Climate change is latest problem that's admitted but ignored

A television ad shows wildlife calling senators about climate change. The message: People should call, too. (World Wildlife Fund)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To a psychologist, climate change looks as if it was designed to be ignored.

It is a global problem, with no obvious villains and no one-step solutions, whose worst effects seem as if they'll befall somebody else at some other time. In short, if someone set out to draw up a problem that people would not care about, one expert on human behavior said, it would look exactly like climate change.

That's the upshot of a spate of new research that tries to explain stalled U.S. efforts to combat greenhouse-gas emissions by putting the country on the couch.

Polls -- including one last month -- indicate that a sizable, though shrinking, number of Americans believe climate change is happening. Most of those people think it is a "serious" problem. So, rationally, shouldn't they be doing more to fight it?

The problem, many psychologists say, is the "rationally."

Those who are concerned that a real problem is being left unaddressed have called for a change in the way that green groups talk about climate, which has traditionally been heavy on warnings about drought and stranded polar bears. Instead, researchers suggested a new set of back-door appeals, designed essentially to fool people into serving their own -- and the planet's -- best interests.

"We are collectively irrational, in the sense that we should really care about the long-term well-being of the planet but when we get up in the morning it's very hard to motivate ourselves," said Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, who gave a keynote speech last month at a Washington conference devoted to understanding why people don't do more to save energy.

Psychologists studying the issue say that the now-familiar warnings about climate change kick at emotional dead spots in all human brains -- but especially in American brains. Researchers have only theories to explain why people in the United States have done less than those in such places as Europe and Japan. Some think Americans are culturally leery of programs the government might develop to target climate change, trusting instead that the free market will solve major problems.

One U.S. researcher thought television is to blame: All those TV ads have made Americans more focused on their own wants, she theorized, and less likely to care about the long-term good.

No matter where the public's complacency springs from, psychologists have seen this kind of thing before, Ariely said: "That's why we don't exercise, and we overeat, and we bite our fingernails. . . . It's not something where we're going to overcome human nature."

Last month, shortly before Monday's start of an international conference on climate change, the United States and China made pledges to work on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But even these underscored the point that much more remains to be done: The United States offered to cut emissions less than environmentalists say it needs to; China offered to cut in ways it was planning to anyway.

Obstacles to progress

The obstacles to progress -- internationally and in the U.S. Senate, where a climate bill is stalled -- aren't just mental.


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