In last week’s issue of New Scientist (16 August 2014, pp. 24-25), George Marshall wrote a mostly pessimistic opinion piece about the acceptance of human-initiated climate change by the general public. Marshall is founder of the ‘Climate Outreach and Information Network in Oxford, UK,' and author of a book, Don’t Even Think About It; Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, which is about to be published. This alone will stop many climate change sceptics from reading his article let alone his book.
Basically, he argues that it’s human nature to place more importance on short term pain over long term gain. In other words, we are reluctant to make sacrifices or accept short term costs in favour of long term goals that won’t be seen in our own lifetime and which no one can definitively quantify. Politicians don’t have the political will to overcome the collective inertia or risk election over an issue that many can’t perceive as current or relevant to their own lives. In Australia, and, I suspect elsewhere, this has become an emotionally charged issue with people sending threatening emails to scientists, and claiming that there is some global academic conspiracy to maintain funding and jobs for climate scientists who would otherwise be out of a job if climate change didn’t exist. Such irrationality merely demonstrates how reason is the first casualty when public opinion attempts to overturn peer-reviewed science.
In last week’s episode of ABC’s weekly programme, Q&A, the issue came up and Heather Ridout, a highly respected Australian business woman, currently head of AustralianSuper and a Board member for the Reserve Bank of Australia, seems an unlikely advocate for action on Climate Change, given those credentials, yet argued that the scientific argument is well and truly over and it’s time we accepted the scientific status quo instead of challenging it with spurious and contrary viewpoints that are given the same weight as globally accepted scientific opinion.
Marshall opens his article with a quote from Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics: “…I am deeply pessimistic, I really see no path to success on climate change.” To quote Marshall, Kahneman won the prize ‘for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision making.’ In particular, he coined the term “loss aversion”, which is effectively the point I made in the opening of the second paragraph: reluctance to accept short term pain for a long term gain of uncertain magnitude.
Kahneman also talks about “assimilation bias”, which is our ability to make information fit our personal prejudices, which is why people on opposing sides of the political spectrum can have such contradictory views over the same issue, like climate change. The problem with all this, as Marshall expounds, is that, politically, it is much easier to postpone the problem than deal with it now. The easy way out for politicians, is to give it lip service whilst pursuing policies that actually do nothing to address it. This is exactly what our current political leadership is doing in Australia, and I believe it’s happening elsewhere as well.
What I find interesting, in light of the psychological dimension that both Marshall and Kahneman propound, is how the issue seems to fall on the 'right' and 'left' of the political divide. In Australia, a conservative politician lost the leadership of his own party (by 1 vote) when he put climate change on the line, which was very brave, but changed the political landscape in Australia dramatically for the last 3 election terms.
It is the ‘right’ of politics that sees climate change as a furphy and it is the ‘left’ that sees it as one of the foremost challenges of the 21st Century, for the entire world. If one examines politics historically, it is the ‘liberal’ politicians who have led social reforms in areas of equality and social justice that have, in later generations, become mainstream. I predict that this also applies to climate change, where ‘liberal’ politicians are once more showing leadership on a socially contentious issue, that will, in later generations, be accepted as the status quo, as the scientific community has already done.