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Climate scientists wonder why people don’t do more about global warming. Social scientists have some tough answers

By Lisa Bennett

Three years ago, I became obsessed with global warming. Practically overnight, my worries about its potential effects outstripped my worries about so many other national and global issues, even personal ones.

Indeed, as the mother of two young boys, I began to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape of my children’s little bodies and budding egos, but largely ignored the threat likely to put sizeable areas of the world underwater within their lifetime.

That year, 2005, marked a turning point for many people. After decades of observation, speculation, and analysis, the world’s climate scientists had reached a consensus, and increasingly the general public was accepting it. As USA Today reported, “The Debate is Over: Globe is Warming.”

The next step, scientists advised, was action. We needed to take significant and urgent steps to cut our dependence on fossil fuels by 25 percent or more, something NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, said we had only a decade to do if we were to avoid the great global warming tipping point – that level at which increased temperatures would unleash unprecedented global disasters.

Since then, surely some things have changed. Sales of hybrids have skyrocketed. Many of us have converted to the new energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. A flood of books are hitting the market offering tips about how to save the Earth. And there is a frenzy of advertising about everything from “eco-friendly” houses to “green” hair salons.

Yet, none of this adds up to the significant action scientists have called for, which raises the question: Why don’t more of us respond more seriously to the most serious threat to the planet in human history?

“Many climate scientists find the response to global warming completely baffling,” says Elke Weber, a Columbia University psychologist and the chair of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change’s Public Attitudes/Ethical Issues Working Group.

But a growing number of social scientists are offering some explanations. Among the factors they point to: the way we’re psychologically wired and socially conditioned to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to respond to the abstract and seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. Their insights are also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people to take action, including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing on people’s fears.

Our misleading emotions
“Risk-analysis scholars” believe there are, in general, two ways people assess a risk. One is through our analytic abilities, by which we examine the scientific evidence and make logical decisions about how to respond. Climate scientists, for example, used this process when they concluded that the risks of global warming are momentous.

But most of us do not rely on our analytic abilities, but instead on the more common way of perceiving risk: our emotions.

“For most of us, most of the time, risk is not a statistic. Risk is a feeling,” says Weber. We are swayed by our feelings, and those feelings – while an essential part of the decision-making process – can be misleading guides, depending on the type of risk involved. “If I feel scared,” adds Weber, “that overshadows any amount of pallid statistical information.”

Moreover, as decades of behavioral decision research has shown, most people have to feel a risk before they do something about it.

And this presents a particular challenge in the case of global warming, says Weber, because our emotions are shaped by past experience, either personal or evolutionary. But we have no past experience that tells us that when we burn too many fossil fuels, it will lead to catastrophic changes to the Earth.

“Global warming doesn’t make evolutionary sense to us,” says Weber. “Our minds haven’t adjusted to the much more complex technological risks that are removed in space and time.”

A second factor: Global warming is not a clear and present danger but, rather, something that is projected to reveal its most dramatic consequences decades from now.

Finally, worldviews shape how we perceive and respond to risk. A group of scholars from Yale and elsewhere have found, for example, that egalitarians, or people who prefer a society where wealth, power, and opportunity are broadly distributed, are more concerned about global warming, whereas hierarchists, who prefer a society with leaders on top and followers below, tend to be less concerned.

More to the point, the researchers discovered that when proposed solutions to global warming clash with people’s worldviews, those people are more likely to reject evidence of the problem altogether. “People spin the information to keep their worldview intact,” says Paul Slovic, founder and president of Decision Research.

Fearful futures, hopeful actions
With such significant obstacles in play, what can social scientists recommend about how to inspire the response we need to global warming?

First, several suggest, messaging needs to reach people’s emotions and trigger fear about the dramatic consequences to come. Specifically, this means making future hardships vivid, personalized and credible, says Slovic. For example, he suggests addressing: “How will it change the whole economy and whole quality of life in a particular region? Will the forests die out? Will the summers be so hot and dry that the Earth will be uninhabitable?”

But where one sets out to evoke fear, one must tread judiciously. “If people are being scared without seeing a way out, it makes them dysfunctional and freeze,” says Weber, which leads to a second recommendation: People need to be offered a set of actions they can take.

Finally, there needs to be a greater effort to address the large-scale lifestyle changes that will make a significant difference. “I don’t want to have to make a zillion little decisions,” says Baruch Fischoff of Carnegie Mellon University and former president of the Society for Risk Analysis. Rather, “I’d like to see people working out for me some alternative ways of organizing my life where it will really be a sustainable way to live.” This, Fischoff suggests, is the practical work that now lies ahead for both climate and social scientists.

As for ordinary Americans like myself, I believe that significant collective action on global warming will come from a very personal place – such as love for our kids, who will, after all, be among those most likely to experience its greatest consequences. But perhaps even more significantly, I’m finding hope in knowing that the drive to protect our children is another universal desire for which most of us are, in fact, hardwired.

Lisa Bennett is communications director at Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based non-profit dedicated to education for sustainable living, and former Harvard fellow. She is writing a book about parenting in the age of global warming and can be reached at

This essay is reprinted, with edits, from Greater Good Magazine, Vol. IV, Issue 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 43.

Photo credit: flickr/mon1que, Creative Commons license.

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The only realistic scenario for the kind of systemic change we're talking about is a radical restructuring of our living systems and culture simultaneously - walk/bike/ride versus drive, infill multi-use placemaking development everywhere, massive positive incentives for lower-carbon modes, massive negative disincentives for higher-carbon modes, and a huge, culture-spanning educational programme.

Couple this with a totally revised take on the tie between economics and underlying realities (ecological and logistical infrastructure)and a new metric for all economics and quality of life, by which we de-emphasize acquisition through massively leveraged energy debts, and we'll be headed the right direction. One fundamental obstacle is the conception that economics can be de-coupled from the supporting resources and ecology - it's a loony, dangerous belief, and seems to harken back to the "it's just business" mentalities which are thankfully far less prevalent than in the past.

This puts the state-change we need far beyond the means of single-person lifestyle-decisions (though those are still a critical part of the solution) and punts it squarely into the grand policy arena.

Can leadership take the same "moral leadership" stance traditionally taken for wars and apply it to the group and distributed sacrifices we all need to make to survive? I fervently hope so.

Posted by: GreenDesigner on 19 Nov 08

Great've really hit the nail on the head. It helped me understand why I believe that the permaculture movement is so potentially powerful.

In the two-week permaculture class I took in June (at Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas), our eyes were really opened to the actual consequences of inaction during a process of being shown an entire way of life that is in accord with reality. More importantly, we left with a feeling of great hope and sense of's a *better* life.

I'll admit,'s hard to carry that forward if you leave permie school and go back to what everyone else calls "real life". We really need the permaculture movement to continue to build momentum.

Posted by: terrie on 20 Nov 08

The answer is simple.....Stop listening to Gore and Company that feeds you this crap! Read your thermometers!!! Nearly all so called global warming has been erased!! IT IS A HOAX!! Nothing more, nothing less. Polution problems in Asia absolutely must be addressed. Carbon Credits are a scam.

Posted by: american-american on 20 Nov 08

Lisa's complete article is in the FALL 2008 issue of Greater Good, which also includes articles on the psychology of trust. You'll find it on the magazine's homepage or archive with other freely available content.

Posted by: tom white on 20 Nov 08

"But we have no past experience that tells us that when we burn too many fossil fuels, it will lead to catastrophic changes to the Earth." There is bsolutely no present science that tells us this either.

The earth has been much warmer than at present and also much colder. These cycles have been repeated over many millennia.

There are massive uncertainties in climate models to the point that error levels are greater than actual observation, but they are glossed over with the mantra "the science is certain".

Posted by: harbinger on 21 Nov 08

I think that we need to educate the masses AND provide them with affordable solutions. Information without action steps can be overwhelming and paralyzing.
And for those people who question whether climate change is real, do you think that we could at least agree that our rate of consumption is not sustainable and that our actions impact our earth and thus our health and security?

Posted by: Beth on 21 Nov 08

I know not everyone believes that global warming is real. But the fact is, it is real. Now you can point to the fact that this sort of thing happens naturally and you are sort of right but here's the problem. CO2 levels are higher than they have been in 600,000 YEARS!!! And in that amount of time we've had what is it five, six ice ages. Even if all the man made sources of pollution stopped tomorrow we would still see increase in the global average temperature and change in climate for the next 200 years. Our Grandchildren are going to look on us with anger and disqust for us behaving so irresponsibly in the face of the greatest threat to man-kind in history. Who would dare think of betraying our god given right to destroy the world? Who dare think that destroying the earth would hurt us too? These numbers aren't made up people. We are past the questioning phase. We need solutions and we need them now.

Posted by: Cullen Kappel on 23 Nov 08

The passive response of the common people to the Global warming/Climate change is mostly because they have lost faith in the scientific community as they read cotradicting reports appearing day in and dayout and are baffled by these statements and finally decided to ignore since they have to manage their demanding current situation rather than worrying about the future happenings. Secondly people are fed up with the balme game adopted by the developed and undeveloped countries and indecissions of the many international forums. It is generally felt that the heads of States or their representetives meet once in a while to exchange personal greetings at the cost of common man. Several hundred meetings have taken place over a period and nothing concrete has been achieved. If achieved, action taken/its impact is not felt. It is time effrective steps are initiated from the ground level instead of wasting money and time on conferences/seminars/meeting of heads of
States etc.All that money can be pumped for real action

Posted by: kskarnic on 23 Nov 08

The evidence is coming in from social, cognitive and brain scientists all over that words matter, that what we say and how we say it can make THE difference between human flourishing and the withering of humanity on Earth.

Social scientists may find creating moving messages "tough" for the simple reason that they are scientists, not artists, storytellers, poets, writers.

But we must not take their creative verbal limits and generalize them to how 'tough' and 'difficult' it is for those of us who are not scientists to create words to save our world.

Bless you, scientists, for telling us how important the poets are to human life.

Now, bring on the metaphor makers!

Posted by: MimiK on 23 Nov 08

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