Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Climate catastrophe and the irrational race



The types of arguments against the existence of human-made climate change range from the uninformed to the misinformed; from urban myths, to cherry-picking information in order to form a more palatable narrative.

This cartoon by Chris Johnston contrasts two models depicting the year 2050. The model constructed by a child depicts nature benefiting from clean energy. The one by the adults shows nature choked by fossil fuels and broken nuclear power.  Arguments include: 'There's no scientific consensus'; 'How can we be sure when we can't even predict the weather next week?'; 'Warming is not new and is part of a natural cycle'; 'What's wrong with warmer weather? Saves me booking a tropical holiday'; 'Global warming is a hoax'; and 'Greenland used to be green'.

This so-called 'debate' shows the enormous danger in believing that we humans are principally, and reliably, rational. Our western narrative has a longstanding habit of putting homo sapiens above nature. Could this skewed view actually allow for self-sabotage on a massive scale? If so, we need serious doses of both understanding and compassion in order to save us from ourselves.

Like many people, I've been watching the HBO series Chernobyl, which, in its recreation of the events surrounding the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear incident, portrays a real life example of one irrational human decision after another with disastrous results. Warnings and risks were not only ignored but their records deliberately hidden. Highly trained individuals in positions of power completely ignored the facts in pursuit of remarkably short-term interests. Workers who participated in rule-breaking that led to nuclear disaster understood that their actions were likely to result in such a catastrophe.

History gives example after example of the variety of human biases, and how they can make us do very unreasonable, often very bad, things. In the words of Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely, our species is 'predictably irrational' — and he lays this out in his book of the same name. Importantly, he believes it is helpful for us to know this, not so we can be disparaging about ourselves, but so we can actually become better.

New York Times reviewer David Berreby summed up the book's findings as: 'What the past few decades of work in psychology, sociology and economics has shown, as Ariely describes, is that ... yes, you have a rational self, but it's not your only one, nor is it often in charge. A more accurate picture is that there are a bunch of different versions of you, who come to the fore under different conditions. We aren't cool calculators of self-interest who sometimes go crazy; we're crazies who are, under special circumstances, sometimes rational.'

While making a name around demonstrating the extent of our irrational tendencies, Ariely has also demonstrated that this side of our nature has its upsides. In some scenarios, it can lead us to choose love, generosity and trust, even when it is irrational to do so. So, total rationality is not the panacea — but developing an honest awareness of how our minds work could go a long way towards offsetting the dangers. In the case of climate change and the fate of humanity, we could be seeing the ultimate struggle between scientific fact and myopic human ego.


"The question is not whether climate change will obliterate Earth, but rather the potential for it to disrupt Earth’s eco-systems so fundamentally that it can no longer support our health and survival."


Of course, there have been many rational voices speaking out about climate breakdown. Experts are now saying we need to change the messaging around the topic. In 2015, psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes released his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a new psychology of climate action. Stoknes identified five psychological defences that stop humans from taking action on climate change: distance, doom, dissonance, denial and identity.

'Over the previous decade we've seen large growth in scientific certainty in how serious this issue is and is human caused,' Stoknes told US radio station 'ViewPoints' in 2016. 'So we had like five IPCC reports and 30,000 scientific articles but people, at least in Norway and the US are less concerned about climate change today than they were 25 years ago ... you'd believe that when we get more facts, more information and more knowledge about this issue, people would recognise how critical it is, but the opposite seems to be reality.'

Stoknes referred to this as the 'psychological climate paradox'. He also made an enlightening comparison with insurance: 'We don't really think that our house will burn down, yet we do have fire insurance ... This has been promoted quite effective (sic) in the US report authored by a republican and a democrat. Andy Paulson and Bloomberg hold risky business. They now say, time to take out climate insurance of our own; it's just plain, good business sense.'

Stoknes offers several solutions, including: framing the problem in ways that are supportive and positive to avoid knee-jerk negative feelings; managing cognitive dissonance by discussing the tangible opportunities for effective action; using language that's less likely to trigger a reaction of fear or guilt, both of which he categorises as 'deeply pacifying'; avoiding political polarisation of the topic; and making the issue feel human, personal and urgent.

Interestingly, Stoknes suggests re-framing climate change as a human health issue, which it essentially is. When scientists talk about destroying the planet, the question is not whether climate change will obliterate Earth, but rather the potential for it to disrupt Earth’s eco-systems so fundamentally that it can no longer support our health and survival.  

Stoknes told ViewPoints Radio that people generally place a high political priority on the economy, health, education and jobs, but 'climate change, if it's listed as such, becomes like 19 out of 20'. 'The ozone layer came with a framing of really being about health here, and now, in the sense that if we didn't do it, I would get skin cancer, right? And this is not necessarily doom, but it's health framing.' 

The hope is that we can better engage our more rational side, in order to become aware of the side which is categorically not. Sure, this process is humbling. But if it is the difference between the conclusion of our story, or surviving to take part in an epic sequel, then humility seems a small price to pay.



Megan GrahamMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.

Topic tags: Megan Graham, climate change



submit a comment

Existing comments

Megan, Having observed the weather now for over half a century, it is apparent from what I observe myself and the reports I now read almost daily, that our climate and day to day weather ( they are different beasts) are changing at a rapid rate, as evidenced by extreme weather events in recent years. One side of me rationally digests the data and notes the changes with rising concern,another side says what can I as a individual, or my family do about it? A third side hopes for the best for my grandchildren! You are correct we can't destroy the planet, but we can certainly make it uninhabitable for rational life forms. The eruption of Mt St Helens failed to destroy basic lifeforms in the blast area, although all human and animal and almost all plant life was obliterated, so regardless of what we do, life on earth will persist , even if we don't!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 05 August 2019  

Great piece Megan with implications far beyond Climatic Change.

Jim Bowler | 05 August 2019  

Thanks Megan for a great article. I agree with all you say. One of the other big problems is political parties in Australia and the US being compromised by big donations from the fossil fuel industry. So big is this influence, that Australia doesn't even now have an energy policy! I suggest readers go to the Climate Council website for accurate information on climate change, rather than listen to our mainstream political party politicians. I admire Sir David Attenborough for his warnings about the dangers faced by human beings if we don't reduce emissions quickly enough. Even a teenage schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, understands the seriousness of the situation we face on this issue. But of course both Greta and Sir David aren't compromised by donations from the fossil fuel industry, as are Australia'a Liberal Party, National Party and Labor Party! Receiving such donations amounts to receiving bribes and in my opinion is a form of corruption. No wonder we don't have a federal anti-corruption body. We do have a very heavily compromised democracy!

Grant Allen | 05 August 2019  

The nonsense spouted by Climate Change Deniers makes any thought of rationality in this debate almost impossible - I have thought for a very long time that even if we personally did not believe the science, it made perfect sense for us to have "Insurance", but even this idea seems to have been buried in the avalanche of anti science dogma we are now engulfed in

Bruce Ingrey | 05 August 2019  

Thanks for that Megan. Scientists are of various kinds. Realizing that earth scientists and climate scientists are specialists and therefor limited by their disciplines I wrote to the boss of CSIRO suggesting that if scientists were serious about getting their message across they would do well to collaborate with those other scientists specializing in communication between individuals and groups. After a long time I received a response; a crookedly photocopied note, mostly typed with pencil handwritten scribble at the top and initialed. Though the form of the note contradicted the message, it stated that CSIRO was aware of the importance of communication matters and was managing them. Addressing the facts about climate change means managing the irrational and arational the various levels of consciousness. It means scientific disciplines working humbly together. It means dealing with the lies and half truths of those with vested interests pedaling their messages for big bucks. The world has serious epistemological problems. One has to ask, though, who is convinced by reason. Do formulae, arguments, syllogisms or numbers demonstrate the essences of art or relationships? Or racism, sexism or inequality? And prejudice is no more soluble by reason than is oil by water.

Michael D. Breen | 06 August 2019  

I've never seen any "denialist" assert that Greenland used to be green all over. Sure enough, when I followed the link above, it didn't take me to those words coming out of a denialist's mouth - it took me to a global warmist inventing the extraordinary assertion that "When the Vikings settled it, Greenland was a lovely, hospitable island, not the frozen wasteland it is today." Pretty shoddy. For the record, during the Medieval Warm Period, the fjords in southern Greenland were surrounded by forests of birch and pine. Norse farmers grazed cattle, sheep and goats. Greenland had its own diocese and bishop from the early 12th century. There is no certainty as to why Greenland was abandoned in the fifteenth century, but this does coincide with the onset of the Little Ice Age. As to the denialist claim that there is no scientific consensus, they're correct in what they assert: that it is just not true that over, say, 90% of scientists believe we're headed for *catastrophic* *anthropogenic* global warming. Most denialists believe there's been a warming (defrosting) from the Little Ice Age, which is what the 90% consensus holds.

HH | 07 August 2019  

“Humility seems a small price to pay.”…I lit the gas, for the kettle to boil. The fridge is on, so that my food won’t spoil. I took the car, I burnt some oil. The washers on so my clothes wont soil, I don’t want to work or toil. I vacuum every day to keep the dust at bay. The heating is on as I hum along. The means for change are there, but it is so hard to leave the teli from my comfortable chair. A Wind Turbine near my home? Comfort and easy, but not near my home please. All the lights are on, as Lemmings we scurry along… We all appear (To a varying degree) to be trapped in our fallen human nature, the task to prevent global warming appears impossible. We feel powerless in our attempts, if we have any, to bring about change. The leaders of the world play lip service to the general populous and appease us with platitudes, nominal programs of enterprise, endeavoring to convince us that things are starting to change, in reality they have their own agendas and appease their own Circle of influence, knowing full well that only a radicle change of heart by the leaders of mankind can bring about any significant change... There is a malaise within the hearts of many when they contemplate the effects of global pollution and is it any wonder, as cynicism has taken hold of many ordinary people, we feel powerless and distrustful of established institutions. And this distrust most certainly applies to the leaders of our Church as many no longer look for guidance from them or on matters that should be within their competence, credibility has been lost, the serving the Truth is secondary as seen in the handling of child abuse crisis also our most fundamental belief that God’s Word is in Violate has been breached by those who sit at the top table in Rome (The Divine mercy Image). Humility is the key but in Unity of purpose can we bend our knee. kevin your brother in Christ

Kevin Walters | 09 August 2019