Happiness and Climate Change

The brain end the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to
believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”
Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University

 Which would you prefer: 1) Winning 100 million dollars in the lottery, or 2) Becoming a paraplegic, impotent and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of your life?

Easy choice, or stupid question, most would respond. But studies actually show that after one year there is no significant difference in happiness between subjects who won the lottery and subjects who became paraplegic. According to Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, humans have an amazing psychological immune system which helps us adapt to almost everything that happens to us, especially if it is irreversible (see Gilbert’s TED talk).

Given the documented extreme adaptability of the human brain within just one year, and our generally impressive capacity for innovation when needed, you would think that adapting to a slightly warmer climate over generations would pose few problems to our civilization.

So, why do we worry so much about climate change? Why do United Nations, the World Bank, and many respectable scientists, consider climate change the biggest challenge facing our generation, while others think it is just a storm in a teacup?

One of the reasons for the high degree of polarization is likely the extremely high degree of uncertainty involved in all aspects of climate change, from the physical science, via the economic impacts to the political response. The human brain has a natural tendency to filter the information we receive and play down the evidence that goes against our initial convictions and give more weight to evidence that confirms our position (1). Thus, when faced with huge amounts of contradicting and flimsy evidence, our brains will gradually trick us into two widely separated camps of climate alarmists and climate skeptics, leaving only the blissfully ignorant with a reasonably accurate perception of the dimensions of the problem.

Good scientists are acutely aware of the danger of unconsciously filtering information and biasing results, and will therefore demonstrate a healthy skepticism and actively try to find contradicting evidence and alternative explanations to any given theory. They will also keep an open mind and repeatedly examine the basis of their own beliefs and perceptions. Formally trained scientists do not have a monopoly on such critical thinking, but the systematic training they have received in logical thinking does help them suppress the much more common emotional thinking, hopeful thinking, and wishful thinking.

Being aware of the dangers of both self-deception and manipulation from the outside, I know that I can’t be sure that my own perceptions are correct, but it does seem to me that climate skeptics generally demonstrate a lot more critical scientific thinking than the alarmist camp. But perhaps the most un-biased and constructive thinking comes from the “don’t worry – be happy – camp” which doesn’t try to argue either way, but simply thinks that there are bigger and more urgent problems that need fixing first, and that we should focus our efforts and investments on improving human well-being and reducing unnecessary suffering.

How should climate change enter the list of priorities for policy? Leave your reply below.

Lykke E. Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.


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