Dan Gardner is the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear and a principal at Tactix, an Ottawa consultancy.
This essay is about a riddle. I’ll start by revealing the answer: It’s a cat that is simultaneously dead and alive.
Now here is the riddle: Why aren’t we more concerned about climate change?
By “we,” I mean, of course, most Canadians. There are some who are so concerned that they despair and lose sleep over climate change. But most of us? Polls show we accept that climate change is real and threatening. And we tell pollsters we are truly, deeply worried. More than a decade ago, an Ipsos Reid survey found almost two-thirds of Canadians said they were “desperately concerned that if we don’t take drastic action right now the world may not last much longer than another couple of generations.” Desperately concerned is what parents are when a child goes missing.
But those words were crafted by a pollster. And it costs people nothing to say, “Yeah, that one,” when a stranger on the telephone asks how much they care about something they know they are supposed to care about. It even feels good – admit it – to display your social conscience.
So let’s set aside what we say and what we tweet – #ClimateCrisis – and look at what we do.
Climate change doesn’t dominate elections. It doesn’t dominate headlines, airtime and social media. It doesn’t dominate consumer choices.
It doesn’t even dominate Google searches. For the past decade, “climate change” and “global warming” have been searched about as often as “terrorism.” People search far more often for “autism,” and more still for “flu.” Terrorism, autism and influenza are all serious hazards, but none of them has even an outside chance of ravaging the natural world and collapsing civilization. (It should be noted in passing – for the edification of the alien archeologists investigating the ruins on Earth – that every year for the past decade, “Kardashian” has been searched far more than any of the foregoing terms.)
Of course, there are occasional spasms of attention, usually when some international conference convenes. Big ones such as Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015). Lesser ones such as the conference in Poland that just concluded. They’re now familiar enough that there is a settled routine. Officials gather, scientists warn, commentators opine and politicians intone. Climate change gets headlines, although not the top ones, and it gets airtime, if not in the quantities garnered by a Trump tweet or a Kardashian baby. And there is the usual flurry of hashtag activism. But so much of this feels dutiful, even desultory. And it lasts as long as snow in June.
Now, compare that to the reality we face: In the coming decades and centuries, climate change will be a major challenge in the best-case scenario and something truly terrifying in the worst case. What we do now will significantly determine whether the future unfolds closer to the former or the latter. In any scenario, the poorest and weakest will suffer most.
Most people know and accept all this. And those three sentences are reason enough to conclude that climate change is the greatest threat we face, save for nuclear war. But we sure don’t act like it.
So why isn’t our collective concern remotely proportionate to the danger?
The problem isn’t ignorance. Most people get the basic idea. And when yet another dire report is issued by scientists, people do pay attention – for a few minutes, at least, before their thoughts return to the latest political imbroglio, taxes, work, the hockey game and the thousands of other concerns that consistently beat climate change in the battle for our attention.
It’s also not selfishness. The brunt of the storm may be suffered by future generations and poor people far away, but researchers do not find that the old shrug while the young quake. In fact, one U.S. newspaper found that "millennials have similar or less engagement on global warming than other generations.”
So back to the answer to the riddle – the cat is simultaneously dead and alive.
In 1935, physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a vivid way to criticize a school of thought in quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation. He imagined a cat.
The cat is inside a box. With the cat is a vial of poison. The poison can be released by the radioactive decay of a subatomic particle.
The Copenhagen interpretation says subatomic particles can exist in multiple states simultaneously, meaning a particle can be decayed and not decayed at the same time.
The cat Schrodinger imagined would be dead if the particle were decayed, alive if not. It follows that if the particle is both decayed and not decayed, the cat is both dead and alive.
Since this is plainly absurd, Schrodinger reasoned, the Copenhagen interpretation must be wrong. It’s common sense.
But 83 years later, the Copenhagen interpretation is mostly accepted by physicists. Common sense says it’s wrong. Math says it’s right.
A lot of modern physics is like that. What our senses and judgment tell us must be true is revealed by math to be false, while what is true feels wrong. To use the old head and gut metaphor, head can grasp the science – barely, and with great effort – but gut is entirely flummoxed.
The cause of this divide is evolution. Our species evolved in environments where subatomic weirdness was irrelevant to surviving and reproducing, so we never developed an intuitive grasp of it; while we may understand it, we cannot feel it.
We struggle with climate change in much the same way and for much the same reason.
Like us, our Stone Age ancestors were constantly looking into the future and imagining alternative courses of action. They had to predict the weather, foresee how an ambushed deer would try to escape and plan to return to a rich berry patch at harvest time. And most important for survival, they had to decide what to worry about. Whether it was lions, food shortages or sub-zero temperatures, the future was packed with threats that had to be anticipated and managed.
But note three features of this ancient forecasting and risk analysis.
Firstly, it didn’t look decades ahead, let alone centuries. Seasons would have been important frames of reference, but generally, the outer limit of prospection would have been one cycle of seasons – a year. Our ancestors’ forward-looking thoughts were overwhelmingly measured in days, hours, minutes and seconds.
Secondly, it didn’t concern itself with problems far away. The only information available to our ancient ancestors came from personal experience, the experience of others in their little band of perhaps 40 or 50 and stories passed from one person to another.
As forward-looking as our species was, ancient risk analysis was about survival in the here and now. Or at least the nearby and soon.
Finally, it had nothing to do with statistics, probability and the other tools of modern risk analysis. These didn’t exist. Its raw material was experience, and its analytical mechanisms were intuitive. Risks were not calculated. They were felt.
To put this in the terms made famous by Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, our judgments about risk were seldom made by our ancestors' slow, conscious, analytical mode of thinking – the one dubbed System 2. They were the product of the fast, experiential, largely unconscious and intuitive mode – System 1.
It’s System 2 that can work very hard and get a decent grasp of subatomic physics. It’s System 1 that moans, “But a cat can’t be dead and alive at the same time!”
As it was in the Stone Age, so it was in the Iron Age and the Middle Ages. How people thought about and managed risks didn’t change throughout almost the entire history of our species. System 1 dominated, always.
Even today, much less has changed than we might imagine. We routinely encounter risks – even eating breakfast can kill – so we routinely decide which risks are worth worrying about. Overwhelmingly, these judgments are felt, not calculated – or at least far more felt than calculated. And what dominates our forward-looking thoughts is the here and now, or the nearby and soon. Replace the word “quarter” with “season” and the thoughts of the average MBA would sound at least a little familiar to a Stone Age hunter-gatherer.
Of course, today, we also have science, statistics and computer modelling capable of churning out sophisticated risk analyses. Sometimes these confirm System One’s intuitions. Sometimes they suggest they are a little off. Occasionally, they say our feelings are seriously wrong.
What happens when head and gut disagree?
In 1950, a landmark study linking smoking to lung cancer was published. Evidence piled up rapidly. In 1964, the surgeon-general officially confirmed the danger in the United States. And yet, despite the clarity of the evidence and the severity of the hazard, smokers kept smoking, non-smokers continued to take up the habit and overall smoking rates declined only very slowly.
Nicotine addiction doubtless helped slow smoking’s fall. So did corporate marketing. But more fundamentally, it was psychology at work.
In those decades, people smoked in stores, offices, hospitals, airplanes and elevators, as well as on TV and in the movies. When the British minister of health called a news conference in 1954 to discuss the link between smoking and lung cancer, he smoked throughout.
As psychologists have demonstrated, mere exposure to something boosts positive feeling for it. Lots of exposure meant lots of positive feeling. That mattered because one of the most basic mechanisms used by System 1 to make quick, intuitive judgments about risk is the “affect heuristic”: The more negative feeling there is about something, the riskier it is felt to be, while positive feeling drives down perceived risk.
Smoking was everywhere. That made people feel good about it. And that made smoking feel safe.
For smokers, this effect was amplified by personal experience. One cigarette isn’t dangerous. Neither is the next cigarette. Or the next. Over and over, the smoker lights up, inhales and experiences no harm, only pleasure. Primal wiring in the smoker’s brain – the same wiring that convinces a bird it can safely take seeds from the hand of a human who repeatedly feeds it – sees this as proof that smoking is safe.
Scientists insisted that while one cigarette may not be dangerous, continued smoking raises the probability of harm imperceptibly but steadily. Over a lifetime, a smoker’s likelihood of developing lung cancer becomes roughly similar to that of losing a round of Russian roulette. People heard this message and understood it, but only intellectually. It wasn’t intuited. It wasn’t felt.
What they felt was that smoking was safe. And that slowed the descent of smoking rates for decades.
When head and gut clash, it is not inevitable that gut has its way. After all, the evidence tying smoking to lung cancer did bend the trend lines in the 1950s and 1960s. But intuitive judgments are empowered by biology and evolution, so modifying a strongly felt conclusion is deeply unnatural, and rejecting it entirely can be a Herculean challenge.
This is why people build homes on floodplains and volcano slopes. It’s why earthquake-insurance sales spike immediately after a major earthquake then slowly decline, exactly the opposite of the risk.
And it’s why we aren’t remotely as concerned about climate change as we should be.
Scientists have informed me that when I drive my gasoline-powered car, the car emits carbon dioxide into the air, which makes the atmosphere an ever-so-slightly more efficient heat-trapping blanket. If I multiply my car’s emissions by one billion cars and thousands more greenhouse-gas sources and seven billion people and 150 years of industrialization, the total is big trouble. I know this. We all do.
But the last time I got in my car, drove and got out, there was no perceptible change. I suffered no harm. No one did. The same is true of the time before that. And the time before that. Not once in the hundreds of times I have driven has anything bad happened. And look around at all the other drivers and all the other cars and all the trips being taken without anything bad happening to anyone.
My Stone Age brain’s conclusion? It’s the same conclusion it would have drawn about smoking in 1964.
That’s what I see and feel in the present. But I also know bad stuff is coming in the future. Rising ocean levels. More droughts and hurricanes. Pests and diseases moving north. When I think about that, I imagine it. I see it in my mind’s eye. Surely that should be enough to ring my internal alarm bell. And yet that bell is quiet.
The problem is “psychological distance.” If you imagine a street a few blocks from your house, what comes to mind is solid and vivid, with lots of detail about house styles, colours, people and so on. But do the same for a street in a city in another province and your thoughts go to a higher level of abstraction – meaning you will see only the basic character of the street, with few particulars. A street in another country will be more abstract still.
That’s thought across physical distances. But psychologists have found the same tendency to move from the concrete to the abstract with other forms of distance. One is distance across time; thoughts about a vacation next week will be detailed, while a vacation next year will be less so. There is also social distance; you will imagine people like you in real terms, while those who are different will be more abstract. And there is hypothetical distance, where what is perceived to be likely is seen in more concrete terms than the unlikely. Together, these are “psychological distance.”
Psychological distance matters for judgments about risk because concrete thoughts are tangible. They engage our senses. We can feel them, and they can move us. But abstract thoughts have none of those qualities. They are cold and lifeless. It’s a contrast captured perfectly in a saying often attributed to Joseph Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.”
Climate change is distant in every dimension. The worst of it lies decades in the future, to be suffered in far-off lands by foreigners very different from us, and the worst scenarios are highly uncertain. It would be hard to design a threat more likely to induce highly abstract thoughts. And shrugs.
And there’s another big problem with climate change: It’s right there in the first word.
What is climate? It’s not weather. Weather is rain, wind, snow, sunshine. We have a feel for weather. Our species has been intuiting it as long as we have existed.
But climate? It’s the probability of weather.
On any given day in a particular place, a range of weather is possible. Not all outcomes are equally likely. Some are much more probable, others less so and some are extremely unlikely. Think of a bell curve, with temperature, precipitation, wind, cloud and so on arrayed across it. That’s the climate of that place at that time of year. We can understand that if we think carefully. But we have no natural, intuitive feel for it.
As the philosopher Ian Hacking showed, the modern idea of probability didn’t even exist until the mid-17th century, while the first mathematical examination of probability was only published in 1713. For a species that is about 200,000 years old, 1713 is the day before yesterday. And so, when we handle probability, we are often like cavemen with smart phones – confused by even the simplest functions.
Consider the forecast, “There is a 70-per-cent chance a thing will happen.” It also means there is a 30-per-cent chance it won’t, so the forecast is not proved wrong if the thing does not happen. That could not be more obvious. And yet, after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, forecaster Nate Silver was almost universally said to have been wrong because he had forecast that Hillary Clinton had a 70-per-cent chance of winning. This mistake is astonishingly common, even among smart, educated people dealing with matters of great importance. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, once told me that when he informed top people in the White House and Congress that there was an 80-per-cent chance something would happen, he had to “almost pound the table” to make them see that meant there was a one in five chance it would not.
We struggle with probability, and probability defines climate. So it should be no surprise that we struggle with climate, let alone climate change.
Or that System 1 substitutes weather, which it does understand, for climate, which it does not. It’s a phenomenon researchers have called “local warming.”
“Do you believe anthropogenic climate change is real? How concerned are you?” We might think that people’s answers to these questions don’t vary much, and whatever change there is must be the result of significant new information, such as a new scientific report or a speech by a political leader. In fact, they do vary. And one of the biggest influences is the weather.
If the weather has been unusually hot recently, belief and concern go up. Unusual cold has the opposite effect.
Climate-change activists get angry when politicians who deny or belittle climate change point to cold weather as proof there’s nothing to worry about, as Donald Trump did in November and Senator James Inhofe did a few years ago when he held a snowball triumphantly aloft on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Such claims are ridiculous, of course. It’s like saying a snowfall in Jerusalem proves that Jerusalem’s climate isn’t hotter than Stockholm’s. But activists see deliberate deception. It’s likelier that the Trumps and Inhofes are themselves deceived, as so many of us are, by a System 1 that uses recent weather to judge the reality and magnitude of a threat that will take decades to reach full force and centuries to play out.
That is dismaying. But it’s also predictable.
Extrapolating recent experience into the future is how people have always made forecasts. If a band of ancient hunter-gatherers suffered a lion attack, they would see lion attacks in their future, putting them on guard, until enough time passed without a lion attack to allow memories to fade and the sense of threat to ebb – a matter of days, weeks or months. It worked well in that environment, on that time scale.
Today, in a very different world, we forecast this way as naturally and easily as breathing. And we do it even when a little reflection would tell us we shouldn’t.
When terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, officials and ordinary people alike were instantly certain their world would be scarred by major terrorist attacks far into the future. When the price of oil surged above US$100 a barrel, it was very widely believed it would blow past US$150 and never come back down. But the most striking illustrations are found in stock markets. Nothing convinces investors that stock prices will soar like soaring stock prices or that markets will plunge like plunging markets.
System 1 won’t stop forecasting lion attacks. It can’t. That’s what it evolved to do. And when it rings the alarm bell, it’s hard not to listen.
It’s just as hard to be alarmed when System 1 doesn’t ring the bell.
So why is our concern about climate change so small relative to the threat? The problem is not that we are ignorant or selfish. The problem is how we think.
The decision-making system capable of understanding the danger is incapable of ringing our internal alarm bell. The system that can raise the alarm cannot grasp the threat because it was shaped by the world as it was millenniums ago, not the world we live in now.
Our past endangers our future.
A generation ago, officials meeting in board rooms agreed to implement sensible policies, and the acid rain and ozone-depletion crises were solved. Climate change won’t be stopped the same way. It can’t be. No matter what good work is done at meetings such as the recent United Nations conference in Poland, pushing the needle away from the most dangerous climate-change scenarios requires economic and social changes so fundamental that they cannot happen in a democracy without broad popular support for collective action. The only precedent for such mobilization is wartime.
But in war, we face an enemy. In this struggle, there are no tanks on the horizon. Or worse, the enemy is us. How can we rally against ourselves?
When people don’t fear what they should, or fear what they shouldn’t, governments and corporations typically turn to information and exhortation: If people won’t stop smoking, tell them yet again that smoking causes lung cancer and urge them to quit. If they won’t buy emergency supplies to prepare for disasters, tell them disasters happen and that they should be prepared, even though they already know this and agree, they just don’t do it. If they fear nuclear plants or chemicals or air travel, show them safety data, and when their feelings don’t change, wave the data at them and demand they be reasonable.
This approach seldom works because it only speaks to System 2. Worse, it treats System 2 as the Good One and System 1 as the Bad One, pitting the two against each other – a wrestling match System 1 is likely to win.
A very different approach is to see System 1 and System 2 as yin and yang, two halves of one whole. Neither is good or bad. Each is capable of making mistakes, or correcting them, depending on circumstances, and each interacts with the other in complex ways. Our judgment is at its best when the two are harmonious.
Seen this way, the goal is to help System 1 feel what System 2 calculates.
We’re doing that now with smoking. Gory photos on cigarette packages tell smokers nothing they don’t already know, but they do associate cigarettes with something hideous, which boosts negative affect and System 1’s feeling of risk. Similarly, smoking bans pushed cigarettes out of the public sphere, turning what was familiar and likeable into something alien and unsettling. These and other stigmatization and denormalization policies helped drive down smoking rates by turning psychological mechanisms that once encouraged smoking against it.
Climate-change researchers are exploring a wide range of interventions designed to speak to System 1. The most promising involves shrinking psychological distance by replacing “distant” abstractions with concrete, here-and-now words and images.
That means replacing an abstraction such as “rising ocean levels” with an image of Prince Edward Island’s coastline when the iconic red beaches have been swallowed.
In place of “future generations,” describe a person with a face, name and story. Instead of “the economy” and “global temperatures,” describe her hunger and the sweltering heat.
Done well, the remote threat becomes as concrete – as detailed, vivid and visceral – as a lion crouching at the edge of the long grass, her muscles tense, her stare relentless.
There’s nothing new about this, of course. But that’s the point. Good storytellers have been shrinking psychological distance since the days when stories were told around campfires and System 1 was evolving to help us make sense of the world.
People cannot feel dangers measured in atmospheric concentrations of a gas so common we exhale it.
But we can feel lions. We just have to see them.