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Climate catastrophe and the irrational race

  • 05 August 2019


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.

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