Monday, July 03, 2006

Global warming lacks a mustache

For complicated reasons, I suspect that this editorial was emailed to me by accident, but it's a pretty thought-provoking and worthwhile read nonetheless. The author, Harvard psych professor Daniel Gilbert, examines the reasons why people find the (small) threat of terrorism to be a much more serious cause for concern than the (huge) threat of climate change. Check out this great lede:
No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.
It's a catchily-written article, and most of the factors that the author describes are very sensible. For instance, global warming doesn't have a human face; it lacks agency, so we don't fear it the way we fear something backed up by a conscious desire to harm. (In fact global warming does have a face, and it's the face of big business and American government -- but if you try to address the agency behind the change, people accuse you of tinfoil-hat moonbatism, so fair enough.) We're also undermotivated because global warming is a future threat, not an immediate one. And then there's the classic "frog in the boiling water" explanation: if change happens gradually enough, you don't notice. It's too bad about that frog analogy, which Gilbert wisely does not invoke (Al Gore did, but acquitted himself by plucking the cartoon frog out of the water at the last moment and putting it on a little beach chair, hurrah!). I don't even know if it's true that you can boil a frog in this manner, and regardless, it pushes the whole thing into the realm of cliche -- which is a serious problem, because this is a serious blind spot:
Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.
Very easy to say "oh, the storms are no worse than last year." Kind of a shocker when you realize that last year was also part of a long and hideous decline.

I've got a few quibbles with the article. First, it doesn't say anything we don't already know -- similar to critiques of An Inconvenient Truth, though I think that particular preaching would have pretty good reception outside the choir, if we could just get non-choirboys to listen to it. Second, there's the fact that it purports to contrast responses to terrorism with responses to global climate change, but still uses the argument that "people are quick to respond to clear and present danger"; the contrast here is muddy at best, now that even the Gov has finally given up on pretending that terrorists will blow up Peoria tomorrow. But most particularly, I have a problem with Gilbert's constant use of the second person plural. In addition to the points above, Gilbert argues that global warming is treated as a non-issue because it doesn't offend our sensibilities:
The second reason why global warming doesn't put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.
Sorry, but I just saw An Inconvenient Truth last week, and I am morally offended. (I would have been morally offended earlier if I knew how acute and profound the problem was.) Inaction, in this case, is an idea I find indecent and repulsive. I think a lot of us do. And there are certainly people of whom it can be said that global warming "doesn't violate [their] moral sensibilities," but damned if I'm going to be lumped in with them.

Of course, I realize that there's no delicate way to change that "we" to a "they" in this particular editorial, and I suppose I'm conflating "global warming" with "inaction about global warming" (though really, inaction is a cause and a facilitator, to the degree that they're not substantively different). But I think we should encourage this to become an issue about which people are morally outraged. There may not be a moral outrage perpetrated on people we know right now, and that's a legitimate mental block, but there are grievous outrages perpetrated on people not far in the future, people we might even live to see. (Actually, there are moral outrages perpetrated on people right now -- the people whose homes and families have been destroyed by unusually violent weather patterns -- but those people are poor and usually nonwhite, so we can't expect them to motivate the current administration.)

Basically, here's what I'm trying to say. First, read the article, because it's amusing. Second, evolve. Gilbert gives an accurate portrayal of the inherent cognitive biases that allow us to have skewed views of danger. This is how human minds work, okay. But another way that human minds work is that they don't have to be constrained by "how human minds work." Rise above it. Fear the agency behind inaction, since there's no agency behind the thing itself. Notice gradual change. Comprehend non-immediate threats. And get outraged at all of it.

Footnote about that frog in An Inconvenient Truth: seriously, you do not know how glad I was that the frog got rescued. That made the film for me. I am keenly sensitive about the fates of vaguely anthropomorphic animals. Dan's gotten to be an expert at saying "the whale/bunny/lemur/axolotl was fine, it got rescued" as soon as he hears the distinctive "animal in jeopardy" wail. There are meat-eaters who defend themselves by saying that they know what's involved in slaughtering animals and they find it to be ennobling or natural or whatever. Not me. If I lived on a farm I would never eat meat again.

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