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Our Brains Weren’t Made For This – But We’ve Still Got To Use Them

April 20, 2010

As the international community has struggled to take concrete steps to counter the effects of climate change, most recently with the small but not meaningless steps taken at the Copenhagen conference, it has struck me that this challenge is different than any other that has faced human civilization, for two reasons.

First, the negative effects of unmitigated climate change would be catastrophic in degree while also being gradual and diffuse in manifestation. As they should, climate scientists have refrained from making specific claims about the damages that could be caused to humans. Hurricanes and other effects would likely lead to significant human suffering and death. However, to say that an EPA official’s decision to drive instead of bike to work in Washington today will lead to a Sudanese man’s death from drought-caused starvation in 2050 – that is, to tie our current actions to specific concrete effects in the future – is simply beyond the predicative capabilities of any climate model, and would ignore the possibility of, say, a successful global effort begun today by that EPA official which reduced carbon emissions almost completely by 2050.

While climate science in general links current emissions to future suffering, this connection is  so abstract, because of the time frame and physical distance of the effects as well as the collective nature of the cause, that it forces our brains to make decisions of a type we’ve never made before. Previous instances of pollution, such as the polluting of rivers, were similar in one respect – one person’s polluting damaged another person’s health – but were  still exponentially more direct that the effects of climate change. Not too long ago, in evolutionary terms, the main occupation of the human brain was hunting and gathering enough food to make it through the day, or the winter. Now, we’re forced to confront threats to our well-being that are tens or hundreds of times further into the future.

Second, any viable solution to climate change will require an agreement between all nations with greater potential consequences than any other, which has created a prisoner’s dilemma to end all prisoner’s dilemmas. Barring a revolutionary technological advancement that makes carbon-free energy and transportation more economical than carbon-intensive equivalents as well as the sudden appearance of the political will to remove carbon-intensive businesses from their subsidy-lined nests, collective global diplomatic action is probably the only way start countering climate change. While the two largest polluters, America and China, are the main players in this geopolitical game of chicken, everybody else in the world has to play the game as well and live with its consequences. The slight reduction in global GDP that would be necessary to reduce emissions enough to prevent the disastrous effects of unmitigated climate change would clearly  The tension between the immediate incentives of domestic politics and the long-term ramifications international policy has made any type of action within the U.S. depressingly difficult, although the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill could still but the U.S. on the baby-step track towards the necessary reductions. Similar conflicts are playing out elsewhere, such as France.

The degree of trust necessary to make such an agreement is also, in my estimation, beyond anything that has been previously achieved; the challenge it presents to our subnational, national and international governance institutions is unmatched. For most of human existence, the primacy of national interest over the collective global interest was unquestioned, in part because there was nothing that tied the global interest together like climate change. In fact, for most of human existence, collective interest really only extended as far as your tribe.

To put all that a little more succinctly, climate change is a problem unlike any other. Its causes and effects are relatively abstract and its solution will require governmental agreements on a global scale. Confronting these problems forces us to make decisions unlike any that we’ve made before, ones that our minds weren’t necessarily made to address. Nonetheless, if we put these decisions off much longer, they will be made for us.

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