Climate Change, Instinct, and Rational Action

There is news now that 2014 was the warmest year on record and that several months have set high average temperature records recently while it’s been many decades since a monthly average temperature was the lowest on record. Yes, I know there is some dispute about the interpretation of the data. But whether or not 2014 was the warmest on record, and even accounting for the slower-than-expected rise in global temperatures over the last few years, there is no credible evidence that climate change is not happening and is not at least substantially a result of release of greenhouse gasses as a result of human activity.

And there is recent news that changes in sea level were overestimated through much of the 20th Century, so that the incremental rise in recent decades has been significantly higher than previously thought. That means we have underestimated the current impacts of climate change on sea levels — and more seriously, underestimated future sea level rise.

Two items that might appear unrelated caught my attention this morning. The first is a blog entry by David Ropeik, “The Danger the Planet Faces Because Human Instinct Overpowers Human Reason.”

He addresses not only climate change, but other tipping point concerns about the health of our planet (including the interdependent life forms that inhabit it).

He suggests that our instincts are at odds with what we know from reasoning that we ought to be doing:

You woke up each day last year and went about your business as any human does, compelled by deep and ancient instincts to do the things necessary to get yourself safely to bed at night. You acquired the resources necessary or helpful for safety and survival — food, water, shelter, warmth/cooling, transportation, friendship and social/tribal cohesion — and on a good day maybe you also acquired some fun stuff or did some fun activity or filled in the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

But chances are pretty good you cared more about fulfilling your needs than anybody else’s. And you cared about now and today more than tomorrow. You didn’t Think Globally. You thought, and acted, and lived your life and fulfilled your needs, locally. PERSONALLY. As did most of the seven BILLION human animals on the planet, taking from the system the resources necessary for safety and survival, and putting back into the system both their products and their wastes. Each us us satisfying our own needs but cumulatively taking from a system more resources than it has to offer…, and putting back more waste than it can handle….

The second item is a blog entry by David Cain, “Where Self-Esteem Comes From,” suggests a path toward a more helpful (if incremental) participation in what we know we ought to be doing.

He suggests that it is a useful motivator to ask yourself, “Do I like who I am when I do this?” It’s a better question, he asserts, than “Do I like doing this?” The question might apply to almost any life choice we face — and it draws on our sense of ethics and the ‘right’ thing to do. It invites us to take a longer-range view and to consider the impacts of our actions on others and, indeed, on the planet.

I like ice cream — I like it too much. I know that I ought to eat less of it (or less of something else) and exercise more if I really want to lose 15 pounds and consequently feel better and be more healthy. But if I ask myself “Do I like eating ice cream?” — either explicitly or implicitly — of course the answer is “Yes!” But if I ask myself “Do I like who I am when I eat ice cream?,” the answer is more likely to be “No so much,” and I am faced with the cognitive dissonance of choosing something that feels good but makes me feel bad about myself or choosing to feel better about myself by foregoing the pleasure of eating ice cream.

Could we not extend that to the ways we act out of instinct for self-preservation and pleasure at the expense of the planet? Might we make different choices — more closely aligned with reason — if we asked that deeper question, “How do I feel about myself when I chose care for the planet over my instinctual selfishness?”

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