“I CAN’T SAY HOW MUCH I WOULD LOVE TO BE WRONG ABOUT IT. I REALLY HONESTLY WISH THAT CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS WERE RIGHT.”
For people who spend their professional lives modeling our planet’s potential futures under catastrophic climate change, the present is a dark time. The Paris Accord, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document that is as close as we have managed to come to a global (voluntary) consensus on capping carbon emissions that might prevent a permanent temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, has recently come under increased criticism from many climate scientists for its flawed methodologies. The Paris Accord is largely dependent on “negative emissions strategies” that will remove carbon dioxide from the air to keep us under 2 degrees of warming. But these technologies do not yet exist, have never been tested at anything approaching scale, and may never be viable—either practically, or economically. A recent paper published in Science found that our slow adaption of carbon neutral energy alternatives to fossil fuels—the step that is absolutely necessary and doesn’t include relying on removing carbon from the atmosphere, somehow—at the going rate, will take us 400 years to replace our current carbon economy.
Doing this doesn’t mean only finding ways to make cars and transport greener (itself an enormous challenge), but vastly reducing our reliance on mass agriculture (particularly meat), on textiles, on 24/7 refrigeration and electricity generated by fossil fuels, diesel-fueled global shipping and trade, aviation, the production of cement and the smelting of minerals for construction materials and electronics components, including batteries.
At the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, a think tank which grew out of the RAND Corporation, researchers are considering the many factors that are stymying our collective political ability to address global warming in time to mitigate the worst of its forecast effects that will be felt much sooner than 400 years from now, but rather in the next 20-30 years: ocean acidification, clean water shortages, wildfires, sea level rise, desertification, resource depletion, crop die-offs and the mass migration that will result from millions of people no longer having access to life-sustaining, arable lands. In 2014 the Pentagon identified climate change as the number one emergent threat to global security.
One area of this research at the Institute is the psychology of climate change. This work holds that cognitively, it is very difficult for our minds to grasp timescales beyond the immediate short term, and equally as difficult is to understand our individual role inside the larger systems of carbon-fueled capitalism. To consider long-term futures is not hardwired into us, something which makes taking the necessary action to avoid the worst possible climate future in time extraordinarily difficult. Not only on the global, interconnected political scale, but on the scale of our individual daily choices, especially about our consumption habits. For us to cognitively consider information which we find to be unpleasant has not been a strong suit of our psychology, either. All of which has come to form our current perfect storm of climate inaction.
Jamais Cascio is a writer and futurist at the IFTF who considers these elements of human psychology in the attempt to find ways to change how we view our future and our agency within it. He does this often through thought experiments which bring the overwhelming scale of complex systems down to the individual level, perhaps most famously when he traced the carbon footprint of a single cheeseburger in a mass market chain (it’s is a lot: 4.35 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per burger.) To make it clear, then: the greenhouse gas emissions arising every year from the production and consumption of American cheeseburgers is roughly the amount emitted by 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs. There are now approximately 16 million SUVs currently on the road in the US.
Cascio’s hope is that changing how we fundamentally think will be the way in which we can then change the systems we live in and which have set us on a collision course with catastrophic changes to all life on earth.
THE BELIEVER: Why do human beings have such cognitive difficulty planning for the future?
JAMAIS CASCIO: We didn’t evolve to recognize cause and effect that is separated by a large amount of time. We evolved to do really good short term estimations, like, is there an immediate threat to my survival? Parts of our brains evolved for these kinds of short-term estimations because they can be really useful. Long-term forecasts are not things that were evolutionarily useful because they don’t help you, say, reproduce, in the immediate term. I think of it as a “long lag” problem: we’re not good at recognizing cause and effect beyond the immediate term. Cognitively, we need to see immediate evidence of something to act on it immediately. This tendency will be a major problem, even if we are successful in addressing climate change.
BLVR: How so?
JC: Because there is a systemic lag between putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes to temperature. Imagine that we have managed to do what we have to do in order to avoid catastrophic change; we have upended our capitalist economies, we give up transatlantic flights, stop eating mass produced meat, stop driving, emissions are zero, and then nothing happens. Nothing changes. We will still see temperatures rise for decades or longer, even if we succeeded right now.
Think of the political energy that goes into affecting systemic change at the level that will be required, and then for that to be the result. Politically, it’s terrifying. You’re asking people to think, “It’s not going to be great for you, but it could be great for your grandchildren.” That’s what you’re asking. Nothing will seem to have changed in the immediate term, so all our shortfalls of short term thinking will rear their heads again.
BLVR: So long-term thinking, in the West at least, has not been a strong part of our foundation for our society?
JC: We’ve come to rely on big formal institutions to do our long-term thinking for us, from the university to religion, things that have helped us create a multi-generational perspective. But over recent decades we as a civilization have started to lose trust in a lot of our institutions. A lot of people around the world simply don’t trust experts anymore. So this is a frustrating moment for people who do want to think about the long-term future of the planet, particularly the climate, because we don’t have the mechanisms that people trust.
The things that people do trust tend to not be very good at providing a long-term perspective. You add things like market capitalism that tend towards the short term, profit-making perspective. And also we have developed really good ways of stimulating endorphins in our brains, of making ourselves feel good. And these things tend to distract us from the things that we should do, but that aren’t enjoyable. Like thinking about the future.
BLVR: At that point are there other cognitive traps we could fall into when considering our climate future?
JC: The scary thing about a crisis is that it makes people desperate, and they take desperate actions. And that’s when we could see political solutions like geo-engineering implemented, which is something that if we did it, we would have no idea how to control it. If we start to think that putting crap in the stratosphere would allow more people (on a global scale) to survive, can that withstand the perspective of, “No, we can’t do that, we don’t know what’s going to happen if we do,”?
BLVR: Considering our inability to act unless we see evidence of cause and effect right in front of us, do you have any hope that we will see action before we’re at the crisis point, or is hitting the crisis point going to be what it takes to spur action?
JC: I really want to say that I think we can move faster than we need to, but I can’t. I really do think it will take the appearance of a crisis, something that becomes the most talked about thing all the time, for action to take place. I think that will be something that includes drought, and crop failure, and mass migration, and wild fires, and storm damage and flooding. The kind of crisis that could be catalytic will be something on a scale that can’t be ignored.
BLVR: How much do you think our paralysis to act is affected by forecasts for these kinds of really devastating changes being always fifteen or twenty years or more from now? The lag that you talked about. Are we tricked into thinking that’s long enough for someone, somewhere to somehow fix everything?
JC: Yes, and I think particularly if they are people very into the world of high-tech. If they love their latest gadgets, and they’ve seen over the years technology getting a lot better a lot faster than anyone thought was possible. When we see technology all around us getting better and better, people start to think that the people who invented these technologies are brilliant, and so of course they’ll fix global warming!
People also can’t see how they as individuals could make any meaningful difference. They think, “I can’t spend all my time thinking about this because I can’t do anything about it myself and there are brilliant people who are going to fix it.” It’s like a release valve.
BLVR: There’s increasing numbers of people who have decided that they aren’t going to have children because of the existential threat of climate change, and I count myself among those people. It’s not something I know how to rationalize feeling okay about, bringing someone into this uncertain future who has no choice about it
JC: I’m about to turn 52, and my wife and I decided a long time ago that we aren’t going to have children, and every time I see another headline about global warming I’m so relieved and glad that we decided that. I don’t want to raise kids in this kind of environment.
BLVR: People become very viscerally upset about this conversation, I think because it goes so firmly against most people’s concept of what it means to be a human being, against the entire history of our species and our strongest instincts
JC: When you look at something this big and this massive and you realize the kinds of changes that are going to be necessary and you realize how little the individual is going to be able to do to affect a global system, it gets really depressing. Think about people with kids, people very busy with their jobs and lives, do they really have the time to sit down and think through every permutation of the global climate crisis? They don’t, you can’t do that and still function. It’s just too big for any one person with so much near term stuff to worry about. Getting your kids to school every day is a much more pressing question than how I personally help address climate change.
BLVR: Sometimes thinking about this so much makes me wonder if I’m just totally wrong and this isn’t going to happen and I’m not sane about it and everyone else is right not to worry so much
JC: I can’t say how much I would love to be wrong about it. I really honestly wish that climate change deniers were right. I’d take it all being a giant left-wing conspiracy over it being real any second, because the reality is going to be so awful, for so many people. At first it’s going to be for people in parts of the world who’ve done nothing to deserve it, who didn’t contribute to it. And it’s so depressing and it’s just so deeply sad. We’ll be regularly talking about millions of people dying. And it’s hard to wrap your head around that.
BLVR: It feels like denial was so much a part of human survival, up until now. That it was initially very helpful to our survival in letting us power through dangerous places and take risks that were necessary, but that now it’s tipped over to a place where it’s maladaptive, and now we’re trapped by a sense of denial of how big the climate problem really is. That we’re sowing the seeds of our own downfall with this much denial that has become so unhelpful.
JC: Very much so, I agree with that premise. Denial is protection. It’s cognitive protection. Because even if you just think through the possible outcomes, it makes you feel like screaming. It’s just so big. It’s a tidal wave. How do you change it? You deny it until you have to climb up on the roof. To accept it and embrace it is to accept that the tsunami is upon us.
BLVR: Thinking about the scale of the problem, the complexity of interconnected systems on earth, whether political or economic or climatic weather systems themselves, and how dire the consequences will be, can people be prevented from falling into abject despair and doing nothing? Is there a line somewhere between total fatalism and having hope, but not the kind of hope that is rooted in denial (someone else will fix it!)?
JC: [Laughs] Whiskey?
I think the way you find a better state of mind is to think that I can act, as an individual, on the local level. I can act. I can make choices in my community, in my family, that will affect change eventually. I think agency, the sense of having the capacity to make choices for yourself, is critical. A sense of agency is so important to our sense of individual, psychological wellbeing.
Changes on the political level could happen relatively soon. Because, demographically it’s going to. Young people, people who were born in the 21st century, are standing up and having a voice and making clear what is no longer acceptable. There are young people coming up who see this as a real problem and who are willing to act. They see things happening that are very hard to ignore. But translating political change to active measures is going to be difficult.
BLVR: Is there a hopeful note here somewhere?
JC: We do have what we need to fix this. It’s not a situation where we don’t know what we have to do. We have to change the entire energy system on the planet, the entire growth model of capitalism. We do know what to do. It’s a matter of implementing those solutions, not coming up with them. It’s if we can summon the political will. And that puts us many, many steps ahead. It’s implementing them that’s going to be incredibly hard. But it’s not impossible.