With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are suffering the consequences of a global lack of reaction and it is very likely that we will also suffer from climate change. Both crises put us before a mirror in which we are not reflected as such rational beings: understanding is secondary, experience is key.
It happens in the first scene of the fourth chapter of the series Chernobyl. In it, an old woman milks a cow in her cabin, near the power plant, days after the start of the nuclear disaster. A soldier, at the doors of his stable, asks him to accompany him. The woman refuses and responds with a speech about the dozens of years she has survived in an area where she has suffered wars and lost family members, which ends with: “After everything I've seen, are you telling me to go for something I can't see at all??”.
The question today hurts because we are seeing what happens by not acting before things that we cannot see, but about which we have been warned. With the new coronavirus pandemic, we are suffering the consequences of our lack of reaction and it is very likely that we will suffer them later because of the climate crisis.
The scene ofChernobyl It reminded me of a speech that Greta Thunberg gave in front of the Social Council, in Brussels, on April 16, 2019. Greta started with “I want them to panic because the house is on fire”. His goal was verbalized a little better seconds later: “I want them to act like the house is on fire”. And if he had to resort to the metaphor, it is because very few people see it and fewer people still act. We are calm with the climate emergency and we were also calm as witnesses in the distance of the epidemic. What is wrong with us?
On the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, it is clear to us that our world is heating up. We know it because we can see it in graphs agreed upon by the entire scientific community. That, unfortunately, does not mean that we are going to do something.
The problem is that seeing that data is not seeing climate change. To do something, that data must be consistent with personal experience, with our own evidence. It is easier for us to see the house on fire when we actually see the house on fire. It has also been easier for us to see the virus when we have witnessed the suffering of our patients. Climate change and this pandemic put us in front of a mirror in which humans are not reflected as such rational beings: understanding is secondary, experience is key.
80 years for a social consensus
In 2013 researchers Szafran, Williams and Rothpublished a study in which they calculated how long it would take for everyone to experience the phenomenon of global warming in their own flesh. If we need to experience three summers hotter than the average to convince ourselves, only in the US and taking into account its climate forecasts, we can already wait at least 86 years to have a good social consensus. 82 if we need 3 years more rainy than the average.
Just as we could not wait to have the virus in Spain to scare us, we already know that we cannot wait 80 years without doing anything, since it would imply living in 2100 with 5 degrees on average more, an almost apocalyptic scenario.
But if I say 80 years, I put problems on the table. We are not animals that cope well with temporal and spatial distances, and climate change has always been felt far away and in the future. Although the planet is warming rapidly, it is not warming as fast as we need to to feel like a threat.
Hopefully after chewing a steak we would witness a small heat wave, a 5 degree rise at home. This short cause-effect distance would allow us to experience the nexus between both processes and we would walk much faster towards one of the solutions: we must stop eating so many steaks.
We are bad risk calculators
Before climate change was even something to talk about, economics experts Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did several experiments to understand how we deal with risk and decision-making, and saw that human risk perception it's hideous.
We have great difficulty in judging the frequency and magnitude of events, as we trust the latest that has happened more, because it is what we remember best. They named this process availability bias.
From his hand we also learned that we have an aversion to losses in the short term and indifference in the long term. If we add a certain degree of uncertainty, the effect is compounded. Nor is it something new: alcohol can cause cirrhosis as an adult. Tobacco maybe lung cancer. That "can" and that "maybe", that cirrhosis and that cancer, are very similar to the disease that affects our planet.
That is why we refuse to satisfy our desire for steak today in exchange for energy or financial savings in the future. For this reason and because they are combined with other biases, such as the optimistic bias: we tend to think that we take less risk than other people. We are going to be luckier than dinosaurs, others become extinct. This is not China. Our healthcare system is better than Italy's.
Now that the epidemic is here, many people are angry. Now. In the weeks leading up to it, memes and jokes were circulating that made fun of what might come.
But, have you ever seen someone get very angry because of climate change? I am not saying get angry because climate change is taking place and we will see its effects, or because of the inaction of others. I mean to get viscerally angry until the vein jumps out of your neck and you burst into tears against the Lord Climate Change. I never. And that's because there is no Lord Climate Change. He doesn't wear a uniform, he doesn't kill children, he doesn't follow a predictable pattern.
We fear what we can imagine
The enemy, to our brains, has always been a disgusting person, animal or microorganism that acted abruptly and immorally on ours. The savage Lord Climate Change would be afraid of the old woman on the farm ofChernobylBut how do we fear something abstract, invisible, acting very slowly, and not immoral? It is difficult, very difficult.
But suppose we get it. That we managed to put a group of people in front of a burning house, they see it on fire and they feel it on fire. It would then be time to start putting out the fire. As it turns out, even if the glare of the flames burns in our faces and we hear the crackle of the fire, we will turn around and wait to see what others do.
If someone takes a bucket of water, we'll get down to business. If nobody moves, we will gawk at the fire. This reaction has to do with conditional cooperation and the bystander effect. If we are the only ones who witness an incident, we act. If a group knows everything, we wait for social consensus.
Even when we see and act, we don't even do everything we can. Most of us suffer from the one-shot bias. It seems that taking certain actions prevents us from doing other equally positive and complementary. For example, using energy saving light bulbs, recycling or using cloth bags already makes us feel like we are doing something meaningful.
Sometimes it is even worse, because we balance our sustainable attitudes with others that can emit even more carbon. Like people who burn the calories of a half a round of beer running and that day they drink two instead of one, who have gone for a run!
Limits to worry
Finally, even though we have lived through the burning house, we have a very limited capacity to worry. Financial crises in different countries show that concern about these phenomena caused the percentage of individuals concerned about climate change to decrease.
Scientists call it the finite bank of worry. A crisis, the loss of a job, the illness of our relatives ... we cannot worry about many serious things at the same time. In fact, it is difficult to publish a column like this on days when there is a pandemic and ICUs are full of people struggling to survive.
Under normal conditions, climatic inaction leads us to an almost inevitable guilt, and we do not imagine the complete situation. Inside the metaphorical burning house, the fridge would have hardly any food. Water would only come out of the tap at certain times. It would travel through landslides and flood three times a year. You couldn't sleep in the heat and you would have to choose between mosquito nets or malaria. And that house already exists. The dates 2050 or 2100 are practical horizons to help us imagine harsher scenarios to come.
If we start to see fire, flood, drought and heat and cold waves as climate change, it will stop being abstract and become concrete, abrupt and shocking. Livable and endurable. This small paradigm shift is a communicative effort and everything indicates that the results would be worth it. But, in addition, we can see climate change as a public health or refugee problem.
Training and laws
We may have to network to remind each other to keep him in mind, the same way we go out to clap at 8pm. At the end of the day, you have to train your anticipation on good behaviors and avoid resigning yourself to relapsing into not very ecological attitudes.
We could also try to vaccinate against availability biases and run campaigns like the United Nations in Davos, which taught world leaders what the war in Syria was like through virtual reality. Do we need to see burning houses? Let's see burning houses. Climate refugee crisis? Let's look at the climate refugee crisis. The important thing is that the brain practices, that we nourish ourselves with experiences, even if they are virtual.
Let's end the bystander bias with new laws tailored for the climate crisis. Because the laws force us to synchronize ourselves in actions that rationally seem positive to us, but will not happen spontaneously. We wouldn't have been locked in the house for weeks without a state of alarm.
The soldier ofChernobylFailing to convince the old woman, he shoots and kills her cow to force her to pay attention to him. The problem is that we don't have a soldier in our head that shoots our biases; it is more likely that we only have a small activist who repeats that "How dare you?" frowning every time we grab a plastic-lined ribeye at the grocery store. But the poor thing occupies a very small space in the mind of an animal that does not see flames anywhere and who likes a steak.
By Lucas Sánchez
Director of the scientific communication agency Scienceseed, in charge of the Department of Communication and Creativity. Before, for ten years, researcher in immunology and virology at the National Center for Biotechnology and at the Yale University School of Medicine.