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Mindful : December 2015
Why do so many of us persist in doing nothing about global warming? Blame it on psychology. If only global warming were caused by ISIS declar- ing a “weather war” on the west, perhaps by glee- fully releasing 18 tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every day and gloating when droughts, deluges, heat waves, killer storms, wildfires, or floods ensued. That might incite more people to get upset about it. In fact, global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of all those events, as well as raising sea levels. But it comes from something quite different from an evil-looking ter- rorist. The sources—such as power plants, vehicles, farms, and factories—are impersonal and invisible, and close to home—the way we use energy, not the machinations of a foreigner. Faced with a threat with these attributes, the brain reacts with an unimpressed meh: Our minds evolved to detect and respond to threats that have certain features, and global warm- ing has none of them. In terms of getting people to care about Climate Change: A Faceless Villain global warming enough to demand a government response or to take per- sonal action, “you couldn’t design a problem that’s a worse fit for our psychol- ogy,” Andrew Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Com- munications, told me. Countless polls have documented the lack of concern about global warming and the result- ing climate change, which threatens to exact an enor- mous financial and human toll. The Yale Project’s 2015 survey, for instance, found that about 16% of US adults are die-hard cli- mate deniers, rejecting the Sharon Begley is a senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. scientific research that has documented how the rise in greenhouse gases from human activities (primarily burning coal, oil, and natu- ral gas) is trapping heat in the planet’s atmosphere and altering Earth’s climate. While another 63% believe (correctly) that global warming is happening, only 48% believe (also correctly) that it is due to human activities. Just 41% know that the vast majority of climatologists have reached that conclusion. This has been widely and repeatedly reported in the media, so when people say they do not “believe” these facts, or don’t care about them, it → 18 mindful December 2015 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault