- Natural tendencies in the way people think make it difficult to comprehend large-scale and long-term changes.
- Evolution focused human thinking on the immediate environment, drawing closely on direct perceptions.
- Individuals can transcend cognitive near-sightedness through vivid, specific imagination of the future.
Based on data recorded from around the world, the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction reported that Monday, July 3, 2023, was the hottest day ever recorded globally. Even winter in Antarctica was appreciably warmer than usual. The next day, that heat record was broken and replaced by a new one. And then another.1
Given the consensus in the scientific community that human beings are responsible for driving climate change, psychological research has been responding to this spreading crisis. One substantial area of research focuses on our attitudes and behaviors regarding climate change and its solutions.
The fundamental question in this blog post concerns cognition. How do we think about the future of global climate change?
The short answer is that we think humanly. A more elaborated answer identifies our cognitive tendencies and limitations when considering such a large and long-term problem.
1. Thinking Immediately
Throughout most of human evolution, the availability of food was uncertain. We survived by eating what was accessible, thinking intently about the present and the immediate future, and not on the mid-term or distant future.
Our strong tendency is to seize the reward at hand, favoring short-term benefits over potential long-term gains. And the more we are rewarded for near-sighted thinking, the more we avoid long-term considerations.
Under different conditions, we could have evolved into far-seeing individuals oriented toward the distant future, but as we are now, we depend on enduring and organized guidance to achieve far-sightedness.
2. Seeing Is Believing
We give primacy to perception, which enables us to react quickly to danger and opportunities. But it also constrains our efforts to explain and theorize beyond our senses.
Ptolemy accounted for the movements of the sun and the stars in accordance with his perceptions. The heavenly bodies rotated around the Earth, in circular orbits of different sizes, some of which had epicycles. It was a brilliant, complex, and useful theory that lasted 1,500 years. But its fundamental assumptions were based on what he could plainly see, and these assumptions were wrong.
Similarly, we perceive local and variable temperatures over the course of a year but not incremental increases that have global implications. Our personal observations based on daily perceptions do not extrapolate to the idea of large, long-term change.
3. Favoring What’s Close to Us
Throughout our evolution, we roamed. And while roaming, we attended to our immediate surroundings and the people in our family and close community. Meanwhile, our ability to imagine a larger perspective was not reinforced—at least not beyond the range we could roam.2 We maximized our chances for survival by becoming adept at analyzing our close environment, and we’ve carried this focus on our neighborhood into the 21st century.
4. The Two-World View
Two perspectives of the same reality can lead to the idea that we are dealing with two different realities. When children look at photos of the Earth from space, for example, they make a distinction between the Earth people take pictures of and the Earth they actually live on.
Adults also have a tendency for the two-world view when considering the same thing in radically different forms, such as hamburgers and cows. More to the point, many of us maintain at least a partial two-world view with representative statistical information that doesn’t match up with our direct experience, which is a problem for taking in the complexity of comprehensive climate data.
A unique and enlightening reversal of the two-world view is the Overview Effect. When astronauts view the Earth from space, they experience an elevated perspective that radically alters their concepts of humans and life on Earth.
These astronauts describe the sublime beauty and fragility of our planet—a wondrous blue sphere hanging in the darkness of space, protected by a paper-thin membrane of atmosphere. They see and feel how everything everywhere integrates into a single tenuous flow of Earthly life.
Afterwards, many astronauts undergo an extended epiphany that creates new and sustaining purpose. They then dedicate themselves to philanthropy, environmental causes, and peace, serving humanity and protecting the beauty that is Earth.
This then leads to a fundamental question: How can we approximate such a concept-changing, life-altering perspective without going into space?
5. The Primacy of the Present
When it comes to thinking about our selves and the world around us, we strongly privilege the present—an effect known as the end-of-history illusion. Fundamentally, we expect things to stay the same, even though we have good information that they will change. The way things are now is the way things are meant to be and the way they will stay.
6. Understanding Through Metaphor
We conceptualize the unseen and unfamiliar primarily through metaphor. Even though we’re taught to think of Earth as a vast complex of interconnected, nested systems, our concept of Earth is based on one dominant metaphor: the globe.
Indeed, it can be useful to conceptualize Earth as a rotating sphere with oceans, continents, rivers, and lakes. But the globe metaphor also constrains our thinking about its nested interconnectedness and complexity—and the diversity of ways that climate change shows itself in different ecosystems. And for some, the globe simplifies even more to a large ball, which further limits our comprehension of Earth’s complexity.
Most of us are generally familiar with data and explanations regarding climate change, and we are interested in living responsibly. But our human ways of thinking keep us devoted to local challenges in the present rather than global difficulties in the future. With the hottest Earth on record, however, it’s critical to take advantage of another way of thinking that compensates for our tendency toward the immediate—the ability to imagine.
Thinking specifically and personally, we can vivify the lives of individuals undergoing physical and economic hardships caused by global climate change. We can imagine our relatives or our friends or ourselves in these circumstances. By engaging in the same creative act that writers of speculative and historical fiction practice, each of us can achieve a more elevated and far-sighted perspective.
Thinking about the future of global climate change is ultimately an act of imagination. And there’s no better time for future imaginings than the present.
Note 1. The implacable warming of global climate change provides the foundation for this record heat, as the cyclical influence of El Nino builds on this foundation.
Note 2. We also have a strong desire for distant exploration, but without appropriate technologies, our undeveloped ability to take an overview led us to unimaginable and unexpected circumstances and places.