Wikipedia

As we have poured more carbon pollution into the atmosphere further forcing changes in the climate, we’ve pushed that bell curve for summers to the right, meaning there are less cold summers, more hot summers and some extremely hot summers now.

Extremely hot summers are summers that are three standard deviations from the average (ie. extremely rare) that were almost non-existent in the 1950s now occur 10% of the time. Averagely warm summers that used to be 33% of the time are now 75%.

Your summers on climate change – normal, warm, hot, hotter (from paper)

But statistics, numbers, blah. What does this actually mean, or feel like or look like?

Three standard deviation hot summers look like the heat wave in Moscow in 2010. The summer grain harvest was seriously reduced and exports were stopped, more than 500 wildfires burned across Russia, nuclear power plants had to be shut down because they were overheating, 11,000 people died in Moscow alone and the country had the highest temperatures in 1,000 years.

Now, maybe some of you reading haven’t felt temperatures that high consistently in a heat wave before, or if you’re in the Pacific Northwest are thinking that some heat wave might be nice given the crappy summer we’ve had this year. However, I did my final university exam in Melbourne, Australia in 46⁰C heat, and I can tell you it’s not fun. Neither are the permanent water restrictions that come with extended hot and dry weather.

Dr Hansen states in his paper that action won’t be taken on climate change until the public can understand the consequences of climate change and decide that they’re unacceptable. The heat is already on and the wildfires are already starting.

I don’t want this to become the new normal – do you?

Reaching the Tipping Point: What we can Learn From the Dinosaurs

Have we reached a global tipping point to irreversible ecological change and how do we measure it to avoid it?


WHO: Anthony D. Barnosky, Charles Marshall, Nicholas Matzke, (Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, California)
Elizabeth A. Hadly, (Department of Biology, Stanford University, California)
Jordi Bascompte, (Integrative Ecology Group, Seville, Spain)
Eric L. Berlow, (TRU NORTH Labs, Berkeley, California)
James H. Brown, (Department of Biology, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico)
Mikael Fortelius, (Department of Geosciences and Geography and Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki, Finland)
Wayne M. Getz, JohnHarte, Rosemary Gillespie, Justin Kitzes, (Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, California)
Alan Hastings, (Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis)
Pablo A. Marquet, (Departamento de Ecologia, Facultad de Ciencias Biologicas, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile. Instituto de Ecologia y Biodiversidad, Santiago, Chile. The Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, USA. Facultad de Ciencias Biologicas, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile)
Neo D. Martinez, (Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab, Berkeley, California)
Arne Mooers, (Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada)
Peter Roopnarine, (California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California)
Geerat Vermeij, (Department of Geology, University of California, Davis, California)
John W. Williams, (Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin)
David P. Mindell, (Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco)
Eloy Revilla, (Department of Conservation Biology, Estacion Biologica de Donana, Seville, Spain)
Adam B. Smith (Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis, Missouri)

WHAT: A ‘state shift’ in the Earth’s biosphere whereby we may go past the tipping points that make climate change irreversible

WHEN: 7 June 2012

WHERE: Nature, Vol 486, June 2012

TITLE: Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere

This rather large group of scientists (science – it’s a collaborative thing) all came together to write this paper in Nature last month to try and work out whether you could have global ecosystem tipping points, whether they could be measured and predicted and what that means for humanity.

Short answers: yes, yes in hindsight, possibly with difficulty, not good news.

While reading this paper for you good people of the Internet, I learned a new mathematical term which I thought was pretty awesome (because I’m nerdy like that): fold bifurcation. It’s a term used to describe when two fixed points in a system collide and annihilate each other. (Did everyone else’s inner child just say ‘Yeah! Explosions!’ too?)

However, when talking about ecosystems and the planet, that bit about annihilation isn’t so fun. It’s used in this paper to refer to what gets commonly called ‘tipping points’ where a system gets pushed and pushed and then collapses. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. For example where you over-fish a lake so much that there’s not enough fish left to survive and the fishery collapses.

The possibility of the earth reaching a tipping point (from paper)

So what happens when those kinds of shifts occur not at a localised level, but at a whole-planet level? There are a few examples from history that these scientists have used to try and work out what might happen – looking at the transition from the last major ice age 11,000-14,000 years ago as well as the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions (dinosaurs etc.).

Most ecosystems are not in a continual balanced state, but exist within a range, which means it takes a certain amount of forcing to get them to change. Similar to the amount of forcing it takes to get me out of bed for a 6.30am run, but on a global scale.

The thing is, the way ecosystems react is different for each one, so it is really hard to predict a tipping point and you often don’t know where the threshold is until afterwards. There are trademarks of a tipping point that will lead to a biosphere shift; mostly it’s extinctions in global, regional and local species. These historically occurred to an area once 50% of it had been affected or changed.

So the key question then becomes, how can we predict it? Humans have changed 43% of the earth’s surface for our own purposes already through agriculture and urbanisation. We have increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 35%, and increased the acidity of the oceans by .05pH which is already leading to coral bleaching and oceanic dead zones (see my blog on ocean acidification).

With this amount of human-caused change already and an expected world population of 8.2billion people by 2025 placing even greater strains upon the planet’s resources, there is no question that the major drivers forcing climatic change today are human-caused. Population growth, resource consumption, energy consumption and production, habitat transformation and fragmentation and climate change are all being unbalanced by human activities. What the researchers wanted to try and work out was by how much and if there is a tipping point, have we reached it yet?

The likelihood of having reached a tipping point becomes much greater once we’ve changed 50% or more of the earth’s surface, which is predicted by this paper to be in 2025 using current projections of population growth and average land use per person.

But there’s always uncertainty in the numbers because you can’t factor in the unpredictable changes or the changes humans may make, so the paper recommends in-depth monitoring of ecosystems where there is still little human activity like National Parks. The more data that can be collected on what is happening to our ecosystems the better, because there can be lag times in systems as well, which might mean we cross a tipping point without realising it until it’s too late.

The authors state that “another global state shift is highly plausible within decade to centuries if it hasn’t already been initiated” which is kind of terrifying, especially when you start to think about what kinds of “rapid and unpredictable transformations” might occur.

Hindsight will be 20:20, but it’s pretty essential we don’t get past the tipping points if we want to keep our currently comfortable and liveable planet. I’ll leave you with the conclusion of the paper itself, because I think it’s pretty clear on what needs to happen next.

“This will require reducing world population growth and per-capita resource use; rapidly increasing the proportion of the world’s energy budget that is supplied by sources other than fossil fuels while also becoming more efficient in using fossil fuels when they provide the only option; increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution instead of converting new areas or relying on wild species to feed people; and enhancing efforts to manage as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both in the terrestrial and marine realms, the parts of Earth’s surface that are not already dominated by humans. These are admittedly huge tasks, but are vital if the goal of science and society is to steer the biosphere towards conditions we desire, rather than those that are thrust upon us unwittingly.”