Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change by George Marshall is pretty darn depressing. Oh he tries to offer hope at the end but it is paltry compared to what comes before. And what is it that comes before? Page after page of psychology and human behavior detailing why this climate change thing is so hard for us to get together and do something about.
The problem is not just one thing, it’s a big prickly ball of things that is going to need to be attacked from all angles at once and not one thing at a time. Where to start? First, there is a disconnect between scientists and the public and the way they talk to us about climate change. They use words that mean something completely different to us. They say, we are almost certain that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. What they mean is they are sure but they can’t say that because in science-speak you can never ever be 100% certain about anything. So what we hear is there is room for doubt. If the scientists aren’t certain then they could be wrong. The scientists beat us over the head with statistics and numbers and logic. We say, wow last winter was so cold I wouldn’t mind if it were a few degrees warmer. They give us facts. We want compelling stories to engage our emotions and prompt us to care and they can’t be about drowning polar bears because, sad as it is, a drowning polar bear is too distant for me to really care about it. I need a story about how climate change is going to affect me personally, and not in 30 or 40 years, that’s a long time away, but five years, next year, now.
Also, climate change needs to be placed into a wider context. It has been boxed away as an environmental issue which makes it easy for people to dismiss. Climate change is not an environmental issue. It is about values, politics and lifestyle. It is about food and water and jobs. It’s about safety and security.
We are busy looking around for someone to blame. We want to blame the oil companies and the politicians while we fill up the gas tanks on our SUVs and fly to the Virgin Islands for a mid-winter getaway. We have convinced ourselves that we are doing everything we can, I’ve changed all my lightbulbs to LED, I recycle, I take my own reusable bags to the grocery store, someone else has to do something. When we are all at fault. Us, our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. But to play the blame game will get us nowhere. We will all need to make sacrifices much more drastic than buying an electric car. We’ve gone about “fixing” the problem from the wrong end. Instead of attacking it at the source and limiting coal and oil extraction and use, we go at it from the tail which is like trying to put out a forest fire with a bottle of water.
We are attached to the status quo and will keep doing what we’ve been doing unless given a compelling reason to do something else. And if, or when, things do start to change, everyone needs to be affected just as much as everyone else. Humans are great at detecting inequities and if you are only allowed to drive your one car two days a week but I get to drive mine four, well that’s just not fair.
I could go on and on, this is a substantial little book. In the end Marshall suggests that all the things that keep us from recognizing climate change as a threat can also help up solve the problems climate change will bring us. It will not be simple to change the frames through which we view the problem, but it isn’t completely impossible. He offers numerous ideas of what needs to be done and how we can each contribute to changing the conversation.
Climate change is happening right now. It is going to continue to happen. Things will probably get bad. Really bad. Not tomorrow and probably not next year, but sooner than you think. So what are we going to do about it?