Why Humans Aren’t Getting Climate Change

Inside AJ Redhawk’s Teepee, Cochise County, AZ – March, 2019

I’ve lately discovered Twitter, after having dismissed a couple of years ago as a primarily Authoritarian value set format. 240 character fragments, blurted out to the world, didn’t inspire me as a mode for doing much besides asserting one’s viewpoint. I was wrong. Twitter actually has relatively amazing possibilities, and I’ve become convinced the short text length is actually an asset — not a liability. For intelligent people, it forces a conciseness that also requires building on others’ arguments. There’s only so many times you can type “This” and re-tweet someone else’s stuff.

And if you are high-conflict, or stupid, there’s only so many times you can write “You’re STOOPID.” You can follow me on Twitter if you’re so inclined. I’m Empathy Guru, or #PezeshkiCharles.

I have relatively few people I follow, and also relatively few followers. One of the ones I picked up was a friend of my chronic co-conspirator, Ryan Martens, Tom Higley. Tom got pegged with reading the MVP of my manuscript, and is also the founder of 10.10.10 — a serial entrepreneur/institutional connector looking at bringing people together to solve the world’s problems. They’re declared as a “wicked problem” meta-incubator, running workshops around these big questions.

Long story short — Tom’s feed throws up big questions, some that actually are longer than a Twitter comment. One of these today was ‘why don’t people care about global warming?’ The answer, of course, has to be grounded in understanding human empathetic development. Why? Everything we do has to go back to the brain, and how we connect and relate is what evolves that organ. “As we relate, so we think.” You can’t escape it.

Global warming is a sticky wicket, because, at some level, it is a long time-scale/spatial scale problem. Long temporal scale problems become problematic in people’s minds, as many people who have the actual free time to think about them — older people — are going to be dead by the time the excrement really hits the ventilator. Younger people are mired in the economic crisis of the time, and while they have the most to lose, they don’t have the luxury of thinking about it.

Spatial scales in the same way affect concern about global warming. When we’re suffering through an ice storm here in the U.S., it becomes almost impossible for people to conceive that maybe halfway across the world below the equator, a part of the world is suffering the worst heat wave they’ve ever seen, People’s brains just don’t work on that level, unless relationally they have friends who live where the heat wave is taking place. And if that place is someplace like the outer islands of Indonesia, it makes it doubly difficult. No one even has any sense where those places are on the globe.

And it’s worse than that. One of the more depressing exercises I’ve engaged in was to ground myself in people’s actual ignorance of the physicality of our planet. It can be tough, but if you have a hard time understanding where people are actually at, grab a clipboard, put a pen behind your ear, and walk around asking people the simple question: if gravity pulls down (few will deny this) why don’t people on the bottom of the Earth fall off?

Long temporal scales, and large spatial scales also mess with people’s sense of consequentiality. We’re happy to give enough money to buy a baby calf to Heifer Project for a poor kid in an ad in one of those benighted, and inevitably dark countries. Fragmented, interpersonal identification is something our brains fundamentally relate to, with only a little social evolution. Most of us don’t want poor children to starve.

We also understand things like ‘plant a tree in the rainforest’ — the rainforest, besides being a real thing, is a mythic icon after 40 years of campaigning. But getting how to change utility systems at home mystifies us. The hardcore campaigners are always happy to put solar panels on their roofs — and there’s nothing wrong with adding another layer of insulation. But to get people out of their box and connect with others with the goal of rearranging electrical supplies from their local utilities mystifies most. A few communities (Boulder comes to mind) are attempting to do something. But the list ends up being countable on one or two hands. An actual movement outside some place like Germany, where social cohesion AND agency are both strong, as well as a wicked performance mindset, is still elusive.

Current economics, and the income crisis gap affecting the middle class don’t help. Why? Empathetic development is measured in terms of temporal and spatial awareness, of course. But it is also grounded in energetics, meaning you have to have some free time to make and maintain those independently generated relationships. In order to get the masses involved and thinking rationally, they need to not be in a Survival-level crisis all the time. And far too many people are. You can’t run from the thermodynamics of the situation.

The short answer, then, is to fix global warming, we might focus on the well-being of a socially-supported middle class first. People are plenty smart, and if they possibly can participate, they’ll find a way. And then those emergent solutions will start popping up, at larger and larger, appropriate self-organizing scales. We can goose this along with smart technology and appropriate evangelization, of course. There’s nothing to be gained by NOT talking about AGW. It’s happening.

But if we don’t work concomitantly, aiming to expand people’s temporal, spatial and energetic scales, along with working on improving their consequentiality, then larger solutions will remain elusive. Until AGW really does burn folks, and creates that Survival Level Maximal Neuroplasticity crisis. Once you’re down there in the Survival Value Set, anything is indeed possible. But that ‘anything’ is as likely to be magical or authoritarian thinking, and those low empathy modes always result in a lot of people dying who are unfortunate to be in the Out-Group. Not desirable.

So far, from my perch on the Palouse, I’ve seen AGW affect places on the tails of the weather distribution in dramatic ways. Short version — storms nuke places beyond recognition. Puerto Rico and Paradise, CA are the exemplars, as well as Mexican Beach in Florida. The impacts are still small enough that absorption, and at some level, reconstruction are possible with development of those In-group/Out-group low empathy dynamics. But as the problem gets worse, the number of displaced people will grow. And humans are not known for sitting in one location and waiting to die. We can see some of this happening already with crop failures in Central America, which are driving migrant caravans. Larger cause-and-effect will happen. It will not be pretty.

There is no one solution. It is a wicked problem. But any solution that does not include stabilization of the people capable of peacefully thinking through the problem will fail. And then, all bets are off.

PS — though when I started writing this post, I didn’t realize it is Earth Day today! So — Happy Earth Day! Go out and share it with someone whom you can have a meaningful conversation with. Or help someone. Every little bit of personal development helps!

7 thoughts on “Why Humans Aren’t Getting Climate Change

  1. Spatial and Temporal scales – and instinctive intelligence/understanding – as critical components in an explanation of why people do or do not act in ways that make things better, is unfortunately much too rare. So your inclusion of them in thinking about these problems is very welcome.

    I believe in fact that there are lots of “facts” out there that would shift significantly or even disappear if those supposed facts were considered in the organic scale space in which they live, in the systems thinking style context.

    This is a huge issue everywhere you turn now – probably was true for a long time, but I do believe the speed at which things are now done has made this problem much, much worse. Take books. Much of what is considered intellectually admirable these days lives in a “Thought Leader” “Ted Talk” space and a great deal of that suffers from shallow thinking, shallow data, not enough time to think, impoverished scale-space context type handicaps.

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    1. Exactly correct. Facts depend largely on system boundaries — very few are deeply transcendent. This is challenging to convey without being perceived as anti-science, though. Which we both are decidedly not.

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  2. I went to a panel discussion at AU (in the library) recently with 3 fairly well known academics –social psychologists (from AU, GMU, and U Wisconsin—a former grad student at AU). All were male. (The one from AU (originally from India) has some mathematical statistics papers—he’s a data scientist. ) There were only 10 people in the audience—all female except me.

    The AU academic said most people in India didn’t care much about climate change because they were poor and busy surviving or else striving middle class people aiming at some approximation of the ‘american dream’ or upward mobility–cars , houses, maybe some travel.

    The U Wisconsin prof said one needs to ‘brand’ climate change — find a good slogan like ‘coke is it!’. (Naomi Klein and even Al Gore have sort of done that, along with 350.org (bill McKibben), Greta Thunberg (swedish high school student) , and UK’s ‘Extinction Rebellion ‘, and older groups ranging from Sierra Club to EF!. (earth first). Greta is even mentioned in an article in Science Mag April 12 2019 by J D Farmer and others (on the ‘post carbon transition’).

    The GMU prof (J Cook, from australia) is well known for his papers with Lewandowsky who was his thesis advisor .

    Lewandowsky wrote a very well known, widely promoted and somewhat controversial paper ‘NASA faked the moon landing, therefore climate science is a hoax’ about what he terms ‘conspiracist ideation’ . Many ‘right wing’ people (eg Jose Duarte) went after that paper, but I think they were largely correct–it was based on an internet poll of 1100 people (not a random sample, just whoever answered the poll) which tried to extrapolate those results to all 330 million US people. Its mostly folklore or stereoptypes, but stereotypes often contain some truth in them. But they are not neccesarily ‘causal’–poor people may be poor and often have bad habits, but the reason for that may not be due to some innate set of attributes—it may be cultural or ‘structural’. I’m not a statistician but the way they massaged the data in that paper makes it look like ‘junk science’. (eg people were asked how old they were—some replies were like ‘im 5 years old’ and ‘im 50,000 years old’. ) I think once they massaged the data they got the poll data down to 100 people –a representative sample of US population. Then they ‘binned it’ into 4 categories—the way they ‘binned it’ meant you could throw out one data point and that would make your data perfectly fit your assumptions–‘curve fitting’. .

    Jonathon Haidt of NYU wrote a well known paper in BBS (brain and behavioral sciences ) with Duarte.
    They promote more ‘ideological diversity’ in academia—free market in ideas is optimal ( whoever pays for them—-eg Koch family). Perhaps that is why they had that neo-nazi/KKK/alt-right rally in Charllotseville Va which turned violent—thats where Haidt got his reputation at UVa before moving to NYU. Haidt wrote ‘the righteous mind’ whil,e at U Va, His most recent book is ‘the coddling of the american mind’ about spoiled bratty americans who don’t like trigger words. Haidt came up the hard way–never coddled—from Scarsdale (one of wealthiest towns in USA), went to Ivy leagues, may have never taken a math class, never been out of the ivory tower or gated community, etc. Hard life.

    That prof from GMU was not particularily happy about my questions about his papers.

    I also asked him about all the ‘climate denialists’ and ‘skeptics’ in GMU’s economics and law departments (affiliated with Mercatus Center, and funded by Koch brothers). His answer was those are on a different GMU campus–GMU has several.

    Some of the 10 people in the audience also asked questions—said they were traumtized–‘the world is going to end in 12 years, what can i do’ . The answer was ‘we are going to a restaurant in 15 minutes’.

    Outside the lecture there were 100s if not 1000s of students all studying or hanging out–taking class breaks, etc. Most AU people tend to be liberal, with a few ‘radicals’, and also some hard core right wing people (when they elected a black female student body president a couple years ago they started finding alot of ‘white power’ graffiti on campus. (when my parents were trying find a house to buy in DC in 1960’s, they were ‘red lined’ out of that AU neighborhood because my father was jewish. You had to be a WASP. so they bought a cheap house in a neighborhood on the edge of the ‘ghetto’. AU area no longer really has that policy though there still are stark contrasts between neighborhoods. )

    Most of those students are probably looking for good jobs in government or in NGOs—this area has alot of far right wing/libertarian NGOs –if there is a fire or hurricane or flood it won’t affect their neighborhoods. Who cares?

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    1. There is a very old NPR (radio) story saying ’empathy may not be the answer’ (its from april 15 2019).

      I remember i used to try to stop men beating up their girlfriends in front of where i grew up. I was told by the womyn ‘this is none of your business’. i even tried to stop people breaking into their cars. My neighbors who had their cars broken into and would get into fights (one had a PhD from MIT in economics because the nieghborhood was gentirfying) then decided to use the roof of my house for their beer parties and also kick us out. They also complained about my music–they liked spritually elevated’, mellow, elevator music. Nothing with a beat or melody was acceptable. My mom sued them–stay off our roof— but lost the case—can’t mess with MIT. (my niece just graduated from there as well and works at FB in UK in ‘data analytics’–she was going to be a computational environmental engineer—-thats her degree.).

      Jonathon Hate i think is the greatest public intellectual–the hate that Haidt produced.

      They had a story with public school teachers today on NPR about teaching climate science—they say they can’t teach it because students have to take physics, biology, chemistry and math. One teacher also said climate science is settled—nothing in science is ever settled—tho you can get 90% accuracy.

      That may be the problem with public education—the blind leading the blind, but they all get paid. Lorentz equations (navier-stokes) and chaos theory take you right from math through physics to climate science. I went to one of the top rated Public School systems in USA (ranked as 3rd worst school system in the country–after baltimore and detroit–new orleans may now take the #1 spot).

      i probably should write my own blog and book. my area has already had 52 homicides so far this year. maybe we can get a new record. as the beatles song goes ‘happiness is a warm gun’.

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