Optimism is a key weapon against climate change

We need new narratives to solve the climate crisis

Our philosophical accounts of risk and reward are not suited to deal with the problem of climate change.We are hard-wired to prioritise the short term over the long, and we are attracted to particular philosophical accounts about the self that are detrimental, argues Sarah Ray, Professor of Environmental Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt. By hacking our reward system and telling radically new positive stories about our place in the world, contrary to most climate activists, we can tackle the problem of climate change more effectively.


Cognitive psychologists, social psychologists, and neuroscientists have long studied the role of the brain, thoughts, and emotions in determining environmental behaviour. Our brains are machines that filter out some information in favour of more salient information, because otherwise we’d be bogged down in an infinite churl of decision-making, demands on our attention, and evaluating risk-benefits moment to moment. Over time, the brain’s attempt to simplify the complex world through “biases,” nervous system responses, and reward circuitry evolved to keep us alive. But much of this wiring is at odds with what we need to do to address global warming.

One example is our perception of risk. Our nervous systems detect threats when our brains perceive them to rank high on likelihood, magnitude, immediacy, intentionality, and agency. In other words, the threat feels greater when it has a face.

The problem, however, is that even if you are already feeling its effects, climate change ticks none of these boxes. It isn’t a scary intruder. It is often subtle or slow-moving in its assault, and its impacts frequently don’t immediately affect us. We see an extreme weather event somewhere else in the world, experience a hotter summer, or hear about rising sea levels. But in such cases, it can be difficult to get our sympathetic nervous systems to respond for the aforementioned reasons. This delay between our nervous system’s awareness of a threat, and any action we might take to prevent it, is the tragic result of not being wired for warming.

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What’s more, since the rewards of changing business-as-usual, such as biking more or flying less, do not appear to outweigh the costs (status quo bias), it is cognitively easier to kick the can down the road to future generations, to illusive politicians, or to nature itself. Most of us feel our actions can hardly make a difference against such a massive problem anyway, so most of us just give up (pseudoinefficacy). That, combined with the seductive message that individual change is insignificant compared to system-level change, makes us feel that nothing we do could possibly make a difference (learned helplessness).

It may be that you believe that any diagnosis that targets the level of the brain or the scale of the individual is inadequate from the outset. It has been trendy in climate spaces to disavow the role of the individual in favour of emphasizing the much more urgent necessity of system change. But this impulse to disavow individual change because it’s easier to blame systems is deeply flawed and a symptom of status quo bias.

This binary view of how change happens is false. Systems are made up of individuals, and in the U.S. an average individual has an oversized impact on the climate compared to people elsewhere in the world, emitting a whopping twenty tons of CO2 emissions per year, compared to the global average of five. We need to get to two in order to limit warming to two degrees. Furthermore, our individual actions never happen in a vacuum, and systems only change because individuals collectively demand that they do. Theories of change that reject the role of individual efforts ignore all the research that shows how impactful change at the personal scale can be, and its intertwined relationship with system change.

So how can you leverage your brain to better address climate change? The self is not fixed and unchangeable. Neuroscientists have shown that brains are more like plastic, and can, with regular practice, be changed.

The first step is to become aware of how these subconscious biases condition you to feel helpless, apathetic, or even nihilistic. Sure, climate change is a problem, but why let your brain make matters worse? The negative frame of climate change is a stick, and sticks don’t motivate change.

The second step is to use the enormous research on behaviour change to build reward-based interventions, such as bundling the health rewards of bike-riding with the cost of how much more time it takes or creating policies that make the right environmental decision the default one, to ensure that the rewards of behaviour-change outweigh the perceived costs. Climate action is often framed as a sacrifice; deprivation does not inspire behaviour change. By contrast, nudge theory and choice architecture, strategies from marketing and addiction research, work with the brain’s reward circuitry.

Following this behavioural insight to its logical conclusion, maybe it doesn’t matter whether people care about the planet; as long as the “right” behaviours are rewarding enough, people will do the right things for no good reason at all. Given that we arguably don’t have time to wait for everybody to care enough, and given the fact that researchers have proven that care doesn’t necessarily lead to action anyway, we might want to spend more energy and resources on behaviour change than on persuading more people to care more.

A third step to cracking the climate bias code is to reframe the story we are living in. Our biases tell us the story that we have no power, that it’s too late, that we don’t have to worry about this yet, that the risk isn’t that big, that change is unpleasant, that we are alone in our feelings, that experts have this all under control, and so forth. There is just as much evidence to the contrary; paying attention to how and where we get our information, and what stories we, too are putting out in the world, helps counterbalance these biases. If you get all your news from mainstream and social media, you might get the impression that there are a lot more climate deniers out there than there really are.

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Yet the majority of people care a lot about climate change, so you are not alone. Acting in concert with others stokes our reward systems even more than the comfort of knowing that our actions are effective. The false perception that you are alone in your concern is at the root of pseudoinefficacy.And you are less likely to act if you feel alone in your actions, so your pseudoinefficacy becomes a feedback loop of inaction and then a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, the biggest step you can take as an individual is to challenge the view that you are an isolated individual in the first place, because the view that you are powerless is a greater threat to the planet than your carbon footprint.

How we interpret the world has everything to do with the culture we are marinating in, and is not just about our wiring. “Reward” and “curtailment” and “threat” mean different things to different brains. Some indigenous cultures do not experience the same “present bias,” which leads people to care more about their current self over their future self, because they see themselves as part of a wider temporal arc including many generations. And some people are abler to perceive environmental changes because they feel kinship with more-than-human species or they live more closely to the land.

Such examples illustrate the variety of what our brains could be capable of, and that wiring isn’t destiny. They are models for how we might change our brains to be in the right relationship with the crises we are experiencing. And they prove that it is possible to enlist the most powerful climate technology—our brains—in service of a just transition.

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