The Implacable Climate Foe

It’s our evolutionary brain.

When will climate advocates get this? Bill McKibben, perhaps the most eloquent climate change communicator, is at his wit’s end. Like James Hansen, it’s become obvious to McKibben that, Copenhagen notwithstanding, politicians are treating climate change as “just another political problem.” That’s the real impediment, he insists. Thus, facing down man-made climate change, McKibben asserts, demands extraordinary, timely action, on the order of how the U.S faced down fascism:

The best human analog to the role physics is playing here may be fascism in the middle of the last century. There was no appeasing it, no making a normal political issue out of it. You had to decide to go all in, to transform the industrial base of the country to fight it, to put other things on hold, to demand sacrifice. Yet it’s all too obvious that we’re not dealing with it that way.

Bill, that’s because the danger was in front of people’s eyes. The unfolding horror was self-evident. That’s not the case right now with climate change. It’s greatest impacts aren’t slated to be truly evident for decades. As Jon Gertner, the writer of that essential NYT magazine piece, writes:

Cognitive psychologists now broadly accept that we have different systems for processing risks. One system works analytically, often involving a careful consideration of costs and benefits. The other experiences risk as a feeling: a primitive and urgent reaction to danger, usually based on a personal experience, that can prove invaluable when (for example) we wake at night to the smell of smoke.There are some unfortunate implications here. In analytical mode, we are not always adept at long-term thinking; experiments have shown a frequent dislike for delayed benefits, so we undervalue promised future outcomes…Almost certainly, we underestimate the danger of rising sea levels or epic droughts or other events that we’ve never experienced and seem far away in time and place.

Bill, when are you going to face up to this impediment in our lizard brains? So I respectfully argue that the logic of your historical analog doesn’t wash.

In the wake of climategate, some observers have suggested that long-term solutions will not happen so long as the combustible combination of politics and climate science is the main driver of this debate. On that note, in a recent WSJ op-ed, Mike Hulme, a  professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, wrote that

we endow analyses about the economics of climate change with too much scientific authority. Yes, we know there is a cascade of costs involved in mitigating, adapting to or ignoring climate change, but many of these costs are heavily influenced by ethical judgements about how we value things, now and in the future. These are judgments that science cannot prescribe.

In that NYT mag story, Gertner points out that

the United States scientific community, where nearly all dollars for climate investigation are directed toward physical or biological projects, the notion that vital environmental solutions will be attained through social-science research “” instead of improved climate models or innovative technologies “” is an aggressively insurgent view.

So maybe it’s time advocates like McKibben started paying greater attention to what social science says about global warming, and not just climate science.

5 Responses to “The Implacable Climate Foe”

  1. Drone says:

    I think your missing something bigger – biology. What if we’re just doing what DNA has programmed us to do–consume everything available as rapidly as possible?

    We are always examing ourselves from the perspective of the individual when at the species level the individual is subsumed.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    I’ve given that some thought. We certainly ignore evolutionary biology at our peril.

  3. teofilo says:

    Why does it have to be “climate advocates” like McKibben doing this?  Why can’t it be, say, science journalists like Keith Kloor?

  4. Keith Kloor says:


    If you mean paying attention to social science, then I agree. I’ve done that with this blog. Much harder to do in terms of magazine stories. Only so many of those get through, though I should note that Seed magazine did a very similar piece to the NYT magazine a few months later.

  5. Eric Fairfield says:

    The evolutionary argument is long and complicated especially if we include the rise of language, culture, and cognitive ability as part of evolution. I am a molecular physical biochemist and have been working on the mechanisms of memory and its coupling to evolution for a few years now.
    One of the conclusions is that, for many risks, the discount rate on the risk is nearly 100%. This rate is true for politicians and others unless the risk has occurred in the past.
    So, I agree that the rate limiting step in adapting to or mitigating climate change is now sociological not scientific. It seems that a number of vocal scientists are hurting their own cause by not realizing the sociological and political aspects of climate change. These people just yell louder and louder and expect the yelling to get them what they want.
    Thanks for the column.

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