"We tend to be very focused on the short term," explains George Marshall, Director of Projects at Climate Outreach and author of Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. "We tend to discount [...] things happening in the future the further away they are."
In this week's encore episode, Shankar Vedantam takes us to the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to explore why it's so difficult for us to wrap our heads around climate change.
The Hidden Brain podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
There are many words we could use to describe the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign - tumultuous, divisive, vulgar. Over the past few weeks, we've tried to offer insight into some of the deeper issues underlying all the rancor. We've looked at the hidden frames that shape our political views...
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GEORGE LAKOFF: If you have two different views of the nation, you may have two different views of the family.
VEDANTAM: ...And examine the biases that women face when they seek higher office.
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CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: I came home that night. I was so upset and demeaned - to use the word - that I thought, OK, that's it. I can't take this anymore. I'm going to quit.
VEDANTAM: We've also talked about topics that have surfaced over and over again in the election. Topics like immigration, income inequality and stop-and-frisk policing. Today, we'll conclude our series with a favorite episode from our archives. It's about an issue that didn't get much attention during the election, but will surely confront the next administration - climate change.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Last year, my family and I took a vacation to Alaska. This was a much needed, long-planned break. The best part? I got to walk on the top of a glacier. The pale blue ice was translucent. Sharp ridges opened up into crevices dozens of feet deep. Every geological feature, every hill, every valley was sculpted in ice. It was a sunny day and I spotted a small stream of melted water. I got on the ground and drank some. I wondered how long this water had remained frozen.
The little stream is not the only ice that's melting in Alaska. The Mendenhall Glacier, one of the chief tourist attractions in Juneau, has retreated over one-and-a-half miles in the last half century. Today you can only see a small sliver of the glacier's tongue from a lookout. I caught up with John Neary, a Forest Service official who tries to explain to visitors the scale of the changes that they're witnessing.
JOHN NEARY: I would say that right now we're looking at a glacier that's filling up out of our 180 degree view we have, we're looking at maybe 10 or 15 degrees of it. Whereas if we stood in the same place a hundred years ago, it would have filled up about 160 degrees of our view.
VEDANTAM: You are kidding, 160 degrees of our view?
NEARY: Exactly. That's the reality of how big this was. And it's been retreating up this valley at about 40 or 50 feet a year, most recently 400 feet a year. And even more dramatically recently is the thinning and the narrowing, as it's just sort of collapsed in on itself in the bottom of this valley instead of dominating much of the valley and being able to see white as a large portion of the landscape, it's now becoming this little ribbon that's at the bottom.
VEDANTAM: John is a quiet, soft-spoken man. In recent years as he's watched the glacier literally recede before his eyes, he started to speak up - not just about what's happening, but what it means.
But as I was chatting with John, a visitor came up to talk to him. The man said he used to serve in the Air Force and had last seen the Mendenhall Glacier a quarter century ago. There was a look in the man's eyes. It was a combination of awe and horror. How could this have happened, the man asked John. Why is this happening?
NEARY: In many ways, people don't want to grasp the reality. It's a scary reality to try to grasp. And so what they naturally want to do is assume, well, this has always happened. It will happen in the future and we'll survive, won't we? They want an assurance from me. But I don't give it to them. I don't think it's my job to give them that assurance.
I think they need to grasp the reality of the fact that we are entering into a time when, yes, glacial advance and retreat has happened 25 different times to North America over its long life, but never at the rate and the scale that we see now. And in the very quick rapidity of it means that species probably won't be able to adapt the way that they have in the past over a longer period of time.
VEDANTAM: To be clear, the Mendenhall Glacier's retreat in and of itself is not proof of climate change. That evidence comes from a range of scientific measurements and calculations. But the glacier is a visible symbol of the changes that scientists are documenting.
It's interesting. I think when people think about climate change, it tends to be an abstract issue most of the time for most people. That you're standing in front of this magnificent glacier right now and to actually see it receding makes it feel real and visceral in a way that it just isn't when I'm living in Washington, D.C.
NEARY: Oh, I agree. I think that for too many people the issue is some Micronesian island that's having an extra inch of water this year on their shorelines. Or it's some polar bears far up in the Arctic that they're really not connected with. But when they realize they come here and they're on this nice day like we're experience right now with the warm sun and they start to think about this glacier melting and why it's receding, why it's disappearing, why it doesn't look like that photo just 30 years ago up in the visitor's center. It becomes real for them and they have to start grapple with the issues behind it.
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VEDANTAM: I could see tourists turning these questions over in their minds as they watch the glacier. So even though I had not planned to do any reporting, I started interviewing people using the only device I had available - my phone.
DALE SINGER: I just think it's a shame that we are losing something pretty precious and pretty different in the world.
VEDANTAM: This is Dale Singer (ph). She and her family came to Alaska on a cruise to celebrate a couple of family birthdays. This was her second trip to Mendenhall. She came about nine years ago, but the weather was so foggy she couldn't get a good look. She felt compelled to come back. I asked Dale why she thought the glacier was retreating.
SINGER: Global warming. Whether we like to admit it or not, it's our fault. Or something we're doing is affecting climate change.
VEDANTAM: Others are not so sure. For some of Dale's fellow passengers on her cruise, this is a touchy topic.
SINGER: Somebody just said they went to a lecture on the ship and the lecturer did not use the word global warming, nor climate change 'cause he didn't want to offend passengers. So there are still people who refuse to admit it.
VEDANTAM: As I was standing next to John, one man carefully came up and listened to his account of the science of climate change. When John was done talking, the man told him that he wouldn't trust scientists as far as he could throw them. Climate change was all about politics, he said.
I asked the man for an interview but he declined. He said his company had contracts with the federal government and if bureaucrats in the Obama administration heard his skeptical views on climate change, those contracts might mysteriously disappear. I caught up with another tourist. I asked Michael Bull (ph) if he believed climate change was real.
MICHAEL BULL: No, I think there's global climate change, but I question whether it's all due to human interaction with the Earth. Yes, you can't deny that the climate is changing. But the causation of that, I'm not sold on as being our fault.
VEDANTAM: Michael was worried his tour bus might leave without him, so he answered my question about whether the glacier's retreat was cause for alarm standing next to the idling boss.
BULL: So what's the bad part of the glacier receding? And, you know, from what John said to me, if it's the rate at which - and the Earth can't adapt, that makes sense to me. But I think the final story is yet to be written. I think Mother Earth pushes back. So I don't think we're going to destroy her because I think she'll take care of us before we take care of her.
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VEDANTAM: Nugget Falls is a beautiful waterfall that empties into Mendenhall Lake. When John first came to Alaska in 1982, the waterfall was adjacent to the glacier. Today, there's a gap of three-quarters-of-a-mile between the waterfall and the glacier.
SUE SCHULTZ: The glacier has receded unbelievably. It's quite shocking.
VEDANTAM: This is Sue Schultz (ph). She said she lived in Juneau back in the 1980s. This was her first time back in 28 years.
What did it look like 28 years ago?
SCHULTZ: The bare rock that you see to the left as you face the glacier was glacier. And we used to hike on the other side of it. And you could take a trail right onto the glacier.
VEDANTAM: And what about this way? I understand the glacier actually came significantly over to this side, close to Nugget Falls.
SCHULTZ: Yes, that's true. It was really close. In fact, the lake was a lot smaller, obviously. I mean, yeah, it's quite incredible.
VEDANTAM: And so what's your reaction when you see it?
SCHULTZ: Global warming. We need to pay attention.
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TERRY LAMBERT: Even if it all melts, it's not going to be the end of the world. So I'm not worried.
VEDANTAM: Terry Lambert (ph) is a tourist from Southern California. He's never visited Mendenhall before. He thinks the melting glacier is just part of nature's plan.
LAMBERT: Well, it's just like earthquakes and floods and hurricanes. They are just all part of what's going on. You can't control it. You can't change it. I personally don't think it's something that may man's doing that's making that melt.
VEDANTAM: I mentioned to Terry some of the possible consequences of climate change on various species.
There could be changes. Species could - some species could be advantaged. Some species could be disadvantaged. The ecosystem is changing. You're going to have flooding. You could have weather events, right? There could be consequences that affect you and I.
LAMBERT: Yes. But like I said, so far in the future, I'm not worried about it.
VEDANTAM: I realized at that moment that the debate over climate change is no longer really about science, unless the science you're talking about is the study of human behavior. I asked John why he thought so many people were unwilling to accept the scientific consensus that climate change was having real consequences.
NEARY: The inability to do anything about it themselves. Because it's threatening to think about giving up your car, giving up your oil heater in your house or giving up, you know, many of the things that you've become accustomed to. They seem very threatening to them.
And, you know, really, I've looked at some of the brain science actually and talked to folks at NASA in Earth and Sky and they've actually talked about how when that fear becomes overriding for people, they use a part of their brain that's the very primitive part, that has to react. It has to instantly come to a conclusion so that it can lead to an action. Whereas what we need to think about is get rid of that fear and start thinking logically. Start thinking creatively. Allow a different part of the brain to kick in and really think how we as humans can reverse this trend that we've caused.
VEDANTAM: Coming up, we explore why the human brain might not be well designed to grapple with the threat of climate change and what we can do about it. Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. While visiting the Mendenhall Glacier with my family last year, I started thinking more and more about the intersection between climate change and human behavior. When I got back to Washington, D.C., I called George Marshall. He's an environmentalist who, like John Neary, tries to educate people about global climate change.
GEORGE MARSHALL: I am the founder of Climate Outreach. And I am the author of "Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change."
VEDANTAM: As the book's title suggests, George believes that the biggest roadblock in the battle against climate change may lie inside the human brain. I call George at his home in Wales.
You spent some time talking with Daniel Kahneman, the famous psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. And he actually presented a very pessimistic view that we would actually come to terms with the threat of climate change.
MARSHALL: He said to me that we are, as humans, very poor at dealing with issues that are in the future. We tend to be very focused on the short term. We tend to discount, would be the economic term, to reduce the value of things happening in the future the further away they are. He says we're very cost-averse. Suffice to say, when there is a reward we respond strongly. But when there's a cost, we prefer to push it away just as, you know, I myself will try and leave until the very last minute putting in my tax return. I mean, you just don't want to deal with these things. And he says that we're reluctant to do with uncertainty. If things are uncertain or we perceive them to be, we just say, well, come back and tell me when they're certain.
What he said to me was in his view that climate change is the worst possible combination because it's not only in the future, but it's also in the future and uncertain. And it's in the future uncertain and involving costs. And his own experiments - and he's done many, many of these over the years - show that in this combination we have a very strong tendency just to push things on one side. And I think this in some ways explains how so many people if you ask them will say, yes, I regard climate change to be a threat. But if you go and you ask them - and this happens every year in surveys - what are the most important issues? What are the - strangely almost everybody seems to forget about climate change. So when we focus on it we know it's there, but we can somehow push it away.
VEDANTAM: You tell an amusing story in your book about some colleagues who are worried about a cellphone tower being erected in their neighborhood and the very, very different reaction of these colleagues to the cellphone tower then to sort of the amorphous threat of climate change.
MARSHALL: They were my neighbors, my entire community. I was living at that time in Oxford, which as many of your listeners know is a university town. So it'd like living in, you know, Harvard or Berkeley or somewhere where most of the people were in various ways involved in university, highly-educated.
A mobile phone mast was being set up in the middle - alongside actually a school playground. Enormous outcry, everybody mobilized down to the local church hall. They were all going to stop it. People were even going to lay themselves down in front of the bulldozers to prevent it. Because it was here, it was now. There was an enemy, which was this external mobile phone company were going to come in and they were going to put up this mast. It brings in the threat. Psychologists would call the absolute fear of radiation. This is what's called a dread fear.
And so now the science, if we go back to the core science, says that this mobile phone mast was as far as we could possibly say harmless. (Laughter) You know, the amount of radiation or - of any kind you get off a single mobile phone mast has never been found to have the slightest impact on anyone. But they were very mobilized. At the same time, I was trying to get them to attend events concerned of climate change and none of them would come. It simply didn't have those qualities.
VEDANTAM: You have a very revealing anecdote in your book about the economist Thomas Schelling, who was once in a major traffic jam.
MARSHALL: So Schelling, again, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. And he's wondering what's going on. The traffic is moving very, very, very slowly. And then they're creeping along and creeping along. And half an hour along the road, they finally realized what had happened. That there is a mattress lying right in the middle of the - of the middle lane of the road. What happens? He notices and he does the same. It's - but when they reach the mattress, people will simply drive past it and keep going.
In other words, the thing that had caused them to become delayed was not something that anyone was prepared to stop and remove from the road. They'd just leave the mattress there and then they keep driving past. Because in a way, why would they remove the mattress from the road? Because they have already paid the price of getting there. They've already had the delay. It's something where the benefit goes to other people. The argument being, but of course it's very hard, especially when people are motivated largely through personal rewards to get them to do things.
VEDANTAM: It's interesting that the same narrative affects the way we talk about climate change internationally. There are many countries who now say, look, you know, I've already paid the price. I'm paying the price right now for the actions of other people, for the, you know, things that other people have or have not done. I'm bearing that cost and you're asking me now to get out of my car, pull the mattress off the road to bear an additional cost. And the only people who benefit from that are people who are not me. The collective problems in the end have personal consequences.
MARSHALL: I have to say that the way that one talks about this also shows the way that interpretation is biased by your own politics or your own view. This has been labeled for a long time the tragedy of the commons. The idea being that unless the people will - if it's in their own self-interest - destroy the very thing that sustains them because it's not in their personal interest to do something if they don't see other people doing it.
In a way it's understandable. But, of course, that depends on a view of a world where you see people as being motivated entirely by their own personal rewards. We also know people are motivated by their sense of identity and their sense of belonging. And we know very well, not least of all in times of major conflict or war, that people are prepared to make enormous personal sacrifices from which they personally derive nothing except loss. But they're making that in the interests of the greater good.
For a long time with climate change, we've made a mistake of talking about this solely in terms of something which is economic. What are the economic costs and what are the economic benefits? And we still do this. But, of course, really the motivations for why we want to act on this is we want to defend the world we care about and the world we love. And we want to do so for ourselves and for the people who are going to come.
VEDANTAM: So, George, there obviously is one domain in life where you can see people constantly placing these sacred values above their selfish self-interest. You know, I'm thinking here about the many, many religions we have in the world that get people to do all kinds of things that an economist would say is not in their rational self-interest.
People give up food. People give up water. People have, you know, suffer enormous personal privations. People sometimes choose chastity for life. I mean, huge costs that people are willing to bear. And they're not doing it because someone says at the end of the year I'm going to give you an extra 200 bucks in your paycheck for an extra $2,000 in your paycheck. They're doing it because they believe these are sacred values that are not negotiable.
MARSHALL: And not just economists would find those behaviors strange, but professor Kahneman or kind of pure cognitive psychology might as well. Because these are people who are struggling with and - but also believe passionately in things which are in the long term extremely uncertain and require personal cost. And yet, people do so.
It's very important to stress that, you know, when we try and - when we talk about climate change and religion, that there's absolutely no sense at all that climate change is or can or should ever be like a religion. It's not. It's grounded in science. But we can also learn, I think, a great deal from religions about how to approach these issues - these uncertain issues and how to create, I think, a community of shared belief and shared conviction that something is important.
VEDANTAM: Right. I mean, if you look at sort of human history with sort of the broad view, you know, you don't actually have to be a religious person to acknowledge that religion has played a very, very important role in the lives of millions of people over thousands of years. And if it's done so, then a scientific approach would say there is something about the nature of religious belief or the practice of religion that harnesses what our brains can accommodate. That they harness our yearning to be part of a tribe. Our yearning to be connected to deeper and grander values than ourselves. Our yearning in some ways to do things for our fellow person in a way that might not be tangible in the here and now but might actually pay off, as you say, not just for future generations but even in the hereafter.
MARSHALL: Well, and the faiths that dominate, the half-a-dozen faiths which are the strongest ones in the world are the ones that have been best at doing that. There's a big mistake with climate change because it comes from science, but we assume it just somehow soaks into us. It's very clear that just hitting people over the head with more and more and more data and graphs isn't working. On my internet feeds - I'm on all of the main scientific feeds - there is a new paper every day that says that not only is it bad but it's worse than we thought. And it's extremely, extremely serious. So serious actually that we're finding it very hard even to find words to describe it. That doesn't move people. In fact, actually it tends to push them away.
However, if we can understand that there are other things which bind us together, I think that we can find new language. I think it's also very important to recognize that the divides around climate change are social, not scientific. They're social and political, that the single biggest determinant of whether you accept it or you don't accept it is your political values. And that suggests that the solutions to this are not scientific, other than maybe psychology. They are cultural. We have to find ways of saying, sure, we're going to disagree on things politically. But we have things in common that we all care about that are going to have to bring us together.
VEDANTAM: George Marshall is the author of "Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change." George, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.
MARSHALL: You're very welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Kara McGuirk-Allison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Our staff includes Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr and Tara Boyle.
This week our unsung hero is Lauren Embrey. I met Lauren in a couple of years ago in Dallas. I quickly learned she has a deep interest in social science research, especially as it applies to social justice issues. Lauren and the Embrey Family Foundation were early backers of the HIDDEN BRAIN project and they provided some of the first dollars that got this podcast off the ground. If you like HIDDEN BRAIN, you have Lauren to thank, as do we. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you liked our series about the presidential election, please tell one friend who doesn't yet know about our show. You can find more of our reporting at npr.org and on your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR.
Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. Before you go, a suggestion for another podcast you should check out - NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. If you like knowing about the best in movies, TV shows, books and music, you're bound to hear something that makes you happy every week. That's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Find it now on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.