If we can’t manage a pandemic, how will we ever manage climate change?

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report (due in its entirety in 2022), and its strongest warnings to date about the dire challenges of global warming. And yet, compelling as the case is for concerted global action to reduce carbon emissions and put into place more sustainable practices, there is a near-insurmountable problem standing between us and effective climate solutions: People.

The IPCC’s latest report dives deep into the physical basis for human-driven climate change and its consequences, and states unequivocally based on the evidence that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” and as a result “[w]idespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

This is a startlingly bold statement coming from the IPCC, which represents a broad coalition of international scientists and governments and tends to avoid strong statements without compelling supporting evidence. And yet it’s hardly surprising to anyone who has been following climate science for the past thirty-plus years, or who has even a basic appreciation of cause and effect.

This is not to undermine the importance of the IPCC’s work — far from it. But the reality is that science and data are insufficient on their own to drive actions that will, in turn, curb the adverse impacts of climate change and lead to a more stable, sustainable and healthy future. This was abundantly clear in a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the science of science communication I was a part of, which noted that “[p]eople rarely make decisions based only on scientific information; they typically also take into account their own goals and needs, knowledge and skills, and values and beliefs.”

The “problem” with people

The challenge is, no matter how rational or “scientific” we believe we are, we are all deeply influenced by our instinct to act in what we perceive to be our own short-term best interests, whether these revolve around access to food, shelter and warmth, the safety of loved ones, the exercise of power, respect and acceptance from others, our sense of identity, agency and dignity, or many other hard to quantify yet critically important aspects of what makes us who we are.

We’re seeing this instinct playing out in real-time with covid-19 where, despite compelling evidence, individuals, communities and even governing bodies are actively undermining efforts to control the spread of the virus as they prioritize self-interest over societal interest. Of course, much of this is wrapped up in a flimsy cloak of seeming-rationality that emphasizes short-term economic gains and personal freedom (amongst other things) over long-term social benefits. And yet from vicious personal attacks to laws blocking effective risk mitigation strategies, we are seeing just how hard it is to act together to counter a common threat that should be a walk in the park compared to climate change.

Of course, it’s easy here to divide the world up into “progressives and “regressives” — those who are, by our own personal standards, “right-thinking” or “wrong-thinking.” And yet, the same instincts that lead someone to question the safety of vaccines, or the importance of wearing masks, are the same as those that, in another person, may lead to them being vehemently pro-vaccines or pro-masks. We are all predisposed to protect what’s of value to us and to rationalize why what we value is important. As a result, the underlying drivers behind someone’s rejection of covid-mitigation strategies are remarkably similar to those that fuel another person’s outspoken advocacy for the selfsame strategies. All that’s different is the context, the worldview, and the webs of rationality we weave around what we strive to protect.

The resulting combination of divergent understandings of “value” and an impressive ability to justify what we believe in makes it incredibly hard to reach consensus on shared actions when more than a handful of people are involved in making and supporting decisions. And the more diverse the group is, the harder it gets. Scale this up to several hundred million people of you’re looking at a nation like the US, or eight billion of your taking a global perspective, and the challenge becomes near-intractable.

And just to make things harder still, what we ultimately hold to be of “value”–and as a consequence worth fighting for–is often less about our ability to think rationally, and more about what we’re biologically inclined to desire.

Anyone who’s tried to lose weight or manage addictive behavior, or even attempted to alter comfortable behavior patterns, knows this all too well. No matter what our politics, our ideologies, our education level, our social status, and more, we gravitate toward pathways and behaviors that our “animal selves” are comfortable with … and then spend a lot of time and energy justifying them.

It’s not that how we think and behave can’t change as individuals–they can. It’s just that it’s extremely difficult for us to do what it takes to bring about lasting change.

The same goes for society as a whole. As with individuals, we follow patterns of group behavior that are more to do with protecting and growing what we instinctively value, and less about what we intellectually think is of value. This is, in part, why it’s been such a struggle to combat covid and why, despite the compelling science, we are unlikely to see substantive action on climate change unless we focus far more on human behavior.

A Bleak Outlook

This is where, I must confess, the future looks pretty bleak to me at times. Certainly, the evidence is compelling that whole communities are going to be severely affected by climate change and its associated impacts on the environment and society more widely. Lives and livelihoods are going to be impacted, and people are going to suffer. But there are precious few examples in history where decisions have been made at scale that favor the long-term good of the many over the short-term gains of the few. The management of nuclear weapons possibly? Maybe regulations around the use of toxic substances? Although even in these cases we’re facing an uncertain future.

Ironically, this is a challenge that is only compounded by the degree to which we value inclusive, democratic governance, while embracing the economics of ideologies, politics, and financial growth. The very freedoms and social systems we embrace in many countries actively hamper taking decisive action in response to clear and present dangers. And as the Earth’s population continues to grow and the geopolitics of global decision-making become increasingly complex, the chances of agreeing as a species on courses of action that potentially rob some people of what they hold dear for the common good are looking increasingly unlikely.

Of course, this is not a reason to shirk our moral obligations to future generations. But if we are serious about ensuring a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, we need to focus on people and the systems they represent: what motivates us, what influences how we behave, how personal and social dynamics lead to system-wide vulnerabilities, and how we can work with what we know–and the values we hold–to build a society that has a promising future.

Our responses to covid-19 demonstrate just how slippery human behavior is, even when faced with a clear and immediate threat. They also demonstrate the futility of assuming that science can and will drive good decision-making as, where you have more than a handful of people with diverse perspectives together, the very meaning of “good” becomes contentious. And while the science community may like to assume they have the high ground here, this very assumption has its roots in the same heuristics that lead others to believe that they are the ones with right on their side.

Re-centering on Society

So what’s the solution? How will we ever tackle climate change if we can’t even get our own lives in order, or handle a pandemic that should never have got as out of hand as it did? What is certain is that we will never succeed by arguing from the perspective of science and risk alone–this simply isn’t how people or society work. Instead, we’re going to have to look for ways of thinking about the future and how we impact it that extend far beyond conventional thinking.

These new ways of thinking are going to have to tackle individual and social behavior, the complex interplay between science and society, and even the nature of government and governance. They may have to challenge values and ideals that are foundational to modern society, yet are unworkable in a world pushed irreversibly beyond critical tipping points. They may even force us to radically re-evaluate the relationship between technology and society, and consider whether we should be collectively pulling back from our technological dependency (if this is even possible — I doubt that it is in a democratic society), or empowering tech to make decisions for us (imagine a future where global governance is overseen by intelligent machines for instance). And they will have to start from a position of acknowledging who we are and how we behave as a species, rather than how we imagine we are, and how we think we behave. Because perhaps one of our greatest weaknesses is our capacity for self-delusion when it comes to thinking about the future, no matter who we are.

The bottom line is, despite the devastating projections of how climate change is likely impact us, we’re going to need to get a lot better at understanding people as well as the planet we live on if we want to ensure a more vibrant future. And even then, it’s going to be touch and go whether we can rise above the behaviors that simultaneously make us who we are, and threaten to rob us of who we might become.

Andrew Maynard
Director, ASU Future of Being Human initiative
Substack: The Future of Being Human