The Green Urbanist

#15: Psychology of Climate Action

January 17, 2021 Ross O'Ceallaigh
The Green Urbanist
#15: Psychology of Climate Action
Show Notes Transcript

This episode pulls heavily from two excellent books, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac.

I look at the cognitive biases that prevent us from thinking logically and honestly about climate change, and therefore limit our actions, as presented in The Uninhabitable Earth.

Following this I discuss the three "mindsets" put forward in The Future We Choose, that can help us to reframe the problem in our minds and take meaningful action.

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Cognitive Biases
A cognitive bias is a kind of error in thinking that occurs when we are trying to process and make decisions about the world around us. We are, I'm sure you'll agree, not fully rational beings. We don't make all of our decisions based on a logical accounting of pros and cons. In fact we are all subject to various cognitive biases that limit and distort our thinking.

David Wallace-Wells includes a fascinating summary of the various cognitive biases identified by behavioural psychologists that, amongst other things, limit our action on Climate Change.

"There is, to start with, anchoring, which explains how we build mental models around as few as one or two initial examples, no matter how unrepresentative—in the case of global warming, the world we know today, which is reassuringly temperate. There is also the ambiguity effect, which suggests that most people are so uncomfortable contemplating uncertainty, they will accept lesser outcomes in a bargain to avoid dealing with it. In theory, with climate, uncertainty should be an argument for action—much of the ambiguity arises from the range of possible human inputs, a quite concrete prompt we choose to process instead as a riddle, which discourages us.

There is anthropocentric thinking, by which we build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that some especially ruthless environmentalists have derided as “human supremacy” and that surely shapes our ability to apprehend genuinely existential threats to the species—a shortcoming many climate scientists have mocked: “The planet will survive,” they say; “it’s the humans that may not.”

There is automation bias, which describes a preference for algorithmic and other kinds of nonhuman decision making, and also applies to our generations-long deference to market forces as something like an infallible, or at least an unbeatable, overseer. In the case of climate, this has meant trusting that economic systems unencumbered by regulation or restriction would solve the problem of global warming as naturally, as surely as they had solved the problems of pollution, inequality, justice, and conflict.

These biases are drawn only from the A volume of the literature—and are just a sampling of that volume. Among the most destructive effects that appear later in the behavioral economics library are these: the bystander effect, or our tendency to wait for others to act rather than acting ourselves; confirmation bias, by which we seek evidence for what we already understand to be true, such as the promise that human life will endure, rather than endure the cognitive pain of reconceptualizing our world; the default effect, or tendency to choose the present option over alternatives, which is related to the status quo bias, or preference for things as they are, however bad that is, and to the endowment effect, or instinct to demand more to give up something we have than we actually value it (or had paid to acquire or establish it). We have an illusion of control, the behavioral economists tell us, and also suffer from overconfidence and an optimism bias. We also have a pessimism bias, not that it compensates—instead it pushes us to see challenges as predetermined defeats and to hear alarm, perhaps especially on climate, as cries of fatalism. The opposite of a cognitive bias, in other words, is not clear thinking but another cognitive bias. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception."

The author suggests that these cognitive biases are part of the reason we shy away from dealing with the really big drivers of the climate crises, which is the way our societies and economies are structured. This is why many people are pinning their hopes on a capitalism-driven technological solution to climate change, such as carbon sequestration machines, rather than considering as Wallace-Wells puts it, "renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction".

So, it might sound like we're basically doomed. Our own psychology is preventing us from taking the action we need. But it doesn't have to be this way. I want to turn now to another more hopeful book in search of an answer.

The Future We Choose
The Future we Choose is written by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, two of the people responsible for the creation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, which was signed by 197 countries.

The future we choose is not about the technical aspects of how we can reduce emissions but about the mindset we need to create a better future. This is about the need to overcome our cognitive biases and unhelpful thinking patterns and consciously forge a new approach to the climate crisis.  Within the book, the authors put forward three mindsets. These are Stubborn Optimism, Endless Abundance and Radical Regeneration.

Three Mindsets:
Stubborn Optimism
This is about changing our mindset away from one of despair to an optimism that is necessary for taking action. In order to take action on anything we need to hold a certain amount of optimism that our actions will have an impact, otherwise we wouldn't bother. This is the problem that is gripping us right now.

"When it comes to climate change, the vast majority of us have a learned reaction of helplessness. We see the direction the world is headed, and we throw up our hands. Yes, we think, it’s terrible, but it’s so complex and so big and so overwhelming. We can’t do anything to stop it. This learned reaction is not only untrue, it’s become fundamentally irresponsible. If you want to help address climate change, you have to teach yourself a different response."
"You are not powerless. In fact, your every action is suffused with meaning, and you are part of the greatest chapter of human achievement in history. Make this your mental mantra. Take notice of how your mind tries to insist on your helplessness in the face of the challenge and refuses patterns to change."

Optimism is not not about having blind faith in the outcome, it is a necessary input for motivating us to take action and bring about change. Optimism is not a personality trait that we are born with, it is something that we can cultivate. In fact it is an essential element of doing anything meaningful.

"In the face of climate change, we all have to be optimistic, not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable."

Endless Abundance
Moving away from a a mindset of competition and scarcity to one of abundance and cooperation.
A mindset of competition and a zero-sum game has been so ingrained in us that we sometimes see scarcity where non exists and believe that someone else's gain is our loss.

"However, when the resources are actually scarce and getting scarcer, we face a very different situation in making decisions. Contrary to what we might initially think, in circumstances of real (not only perceived) scarcity, our only viable option is collaboration. Fortunately, contrary to what most of us believe, it is the option we human beings tend to adopt, at least under certain circumstances."
"Studies conducted after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, as well as many other disasters around the world, have shown that communities respond overwhelmingly with an altruistic spirit of solidarity under the initial common pain and then collaborate to reconstruct and recover afterwards."

On the challenge of agreeing emissions reductions targets between countries, the authors say:
"A fair outcome is not viable as long as we pursue it from a mindset of scarcity and competition. The state of the planet no longer allows for this mind set because we have reached existential scarcity, limits to the survival of many of the ecosystems that sustain us and that help to maintain safe greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. If the Amazon is destroyed, carbon emissions will rise so high that the entire planet, not only Brazil, will suffer the consequences... 
We are all in the same boat. ...
We all win or lose together."

The solution to this is a shift of mindset away from competition towards shared winning. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions does not mean that you will lose out to other nations that are still burning them, but that we can all benefit individually and collectively from action.

"An increasing number of countries today fully understand that their development in the twenty-first century can and should be clean; that by decarbonising their economies, they can reap the benefits of more jobs, cleaner air, more efficient transportation, more habitable cities and more negate the limitations of a carbon economy; instead, it gives every country a wealth of positive individual and collective reasons to stay within that limit. As one country moves forwards demonstrating the national benefits of clean technologies and policies, others will follow, momentum will be built, and the global rate of decarbonisation will increase, protecting the planet. When we are motivated by a desire for collaboration, we liberate ourselves from the restrictive framing of attaining ‘what I want, or think I need’, and open ourselves up to a broader framing of what is available and possible in many other forms – available to me, but not only to me, to others as well. The realisation of abundance is not an illusory increase in physical resources, but rather an awareness of a broad array of ways to satisfy needs and wants so that everyone is content. In this way resources will be protected and replenished, and the relationships among us are enriched. Endless abundance."

Anyone who thinks that competition is just part of human nature, I would suggest to do some reading into what Anthropologists have learned from Hunter Gatherer groups.
Richard Lee, a Canadian Anthropologist famously described hunter gatherers as "fiercely egalitarian". Their way of life was built on sharing resources and labour, individuals working for the common good of the group. Any individual that was found to be exerting control over others, hoarding resources or even just being overly-boastful was dealt with severely. How is this relevant? Well, remember that hunter gatherers exhibit the only truly sustainable lifestyle amongst humans. Their way of life has been sustained within the bounds of their environmental resources for at least 200,000 years and counting. This mindset could well be part of our human nature.

Speaking of Hunter Gatherers, David Wallace-Wells also discusses them briefly in The Uninhabitable Earth. He says:
"We are still, now, in much of the world, shorter, sicker, and dying younger than our hunter-gatherer forebears, who were also, by the way, much better custodians of the planet on which we all live. And they watched over it for much longer—nearly all of those 200,000 years. That epic era once derided as “prehistory” accounts for about 95 percent of human history. For nearly all of that time, humans traversed the planet but left no meaningful mark. Which makes the history of mark-making—the entire history of civilization, the entire history we know as history—look less like an inevitable crescendo than like an anomaly, or blip. And makes industrialization and economic growth, the two forces that really gave the modern world the hurtling sensation of material progress, a blip inside a blip. A blip inside a blip that has brought us to the brink of a never-ending climate catastrophe."

Radical Regeneration

For the last number of centuries, most human societies have been built on extraction. Extracting resources until the land is bare and barren, then moving on.

"As a species, we have become used to a one-way transaction, that of getting, often losing sight of the void that our taking has created. Our planet can no longer support one-directional growth. We have come to the end of humanity’s extraction road. The time for ‘getting’ is over. Staring us in the face is a huge red sign that reads STOP: PRECIPICE AHEAD. 
Extraction is a propensity deeply ingrained in human behaviour. To move away from extracting and depleting, we need to concentrate on another equally strong and intrinsic trait: our capacity for supporting regeneration"

"A broader interpretation of regeneration is the capacity of a species or a biosystem to recover on its own, once humans remove the pressure they had been exerting. Whale populations and degraded lands are good examples. Grey whales and humpbacks, once decimated by nineteenth-century commercial whaling practices, have now almost recuperated their numbers. The prohibition of whaling shows that if we remove the extractive pressure, animal populations have the ability to rebound (assuming of course we have not driven them to extinction). The same is true for ecosystems, as we can see in photos of ancient ruins abandoned by humans that have been taken over by the surrounding green growth. The recuperation of a flourishing ecosystem around Chernobyl is a great example. With humans gone, the plants started to grow back, supporting worms and fungi that nourished the soil. Birdsong is now abundant and even large mammals like boars and bears have returned. If we remove the pressures we have wielded, nature tends to return to health. The converging crises of climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, desertification and acidification of the oceans have taken us to the point where we can no longer naïvely depend on the Earth’s natural resilience or capacity to recuperate. While nature is innately restorative, regeneration does not always occur completely on its own. Right now, we have almost extinguished nature’s capacity for self-renewal. In many cases, ecosystem restoration requires intentional human intervention, such as rewilding, by which we not only remove the destructive pressure of grazing or unsustainable harvesting but also reintroduce native animals and help nature bounce back, slowly recuperating its rich biodiversity. Planting trees and shrubs in degraded or deforested landscapes is an intentional regenerative process that restores soil health, increases productivity and stabilises underground aquifers."

"[Regeneration] is about understanding that beyond extracting and harvesting what we need from nature, it is our responsibility and in our enlightened self-interest to protect life on this planet, indeed even enhance the planet’s life-giving capacity. Personal and environmental goals are interlinked, mutually reinforcing, and they both need our attention."

This line about it being in our "enlightened self interest" is so important. Regeneration is not about making a sacrifice or being selfless. Regeneration of the natural world is absolutely necessarily for human life on earth and it is in our self interest to promote it. In other words, we would be idiots not to.