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MINDING THE CLIMATE: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis.

~ Badrinath Rao

Of all the problems afflicting humankind, the Anthropocene epoch poses the gravest threat to our survival. Though agenda-driven politicians and their benighted supporters dismiss global warming as a hoax, concerned segments of the world population are deeply worried about greenhouse gas emissions and the impending catastrophe coming in its wake.  Climate change is no trifling matter.  Left unchecked, it can upset the even keel of life, as is evident from weather-related disasters unfolding across the globe.  It is common knowledge that global warming is responsible for profound weather changes, rise in sea levels, melting of glaciers, ocean acidification, permafrost thawing, and repeated incidents of floods, droughts, and wildfires.  The most distressing aspect of climate change is that it is an equal opportunity tormentor. While it overwhelmingly affects vulnerable populations in the developing world, marginalized groups in advanced nations suffer no less.  Climate change has uprooted communities, caused colossal damages, and pushed people to lives of penury and insecurity.  It has also damaged biodiversity irreversibly.  Global warming has gravely affected over a million species and degraded 60 percent of the world’s essential ecosystem services.

According to the recently published Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human-activity-induced warming is accelerating faster than predicted.  Sounding a red alert, the Report warned that the world is set to reach the 1.5ºC level within the next two decades.  It emphasized that a more drastic reduction in carbon emissions is necessary to avert an environmental disaster.  Because released carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, climate experts aver that unless we find ways to halt fossil fuel emissions that continue to elevate the earth’s temperature, the long-term stability of human society is imperiled.

Galvanized by the magnitude of the challenge, the global community has unveiled several initiatives under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to check global warming.  This international body, whose mission is to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, sponsors regular climate-focused summits that have led to major international treaties such as the Rio Declaration in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Notwithstanding the brouhaha, international accords have made modest progress in limiting global warming to 2° C. Experts estimate that we need to cut our global average carbon dioxide emissions from about 5 tons per person per year to 2.1 tons per year.  This figure masquerades the fact that a wealthy nation like the US produces 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year per person.  Thus, Americans have to reduce their carbon footprint tenfold, a distant dream if the present trend is any indication.  While it is true that wealthy countries loathe compromising their living standards, that is not the only reason we lag in our climate goals.

Climate change is a frustratingly complex, so-called ‘wicked problem’ that defies easy solutions.  Macro-level interventions have not helped.  Pinning hopes on initiatives at the individual level is also fraught with challenges.  For most people, climate change is an invisible, distant problem whose cause-effect relations are obscure.  People do not associate carbon dioxide with pollution.  To the untutored, limiting global warming to 2°C seems trivial.  Habituated to our fossil fuel way of life, we labor under the illusion that it is easier to treat the problem than prevent it.  Contradictory scientific information, structural barriers, and enormous financial, technological, and political factors favoring the status quo further complicate matters.  Most importantly, since an eco-friendly lifestyle does not result in immediate, palpable advantages, most people think climate mitigation is beyond their ken and capacities.

The crucial question, therefore, is how can we get people to appreciate and tackle the devastating consequences of global warming.  A new book, Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis, published by Harvard University Press this year, offers seminal, hitherto unexplored insights on combating climate change.  Its author, Dr. Ann-Christine Duhaime, is a senior pediatric neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, United States.  In addition, she is Nicholas T. Zervas, Professor of Neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School.

Duhaime’s book is a surgical scrutiny of the myriad dimensions of global warming from the novel vantage point of neuroscience. Going beyond oft-repeated bromides about governmental intervention and collective action, she argues that we must look inward at how our brain operates to understand our disinclination to engage in pro-environment behavior.  The starting point, Duhaime posits, is to recognize two ineluctable facts.  First, climate change concerns human behavior and collective choices, which are critically dependent on the brain, our decision-making apparatus.  Primarily meant for survival, our brain is heavily influenced by its evolutionary design.  Evolutionary adaptations occur over a long period of time.  Our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and humans emerged just 200,000 years ago.  Stacked against these facts, climate change has unfolded rapidly.  Duhaime points out that, though constantly evolving, the human brain needs time to grapple with the precipitous ramifications of climate change.  Second, she posits that evolutionary design predisposes the 86 billion neurons and 10,000 synaptic connections of the brain to work exclusively for rewards.  If we do not perceive something as rewarding, we will not do it.  This immutable fact is pivotal to understanding how we make decisions and how the reward system function influences them.  According to Duhaime, the brain’s reward system bears ‘the imprint of external and internal influences,’ and its main drivers, aside from social rewards, are ‘agency and goal-directed behavior.’ In addition, the brain thinks in patterns and is designed for short-term decision-making.  Regardless of its capacity for long-term thinking, our brain is chiefly present-oriented and propelled by hyperbolic discounting, a cognitive bias that makes smaller, immediate rewards seem more attractive than larger, distant rewards.

While emphasizing the centrality of the reward system, Duhaime is careful to point out that it is not deterministic or hardwired and predictable from genes.  Instead, she says, the reward system is fluid and interactive with what we encounter in the world.  The brain is malleable.  Its plasticity also shapes our behavioral choices.  Hence, humans have an ingrained ingenuity to learn from and adapt to new circumstances.

Duhaime zeroes in on the brain for two reasons.  First, she wants us to reckon with our neural tendencies predating climate change.  They yearn for instantaneous, concrete payoffs.  Besides, our neural architecture often precludes us from perceiving global warming and the concomitant extinction of life forms, which occur gradually.  Second, though hamstrung by our evolutionary proclivities, we have an almost preternatural ability to override them and act with foresight because of our brain’s plasticity. Duhaime maintains that effective climate mitigation rests on appreciating the brain’s enabling and inhibiting properties.  

A brain-centered approach to climate change is also indispensable for unraveling the nexus between eco-degradation and the aberrations of modernity. Duhaime identifies several features of modern life that have exacerbated the environmental crisis.  Chief among them are hyperconsumption, pathological individualism, ego focality, and ‘the malaise of technostress, the compulsive overuse of technology.’ As a result, most of us are victims of low-level addiction to acquisition and consumption. What draws us to these habits, she says, is that the rewards are ‘instant, predictable, consistent, and frequent.’ Duhaime reminds us that the brain’s imperfections are again at play here.  The pursuit of incessant gratification erodes our cognitive and empathic capacities.  As our brain struggles to adapt to the dizzying pace of socio-economic and cultural changes, we are stultified by a gnawing sense of void and uneasiness.  Bereft of a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships, many seek refuge in retail therapy. Shopping mindlessly to reinstate one’s sense of agency accelerates consumption and waste, besides aggravating greenhouse gas emissions. As Duhaime rightly underscores, the most acute manifestation of this phenomenon is found in the advanced West. Per capita, affluent Western nations have a larger carbon footprint than India, China, and other developing countries, mainly due to the high carbon choices individuals make in their personal spheres.  Therefore, efforts to mitigate climate change must focus on changing individual behavior.

Macro-level initiatives such as the carbon tax, carbon offsets, carbon capture and storage, reforestation programs, recycling products, and using renewable resources are only marginally effective. Instead, channeling people’s altruistic predilections, valuation of non-human species, sense of personal responsibility and agency, religious views, and so on through positive reinforcement and social support will be more effective. Hence, while advocating eco-friendly choices like switching to a fuel-efficient car, avoiding unnecessary air travel, and embracing vegetarianism, Duhaime maintains that they become palatable only when they are more gratifying than the alternatives.

A singular achievement of Duhaime’s book is its well-considered roadmap to bypass our reward circuitry. The brain that dragoons us to chase rewards also recognizes patterns, observes perceptively, analyzes deeply, predicts the future, solves problems, and forges relationships. Hence, according to Duhaime, leveraging the brain’s capacity to learn is the key to getting people to switch to a fuel-efficient environment. This task has two elements: first, motivating people to think long-term about the intergenerational repercussions of their choices, and second, highlighting the benefits of climate activism, such as a renewed sense of agency, membership in a purpose-driven community, affirming relationships, and the opportunity to develop leadership skills. Above all, mobilizing public opinion requires overcoming obstacles like inconsistent information, apathy, cynicism, and fading compassion.

In concrete terms, Duhaime suggests that transforming people’s attitudes requires work in three areas: knowledge, persuasion, and adoption. Just bombarding people with facts about greenhouse gas emissions and frightening them will be counterproductive. Instead, she emphasizes that a better approach demands fine tuning all aspects of the climate change agenda, including how information is framed, the options presented to social actors, and the ethical imperative of proactively containing global warming, intangible though its gains may be. 

Persuading people to make life-enhancing choices is one of the central issues in behavioral economics and psychology. Duhaime invokes the nudge theory, a thesis by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein about the deft use of choice architecture to guide people’s preferences. Nudging, which operates subconsciously, is about ‘framing choices to make some more attractive or easier than others, based on what people themselves agree is good for them.’ Though conceptually nebulous, Duhaime, an ardent believer in subliminal messaging, favors nudging as a game plan for pro-environment choices. Likewise, she reposes faith in social norming, the notion that people’s behavior can be influenced by pointing out that others are making similar choices. Duhaime also sees merit in the Honey Bee approach, a method of framing behaviors ‘to encourage people to make a choice that is also, covertly, environmentally advantageous.’ Of all the strategies for arresting environmental degradation, she reserves her strongest endorsement for biophilia, the idea that ‘humans are innately drawn to and comforted by being in nature, in the presence of vegetation, natural landscapes, animals, and other humans.’ First propounded by the famed psychoanalyst Eric Fromm in 1964, biophilia is predicated on ‘an innate tendency among humans to be drawn to life forms in nature.’ Duhaime sees biophilia as an antidote to Nature-deficit disorder, a nonclinical term referring to the detrimental effects of the lack of exposure outdoors in natural settings. She maintains that children exposed to nature will develop pro-environmental attitudes, and parents with high regard for nature greatly aid this process. Though studies on biophilia have shown correlation, not causation, and several scholars are ambivalent about its efficacy, Duhaime is convinced about its potency. This insight has motivated her to set up a green children’s hospital based on biophilic design principles.

Duhaime’s prescriptions may not work in all contexts. Depending on the unique circumstances of each country, the blueprint for abating climate change is likely to vary. Nevertheless, her book is a waft of fresh air in a stifling ecosystem running out of new ideas. It is an apposite scholarly intervention amid a civilizational impasse. Duhaime writes with verve and vision. Hortatory in tone, she reposes faith in an informed population wedded to a sustainable lifestyle. Blending a scientist’s discipline, a surgeon’s precision, and an activist’s passion, Duhaime unveils innovative vistas for vanquishing an intractable problem. She counsels patience and humility as climate change is a beast like nothing we have encountered before. It requires, Duhaime points out, multiple solutions, mass participation, and a conviction that the rewards for pro-environmental choices often are limited to those we give ourselves.

Prof. Badrinath Rao

(Badrinath Rao is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. An attorney in Michigan, he is also the host and Executive Producer of Ideas and Insights, a public affairs TV show).

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