Why the World is Not Adequately Addressing the Climate Crisis

by Wahhab Baldwin

December 2019

This issue hits a blind spot in the human brain.

Many of us recognize that the climate crisis is the most critical issue humanity has ever faced. We resonated with Greta Thunberg when she spoke at the United Nations, saying “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Why is this? World-wide, the fact that we are facing a climate crisis is almost universally acknowledged. 196 countries plus the European Union signed the Paris Agreement. Except in the United States, the vast majority of people in all countries recognize that we are facing a problem. And yet, to date, the world is only taking baby steps.

A key reason for this failure to take appropriate measures is that the climate crisis is precisely the kind of problem that we as humans are badly equipped to deal with. There are several reasons for this. Let’s look at them.

1. Far-Off Problem

First, humans have evolved to be far better at dealing with immediate crises than with problems far in the future. Our ancestors had to be equipped to deal with a saber-tooth tiger immediately and effectively. Dealing with problems that would happen twenty years in the future had essentially no impact on their ability to pass on their DNA.

We see this in many arenas of life. This is why so many Americans reach retirement age with no savings, and why even now, many people smoke cigarettes despite knowing the health consequences. No matter how awful the consequences, many people seem unable to do much today to prevent a problem that won’t occur for 30 years.

Closely connected with this, most people tend, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evaluate the future effects of the climate crisis based on the effects we can see now. We hear about sea level rise, and the numbers seem tiny. In the United States, we have experienced unusually powerful hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires in the last decade or so. Some of us have seen images of melting ice or bare land in Greenland or the Arctic. Perhaps most people can imagine some of these getting worse over time. But I believe that for most people, it is much harder to fully register the qualitative changes that climate change will bring in the decades to come. Just to pick one example, the world food supply is likely to be significantly impacted. Ocean heating and acidification could lead to a collapse of many ocean fisheries. Agriculture is likely to become less productive worldwide. Tropical areas will become too hot for people to work outside without becoming sick or dying. As a result, scientists anticipate that famine, which has been significantly reduced in recent decades, could become widespread. The combination of loss of food and livable environment is likely to lead to wars and huge levels of climate refugees. Furthermore, there are likely to be interactions between different effects of climate change that we have not anticipated. Just to give one example: warming led to mountain pine beetles in Colorado reproducing twice as fast. About 70% of lodgepole pines in the state have been damaged. This makes the forests much more subject to wildfires. The wildfires, in turn, release the carbon in the trees as CO2, adding to further global warming. An even more terrifying example is the release of methane from the Arctic by global warming, which could abruptly increase the methane content of our atmosphere by a factor of twelve. The fact that the problems will not simply scale from what we have seen, but will reach a series of tipping points where problems become catastrophically worse, does not easily fit the way the human mind makes mental models of situations.

2. Overly-Simplistic Assumptions

Another way the human mind is a bad match to the climate crisis is that we tend to assume that we can fix a problem by stopping doing the thing that is causing the problem. We think that way because in many situations, it is true. If a child is being punished for playing in the mud with their good clothes on, they can stop playing in the mud, and the punishments will stop. But sadly, we cannot deal with the climate crisis by stopping adding more carbon to the atmosphere if and when things get bad enough. This is true for several non-intuitive reasons. Many people don’t recognize that even if we reduce our carbon emissions, we are still adding to CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore increasing global warming, not reducing it. Many people also don’t realize that even if we reduce our CO2 emissions all the way to zero, that won’t make all the greenhouse gasses we have already emitted go away. They will stick around for thousands of years. Scientists say it will take approximately 40 years from reaching zero emissions until earth’s average temperature stabilizes. And finally, no matter how hard we try, there will be a long gap between the committed decision to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, and actually achieving that goal. There are about one billion internal combustion cars on the roads of the world today. Even if every car manufacturer world-wide switched to producing only non-internal combustion cars today, it will take many years to retire those billion cars. Replacing all existing fossil fuel power plants will take even longer. Dealing with emissions from agriculture, cement, and other sources may be even more challenging.

3. Tragedy of the Commons

Another way the human mind is a bad match to the climate crisis is that we tend to assume that we can fix a problem by stopping doing the thing that is causing the problem. We think that way because in many situations, it is true. If a child is being punished for playing in the mud with their good clothes on, they can stop playing in the mud, and the punishments will stop. But sadly, we cannot deal with the climate crisis by stopping adding more carbon to the atmosphere if and when things get bad enough. This is true for several non-intuitive reasons. Many people don’t recognize that even if we reduce our carbon emissions, we are still adding to CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore increasing global warming, not reducing it. Many people also don’t realize that even if we reduce our CO2 emissions all the way to zero, that won’t make all the greenhouse gasses we have already emitted go away. They will stick around for thousands of years. Scientists say it will take approximately 40 years from reaching zero emissions until earth’s average temperature stabilizes. And finally, no matter how hard we try, there will be a long gap between the committed decision to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, and actually achieving that goal. There are about one billion internal combustion cars on the roads of the world today. Even if every car manufacturer world-wide switched to producing only non-internal combustion cars today, it will take many years to retire those billion cars. Replacing all existing fossil fuel power plants will take even longer. Dealing with emissions from agriculture, cement, and other sources may be even more challenging.

4. Inertia

There is one other major factor in the human psyche that gets in the way of our taking effective action against the climate crisis. This is inertia. When we are used to doing something one way, it is very much easier to continue doing it in the same way than to change how we do it. This is true even for small things in our life, like how we brush our teeth or how we throw a ball, but it is far more true for major ways of life. Addressing the climate crisis will require huge changes by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. We will have to address transportation, electricity, agriculture and deforestation, and industry in wide-reaching ways that will require major changes in economics, laws, and practices. While there have been some efforts to chart a course, such as the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, countries do not really even have a roadmap as to how to make these changes.

Collectively, these human traits help explain why effective action is not yet being taking against the climate crisis, even though we have known about it for decades. But this is not to say the situation is hopeless. During World War II, the United States made an equally radical change in its economy, shifting from a peacetime economy to sixteen million men and women marching off to war, and eight million women moved into the workforce. Chrysler shifted from manufacturing cars to making fuselages, General Motors to making airplane engines, guns, trucks, and tanks. Ford Motor company produced B-24 Liberator long-range bombers with 1.5 million parts at the rate of one very 63 minutes. Shipyards produced huge numbers of ships, and weapons were churned out by the millions. Meanwhile, food was rationed, including meat, sugar, coffee, fats, canned fish, and more. Rubber tires and new cars were unavailable, and gasoline and fuel oil were greatly restricted. 

We have the capacity to deal with this crisis, as well. Most of the technology exists or is within sight. Indeed, we are already seeing progress in some arenas. Our challenge is to overcome these human tendencies that keep us from experiencing the climate crisis as the crisis it is, so that we can take the action that needs to be taken.

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