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Climate change and cognitive bias


In 2017 David Wallace-Wells wrote an article about climate change for New York magazine that went viral.  Its thesis was that the climate change crisis is much worse than it’s usually portrayed as being in the media.  He’s expanded that argument into a bookThis article in the Times is adapted from it:

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change. .  .

In 2018, their circumspection began to change, perhaps because all that extreme weather wouldn’t permit it not to. Some scientists even began embracing alarmism — particularly with that United Nations report. The research it summarized was not new, and temperatures beyond two degrees Celsius were not even discussed, though warming on that scale is where we are headed. Though the report — the product of nearly 100 scientists from around the world — did not address any of the scarier possibilities for warming, it did offer a new form of permission to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.

This, to me, is progress. Panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable, for several reasons. . .

Perhaps the strongest argument for the wisdom of catastrophic thinking is that all of our mental reflexes run in the opposite direction, toward disbelief about the possibility of very bad outcomes. I know this from personal experience. I have spent the past three years buried in climate science and following the research as it expanded into ever darker territory.

The number of “good news” scientific papers that I’ve encountered in that time I could probably count on my two hands. The “bad news” papers number probably in the thousands — each day seeming to bring a new, distressing revision to our understanding of the environmental trauma already unfolding.

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself.

How can we be this deluded? One answer comes from behavioral economics. The scroll of cognitive biases identified by psychologists and fellow travelers over the past half-century can seem, like a social media feed, bottomless, and they distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion. . .

The sum total of these biases is what makes climate change something the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” — a conceptual fact so large and complex that it can never be properly comprehended. In his book “Worst-Case Scenarios,” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein wrote that in general, we have a problem considering unlikely but potential risks, which we run from either into complacency or paranoia. His solution is a wonky one: We should all be more rigorous in our cost-benefit analysis. [Ed.: Forehead, meet desk]

The argument Wallace-Wells seems to be making here is a tricky one.  It sounds as if he’s arguing that cognitive biases like alarmism and catastrophic thinking are having a good effect in this particular situation, given how powerful all the cognitive biases are in the other direction.

It’s easy to see how that argument can and no doubt will be distorted by right wing climate change denialists (“scientist argues we should indulge in irrational panic over so-called climate change, because it’s such an important problem.”).

In any event his book sounds really interesting, especially in this respect:

Here, Wallace-Wells moves from explaining the range of possibilities for the destruction of our physical world to analyzing and considering how these changes will affect us as human beings—as people who tell stories and build societies and try, however imperfectly, to fix problems. Each chapter is complete enough to work as a standalone essay, and yet together they serve as … well, if I had to sum it up, a critique of our perception that the human story is one of progress. Through the Wallace-Wells climate change–focused lens, industrialized society is a tragedy in which we thought we had built something enduring while really, we had just exploited fossil fuels into a temporary mirage of an empire that would end up drowning the rest of the world. The harshest criticism of the book is directed, somewhat surprisingly but certainly satisfyingly, at tech giants and America’s current accommodation of the moral corruption that powers Silicon Valley. “That technology might liberate us, collectively, from the strain of labor and material privation is a dream at least as old as John Maynard Keynes,” he writes, and yet it is “never ultimately fulfilled.” Instead, we watch “rapid technological change transforming nearly every aspect of everyday life, and yet yielding little or no tangible improvement in any conventional measures of economic well-being.” This chapter (called “The Church of Technology”) is largely a rebuke of the idea that “technology will save us,” a refrain often grasped as a means of allowing us to carry on with our destructive habits without feeling too bad.

The possibility that sustained economic growth — a historically unique phenomenon, completely unknown in human societies until about 350 years ago — may turn out to be ecologically impossible is, shall we say, kind of a big problem, given how modern societies are organized, the ideology of capitalism, etc.

This in turn probably has a lot to do why climate change denialism remains so fierce in the face of overwhelming evidence.  (Note that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were not asked a single question about climate change during their debates all of two and half years ago).

I’m looking forward to reading Wallace-Wells’ book, and am glad to see it getting so much attention.

. . . CV Danes in comments with a cheerful thought for your Monday morning:

Climate change is scary enough on it’s own. But what is truly terrifying is that the governments of the world will spend all of their vast resources trying in vain to preserve and perpetuate the economic and political models that created climate change in the first place. The release of greenhouse gasses that are changing our environment are merely a symptom of much larger political and socioeconomic problems that are vastly more complex and probably unsolvable outside of global economic collapse and rebirth.

World War 3 is not humans against humans; it’s humans against the planet. And the planet, of course, will win.

This is probably right, which makes Keynes’s famous observation about the long run something of an optimistic observation.




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