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Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Climate Change Indifference?

July 17, 2019

Forty years ago, chemist James Lovelock put forward the Gaia hypothesis, which proposed that living organisms interact with their surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system. The synchronization of the various elements, Lovelock argued, helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Lovelock named the idea after Gaia, the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology. 

Though the Gaia hypothesis was initially criticized for being teleological and against the principles of natural selection, later refinements aligned the Gaia hypothesis with ideas from fields such as Earth system science, biogeochemistry, and systems ecology. Whether or not the Earth is conscious is open to debate. However, one thing we do know for sure is this: If Mother Nature could talk, “she” would say “get me to the emergency room and get me there quickly.”

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a rather unsettling report. Ninety climate scientists from forty countries published a comprehensive paper with a damning conclusion: If humans don’t take immediate action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, there is no going back. The consequences of our actions will effectively be rooted in the natural systems of the planet. Punishing droughts, widespread wildfires, devastating floods, lethal hurricanes, and deadly famines have become more common in recent years. If we do not act soon, they will become even more common.

The IPCC, established some three decades ago, has published hundreds of reports. However, this one felt different—more pressing, more urgent, more definitive. The overall reaction from the general public? Well, it was fairly predictable. Nonchalant shrugs, some tutting, vigorous head nodding and stern looks, even the odd “oh, my word” here and there. Even though thousands took to the streets, others wrote strongly worded emails to their local politicians, and some even started recycling a few plastic bottles once a month—in the grand scheme of things, the general reaction was, and still is, one of indifference. Our nonchalance is worrisome on many levels.

As I type, mainland Europe continues to swelter under record-breaking temperatures. July 2 saw the World Weather Attribution Network, an international consortium of scientists, release a rather worrisome report. The summer of 2003 was a turning point, according to the authors. This was the year when heat records for many parts of Europe hit an all-time high. Temperatures soared to 111.4° Fahrenheit in the southern French town of Conqueyrac. That summer alone, more than 70,000 people across the continent died. Unsurprisingly, the authors conclude that the severity of the heat was amplified by climate change.

Cast your minds back twelve months. Another heat wave, similar to the one of 2003, baked Europe for three months straight. According to the authors of the July 2 report, it could not have happened without anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change. Even more concerning, such occurrences look likely to become more frequent and more severe. The reaction from the masses? A collective shrug of the shoulders. A few concerned tweets and a smattering of shock face emojis.

Why Don’t We Take Climate Change More Seriously?

The simple answer is apathy. We just don’t care. However, I find this assumption problematic on so many levels. People do care, or at least they appear to. The problem isn’t ignorance, either. Most people get the basic idea.

From an evolutionary perspective, however, we are not “designed” to take future threats as seriously as immediate ones. Though the sea levels are rising and the world’s honeybees are quite literally dropping dead, for most of us the worst is yet to come—in a few decades, maybe even half a century. Most of us will be old by then; some of us will be long gone. Basically, we treat the world the same way Led Zeppelin used to treat hotel rooms. The world is someone else’s mess to take care of. 

More than half of Americans seem to think that climate change won’t affect them personally, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Only 45 percent think that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime, and just 43 percent say they worry a great deal about climate change. The poll shows that many Americans consider climate change to be a problem—just not an immediate one. Evolutionarily speaking, humans are hardwired to discount the future. Our brains are hardwired to prefer to focus on immediate rewards, discounting future costs in the process. This also explains the amount of global credit card debt. It’s why humans eat so much ice cream and drink copious amounts of alcohol. It’s why I make so many bad decisions on a daily basis. Decades of work on temporal discounting highlight one simple fact: we overvalue benefits in the short term relative to benefits in the long term. People fail to save enough money for retirement, preferring to spend money now rather than having a fund to dip into in their old age. When the rainy day arrives, there is no umbrella to grab. We demand immediate gratification. To hell with the consequences.

But the rainy day is already here. So, too, are the days of sweltering heat, widespread droughts, and rising sea levels. It will take one hell of an umbrella to save us now.