One of the least-explored but most revealing things about the climate change debate (such as it is) is the intersection of climate science and psychology. I have yet to see anything from psychologists that sheds any light on the debate more than it merely exacerbates its problems. And I have yet to encounter a psychologist who seems able to take criticism, and who is not, let us say ‘attached’ to a particular outcome of that debate. In the Guardian yesterday, Oliver Burkeman writes,
At yesterday’s summit in Bavaria, the G7 leading industrial nations agreed to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. It’s easy to be cynical about these things, but these official goals really matter. And one big reason is this: in the absence of intergovernmental action, we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.
My problem with the G7’s new goal is the same as it is with any supranational organisation’s pronouncement: where is your mandate? Briefly, it seems to me that climate change allows the construction of political institutions and the accretion of power above democratic oversight. To some, that looks like a conspiracy theory. But there’s nothing secret about it: it is all done in plain sight. There is no secret about the intention to build supranational organisations to tackle seemingly “global problems” that would be intractable under normal politics, by which I mean sovereign national democratic governments. And it is no secret that these organisations make more of the issue of climate change than either the man-in-the-street or the governments themselves make. A simple thought experiment suffices: would the UN or the EU, or for that matter, organisations like The World Economic Forum, World Bank and NGOs be any smaller, were climate change never to have presented itself? I think not. And yet this process of institution-building goes on, largely unchallenged, or even unquestioned. I find that odd.
In fact, if a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change. We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.
All of these premises strike me as problematic, if not flat-out wrong. Are they a damning indictment of human’s faculties? Or are they a justification for psychologists seeking a slice of political action? All political ideas — ideas about how society ought to be organised, if it is to be organised at all — begin with a conception of humans, whether that be an explicit or implicit declaration. Burkeman’s claim is the one that we are familiar with: individuals are not competent to make decisions about their own future when faced with a problem such as climate change:
And should it dawn on us that our behaviours don’t match our beliefs – that we’re not doing our bit to save the planet, even though we think we should – we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change) than the behaviour (flying less, having fewer children).
This principle gives the title to Burkeman’s article: “We’re all climate change deniers at heart“. Accordingly, he proposes a system of mechanisms which produce “climate change denial”, which he takes from George Marshall and Daniel Kahneman
In one strikingly depressing scene in his recent book Don’t Even Think About It, climate change activist George Marshall interviews the Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the leading scholar of cognitive biases, and tries to nudge him into saying that understanding our brains’ limitations will, at the very least, make it easier to overcome them. “I’m not very optimistic about that,” Kahneman replies, despondently sipping tomato soup. “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.” The pessimism of experts provides yet another reason to pay attention to something else, anything else, instead of climate change: why choose to spend your days feeling relentlessly depressed?
Such is the climate psychologist’s burden…
Even once you grasp that people in general are terrible at responding to a threat such as climate change, though, there’s another hurdle: it remains much harder to accept how far you’re prone to such psychological pitfalls yourself. (This bias against perceiving your own bias has its own label: the bias blind spot.) It’s easy enough for any of us who aren’t climate-change deniers to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of them: they’re mired in denial and defence mechanisms, busily constructing online communities of like-minded people to help shield themselves from guilt, from accepting the need for personal sacrifices, or from contemplating their mortality. It’s much more difficult to accept that, in a subtler sense, you might be a climate change denier yourself. But the drive to eliminate cognitive dissonance – to rid yourself of the discomfort that comes from holding contradictory beliefs, or failing to act in accordance with your beliefs – is an awesomely powerful thing.
Personally I lean more towards Kahneman’s pessimism. Yet the same self-questioning stance surely demands that I acknowledge even pessimism has its selfish payoffs: if there’s nothing to be done, I might as well not bother trying to do anything. Despair can be a kind of denialism, too.
Of course, this blog is about building an online community of like-minded people, to help shield us from guilt, and from the need to accept my own personal sacrifice, and to defer my inevitable mortality… So I would say this… But what I think is interesting is just how terribly limited Burkeman’s injunction is. He seems to want his fellow climate concerned to reflect on themselves to the extent to which it would reveal that they are some kind of climate change deniers (though he believes that this is ultimately doomed to fail, along with the human race, in Thermageddon). But he doesn’t seem willing to reflect on the opposite: the extent to which he needs climate change to make his opening statement, praising the G7 for their statement on abolishing the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century… “these official goals really matter… we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.”
Why aren’t we free to interrogate official thinking? Why is psychology limited to interrogating the individual mind, to establish its limits, and not official thinking? I am amazed that psychologists have not been more forthcoming in this respect, to criticise the climate psychologists, if not the alarmists. After all, it is not as if there is no precedent for asking questions about the authority of the psychological sciences, as this short film about David Rosenhan’s famous experiment shows:
The problem of being sane in insane places, then, is that you cannot speak about the use of psychiatric labels where they are not appropriate. Accordingly, we cannot speak about the problems of climate science, or climate policy, or environmentalism without betraying our psychological inclinations such as ‘cognitive dissonance’, to avoid facing sacrifice or mortality. And it’s not until we accept the authority of official pronouncements on our condition that we are to be released from the climate mental ward, into the limited freedom outside it, which has been designed according to the exact same specification and principles as the hospital.
But unpacking the problem reveals much more about the psychological sciences — to the extent that they are attached to the climate issue — than it reveals about the psychology of individual ‘deniers’. The psychologist is not a climate scientist. As such, he can only measure the sanity of his patient against his own understanding of climate science (or policy).
In other words, psychology has to borrow its authority from climate science. And it is not until it has borrowed this authority from climate science that it can identify problems lumped under the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, to give it not just political significance, but global political significance.
So why isn’t psychology — as a science — able to produce it’s own authority, per the Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba, ‘on the word of no one’? If mathematical proof depended on axioms supplied by cellular biology, we would wonder about mathematics. But very few questions seem to be asked when psychologists pronounce on the limitations of individual’s psychology, based on their own understanding of climate science: the ‘facts’ it supplies to them, such that they can detect ‘cognitive dissonance’.
One answer is Rosenhan’s experiment. Of course, that experiment was about psychiatry, rather than psychology as such. But the experiment is pertinent. The ambition of understanding the human mind and its shortcomings is not matched by the results produced by this branch of psychology. Nobody needed science to tell us that to err is human, nor that answering questions of perspective are confounded by perspective itself.
Call me a psychology sceptic, then, before you call me a climate change sceptic. New sciences make big claims about how understanding the object of their studies will transform the world. But these big claims invariably seem to be invested in by politics than by those of us who labour in our misapprehensions of the world, and our cognitive dissonance. Be they sociologists, eugenicists, Malthusians, cyberticians, memeticians or technocrats, the positivists’ dream is our recurring nightmare. Sciences are invented and reinvented, to reorganise political priorities, away from our befuddled minds.
It would be harder to say all this if the promise made by the G7 was not to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels by 2100, but to instead focus attempts to make such a thing possible. This was the point discussed in the previous post — the UK’s self-appointed climate aristocrats who want $150 billion to make wind and solar power economically competitive with coal. Yet even with that impulse, there is a problem. They presuppose the feasibility of the objective, and rule out the alternatives, be they low carbon or not, such as nuclear fission and fusion, distorting the research agenda, and depriving other experimental pathways of budgets. They ‘pick winners’, in other words, while enriching those techniques whose advocates have made the biggest claims. It is as if all we need to do to work out what the price of one form of energy will be in the future is find the relationship between R&D expenditure and the price signal, and extrapolate it into the future… And voila!…
So what happens if we are allowed to interrogate the psychology of the climate artistocrats and climate shrinks? The big claims that were made by psychologists in the twentieth century caused it to fall out of favour, and to lose its authority — in contrast to big, sexy science like high energy physics, which still promises to discover the ‘god particle’, no less. Meanwhile, researchers were increasingly made to prove their relevance to society — ‘impact’ — rather than to investigate the material world merely as an end in itself. I believe that the result is an ugly, self-serving compact between scientific institutions and politics. The antipathy towards humans, and the low estimation of their faculties expressed by those who embrace this nexus of psychological and climate science is the even uglier chimera of this union. It seems that weak science can multiply itself, and to amplify its message by teaming up with another weak science in the service of a political agenda.
After I tweeted about Burkeman’s post yesterday, some wag tweeted back,
Yeah. Shame your grandchildren won’t get to vote on your stupidity – I know how they’d vote..
The implication is, of course, that it is my (non-existent) children’s (non-existent) children who will suffer the consequences of my stupidy — climate change. Yet I am confident that future generations should be able to vote, as much as they should be able judge my words for themselves, not to have some climate academic limit their vote, and to rule out their judgement as cognitive dissonance.
The point of climate change psychology — much more than climate science — is to protect the political establishment from such judgement in the present. It is a form of consensus enforcement, and debate policing.
It is through debate that the shortcomings of individuals can be overcome, and some kind of synthesis produced out of profound disagreements achieved. So we don’t need some psychological toolkit to examine our own psychologies. And we do not need climate psychologists to point these shortcomings out. This is the dynamic that makes science possible, after all. But climate change psychology aims to rule out inconvenient perspectives, to exclude them from debate, such that only officially-sanctioned opinion is allowed to have any consequence.
The interesting phenomena in the climate debate is not ‘cognitive dissonance’, but the emergence of academic disciplines like climate change psychology. Rather than people checking themselves for latent climate change denialism, it is these werido academics, their claims and their institutions which need to be interrogated. They take themselves as planet-savers at face value, of course, but why should we?