Although people like to think of humans as being rational, paradoxical behaviours are common in our world; a smoking doctor, parents loving their children but not using vaccines which were invented to save their lives, or people who think that owning a gun makes the world a safer place.
One of the most dramatic paradoxes relates to climate change: we tell our children we love them and while doing so, we actively decide to live a life that loads their future with unprecedented tragedy, pain and destruction. We believe in economic growth and prosperity but destroy the life-supporting systems enabling all of this. People can get so uncomfortably entangled in such paradoxes that their only response option is denial.
And while such cases may seem irrational and strange, they are most common to the human psyche. In order to grasp the root causes for why there is so little climate action compared to so much talk on the need for it, it is the human psyche and its development over millions of years, which must be put at the forefront of our quest for answers. The science about climate change has been clear for many years. If we don’t decouple our economic activities from emissions and if we don’t set up resilient socioeconomic structures, humans may most likely be deprived of everything they worship: peace, wealth, safety and comfort.
So far, societies around the globe have not yet found an answer to the worsening conditions on this planet that would comfortably accommodate to our faith in reason. The science behind reason has also been clear for many years. Abundant studies, such as some work of the French psychologist Julie Mercier, have shown that reason is an evolving trait, which emerged at a time in which humans had to master survival on the African savanna. Seen in this context, reason developed as a means to manage short-term day-to-day priorities and is thus unfitting to human nature when it comes to resolving abstract, data-driven, long-term challenges. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that when faced with long-term challenges, people behave totally irrationally.
One of the biggest challenges for humans to behave rationally lies in our so-called confirmation bias: people tend to systematically favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs by gathering or remembering information selectively. This effect is especially evident in emotionally charged issues, such as climate change as a counterargument to consumption-led lifestyles, fossil-fueled economies and the belief in endless growth. It has even been shown that through a rush of dopamine, people experience genuine pleasure when processing information that supports their beliefs. Confirmation bias leads to people interpreting ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position, which explains the rise in attitude polarisation, believe perseverance and other irrational behaviours getting in our way to respond to climate change. Capitalism has strengthened a belief in technology as the silver bullet for all kinds of problems.
Being prone to confirmation bias, the loud and passionate speeches of many economic and political leaders about technology as our saviour may thus not represent true progress but a defence of pre-existing beliefs and attitudes against a truly powerful approach towards climate mitigation, which would — next to green technologies — entail inconvenient truths about drastic behaviour and mindset changes.
Contrary evidence and irrational belief
Counterintuitively, additional information and pontification as the reaction of climate activists exacerbate such a polarisation: many experiments have shown that under the circumstance of confirmation bias, contrary evidence strengthens pre-existing beliefs and as a result, poor decisions are being made.
It is this reflection of reason that leads us to take a step back and consider our current cultural response to climate-related challenges through a new lens: given that reason can’t be equalled with an ability of being rational about climate change, is a sole focus on rational technological solutions to climate change as realistic and adequate as it might seem? And is there a link between our irrational belief in reason and the paradoxes stemming from so little action compared to so much talk on the need for climate action? Such questions trigger a curiosity to take an even deeper dive into the human psyche and its pitfalls when it comes to adequately respond to global warming.