Often we behave in ways that are against our longer-term interests. Most of the time this is manifested in rather trivial affairs, such as picking up that chocolate bar in the supermarket — which, though far from ideal for our health, only impacts our own wellbeing in the long-run. The same cannot be said about climate change, however. Taking that extra (well-earned!) vacation abroad, or travelling across the country for a meeting that could just as well be conducted over the phone, contributes heavily to the already enormous level of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in our atmosphere (Ernmenta & Nel, 2014). If sustained, these sorts of behaviors run counter to our longer term survival — so why don’t we act in more pro-environmental ways?
Cognitive Barriers in Addressing Climate Change
A big part of the problem is that we like to live in the moment, preferring to satisfy our immediate needs rather than considering what may serve us best in the future. This bias, commonly known as present bias, refers to the greater weight people place on payoffs that are closer to the present moment, as compared to those in the future (Frederick, Lowenstein & O’Donoghue, 2002). This makes intuitive sense when we consider some everyday examples, such as choosing a chocolate bar over a healthier option. It seems we are somewhat hardwired to choose options that best gratify our immediate needs, and put more effortful options to one side for our future selves to worry about (Bisin & Hyndman, 2014). For example, in the case of choosing to drive or take the bus to the grocery store, we will tend to give in to the easier ‘self-gratifying’ yet-un-environmentally friendly option and take the car.
Another part of the reason that we do not prioritize climate action comes down to salience (or rather the lack of salience) associated with the effects of climate change. Salience is essentially how noticeable and memorable certain stimuli are to us — and there is a tendency for our behavior to be influenced by the most novel and seemingly relevant stimuli. This can help to explain why certain previous environmental campaigns have been more successful in their impact than others. The ‘hole in the ozone layer’ scare in the 90s was successfully communicated to the general public by the use of vivid metaphors (UV rays penetrating the earths “shield”) and by its direct relevance to immediate health risks, such as skin cancer — but the same cannot be said for climate change. Although we are all aware of the issue, people do not seem to perceive the risks as being as vivid, relevant, or alarming (Ungar, 2007).
Part of this can be explained by perceptions of psychological distance – insomuch as climate change is not an effect that people feel day-to-day. According to construal level theory, when people, places, objects, or events are removed from an individual’s immediate experience, their mental representations become less concrete and more abstract (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, shares a similar sentiment, adding that “our brains respond most decisively to those things we know for certain”.