Op-Ed: Why the wiring of our brains makes it hard to stop climate change

Pedestrians walk in a flooded street as Tropical Storm Irma hits Charleston, S.C. on Sept. 11.
Pedestrians walk in a flooded street as Tropical Storm Irma hits Charleston, S.C. on Sept. 11.
(Mic Smith / Associated Press)

Houston has barely begun to dry out from Hurricane Harvey, and Florida faces a massive rebuilding effort after the Irma catastrophe. These two storms, among the most powerful in American history, are typical of the extreme weather events that are likely to become more common as the planet warms. A third hurricane, Jose, waits offshore and the storm season is far from done.

So why isn’t the public heeding scientists and demanding climate action by politicians that could help deal with these destructive extremes? You can point fingers at the influence of fossil fuel companies, at misinformation from climate deniers and at political obstructionism, notably from a fragmented Republican party. But a much deeper force is also at work: the way our brains function.

Humans aren’t well wired to act on complex statistical risks. We care a lot more about the tangible present than the distant future. Many of us do that to the extreme — what behavioral scientists call hyperbolic discounting — which makes it particularly hard to grapple with something like climate change, where the biggest dangers are yet to come.


Humans aren’t wired to act on complex statistical risks very well. We care a lot more about the tangible present than the distant future.

Our mental space is limited and we aren’t primed to focus on abstruse topics. Except for a small fraction that are highly motivated, most voters know little about the ins and outs of climate change, or the policy options relating to it. Instead, voters’ opinions about such things derive from heuristics such as political party affiliation and basic ideology.

It isn’t surprising, then, that most people don’t process information about extreme events the way scientists do. And they don’t do a good job of holding politicians accountable when the effects of political inaction are far removed from the policy failures that cause them.

The arrival of extreme events — hurricanes, wildfires, drought and torrential deluges — is not proof to many people that scientists are right and that a complete rethinking of climate policy is overdue. Instead, voters see these shocks more as evidence that things are out of whack. Change is needed, and voters deliver that verdict not by reevaluating policy but by casting politicians out of office.

Political scientists call such decision-making retrospective voting, and it too is rooted in how the brain deals with complex topics. It seems less than rational, but for busy voters, focusing on immediate, visible results and situations is a practical way to assess politicians, even if those results and situations are many steps removed from elected leaders’ actual responsibilities.

When it comes to climate change, this sort of brain-driven behavior tends to create churn in political leadership rather than the continuity needed for long-term planning. It ejects whoever happens to be in office, rather than the real culprits. It doesn’t help that when politicians know they are at risk of losing office due to disasters, they may pursue quick payoffs, neglecting longer-term policies like those needed for emissions mitigation and climate adaptation.


California’s climate actions prove there can be exceptions to these rules. But what matters for global warming is ultimately what happens across the nation and the planet. Overall, the politics of controlling emissions, especially given the time horizons we face, will continue to bring out the worst in how we make important policy decisions.

Quick, deep cuts in emissions would impose high costs on existing well-organized interest groups for benefits that will be diffused across all nations and that will accrue mainly in the distant future. Failing at emissions control, we will have to grapple with the politics of adaptation — abandoning vulnerable regions and subsidizing the construction of various forms of protection, like sea walls to deal with worsening storm surges.

Voters consistently report being worried about climate change. But asked to rank their priorities, they rarely put climate policy high on the list. Nor does the public indicate that it is willing to spend what is needed to address the problem. What voters know is mixed, muddled and sparse.

This grim analysis explains why political systems will always be playing catch-up. Even with the conspicuous signals of regular extreme events, public support for the policies needed to stop global warming will be fleeting. But that realization can also inspire new policy strategies that are better wired for our political brains.

First, investments in technology can help immensely because they lower the cost of reducing emissions, making change appear less costly and easier to adopt. New energy technologies also create new interest groups that can help keep policy makers focused on controlling emissions when voters’ minds drift.


Second, we’re likely to do better with policies that generate immediate and tangible benefits. A good example is efforts to control soot — a potent warming pollutant and also a central ingredient in noxious local air pollution. Even countries and societies that care little about global goals find it in their self-interest to protect the air their citizens breathe.

Third, our political institutions can help people focus on the long view by surveying climate impacts on a regular basis, so that each extreme storm is less a novel event and more a part of a pattern that needs sustained policy attention. One model is California’s program of localized climate assessments that inform decisions about land-use planning and development. Another is the Obama administration’s regular, nationwide assessments, which are at risk of termination under President Trump.

Our brains are unfortunately not wired to tackle problems like climate change. With some help we can build policies that enable us to do better. What the storms in the Gulf and Atlantic are reminding the public — for now, if not for long— is that the consequences of failure are big.

David G. Victor is a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy and codirector of the Initiative on Energy and Climate at the Brookings Institution. Nick Obradovich is a research scientist at MIT’s Media Laboratory. Dillon J. Amaya is a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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