"The Ice Age Cometh", a short story by Indian astrophysicist Jayanth V. Narlikar opens with a bizarre scene — snowfall in Mumbai. The spectacle is almost fantastical, and the readers' and the characters' disbelief at this strange event is palpable. As the narrative progresses, we are made aware that this climate change prediction was made about five years before by a climatologist called Dr Vasant Chitnis. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of response his theory must have received. People dismissed his predictions completely, considering them musings of a scientist who had lost his marbles, even though it was supported with well-reasoned and sufficient evidence. The severity of the situation hits too late, much later than any of us would like to believe.
The story culminates in the extinction of almost half of the global population. It is in the final throes of humanity's struggle against the onset of the Ice Age that the people take much needed action. The solution suggested by Dr Chitnis is neither inexpensive nor full-proof, but the precariousness of the situation finally drives the action, the final shot in humanity's quiver. The disaster is averted and Earth seems to be getting back to normalcy. However, it is quite comical as there is a hint of the next impending problem of global warming, the reality we live in.
The final passages of the story make one wonder. Suppose the story progressed with global warming as the next big issue. Would people have reacted a different way to scientific warnings, given that they had survived an apocalyptic event already? Would there be the same prompt action and global cooperation before the situation took a turn for the worse?
The dismissal of Ice Age warnings in the story is not very different from our own reaction towards climate change and the global rise in the Earth's temperature. The National Academy of Science (NAS) records that 1989-2019 were most likely the warmest 30 years in the past 800. Melting ice in the Northern Hemisphere, climate-sensitive species migrating further towards the poles, and rising seawater levels are only a few observations out of many that unequivocally indicate the climate crisis is here. Yet, people seem to have trouble believing in climate change is an urgent issue. Either they completely deny it as temporary changes in the weather or justify extreme conditions as the environment's variable nature, something that does not warrant concern. Some consider this a problem but place it way into the future; something posterity may have to face. In totality, the reactions are lukewarm and lack any prompt call to action to improve the situation.
Different schools of thought analyse this lack of conviction in the climate crisis and the immediate countermeasures it demands. One of the most cited reasons is the conflict between science and people's immediate reality. Discrediting scientific findings to defend one's values, religious beliefs, and experiences dates back to the 17th century. Galileo Galilei's heliocentric model of the solar system was deemed heresy against the church. In the 19th Century, Darwin's theory of evolution received backlash from the church and its followers. The 21st century and its sensibilities are not permeated by religion as much as before. However, the weight of influence has shifted to other sides.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar, environment activist and ecofeminist, holds a 'mechanistic view' of the world, an outcome of the capitalist and patriarchal mindset produced by humans overlooking the detrimental impact of their activities on the environment. Prioritising short-term profits and monetary gains over long-term damage to the planet makes people ignorant of their own impending doom. The argument holds validity when we look at the pace with which industrialisation and capitalist endeavours have flourished in the last 200 years, putting enormous stress on the planet's resources. This culture of mass production invisiblises the non-monetary costs we pay for the products and services we consume.
Political leaders further propel the narrative of doubt by claiming that climate change is a hoax, part of the opposition's propaganda to scare the public, or that they simply don't believe it. It is very little or almost no action to curb the climate crisis by leading nations that are responsible for more than half of global carbon emissions. Five years after the Paris Agreement for climate change, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar criticised developed nations for not fulfilling their financial and technological commitments as per the document.
Other reasons Homo Negators (climate change sceptics) point to are a disagreement within the scientific community on the certainty of climate change, a dearth of concrete evidence to support the issue, and that climate change is a good thing because more carbon dioxide means a better environment for the crops to grow.
These observations signal towards systems that discourage positive action on climate change. The need to reaffirm one's belief in the divinity and be part of the community may encourage climate change denial. Switching to an eco-friendly lifestyle requires costlier substitutes and even readjusting the standard of living, which not many people are willing to do. Political allegiances also shape our views on a variety of issues, among which climate change is one. However, these are rooted in institutional denial rather than the individual. Though important, the answers received from these observations merely scratch the surface.
George Marshall is an environmental campaigner, writer and communications expert. His book Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change is a psychological study of people's resistance to believe in climate change and how the information around climate change is processed by people.
Our cognitive processes are responsible for shaping the world around us. We tend to draw more towards information that affirms our pre-existing notions, beliefs and attitudes towards things. This tendency to actively handpick evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs is called confirmation bias. The information we consume, ignore, act on and reject is all part of the mental map created by our confirmation bias. Psychologists call this mental map a 'schema'. Over the years, complex intersections of our varied experiences and knowledge acquired from the surroundings are responsible for forming these cognitive frameworks. In case we come across information that is in opposition to our belief, it is moulded to fit into our schema. This process is termed as biased assimilation.
Individually, weather changes cannot be ascribed to climate change with any certainty, which leaves them open to interpretation in accordance with one's prior assumptions and views. If you believe that the climate crisis is real, you will see changes in weather phenomenon as a consequence of a disturbed balance in nature. However, if you believe climate change is not real, weather changes are just a variable characteristic of the environment and nothing to worry about. The biases guide responses to both weather changes and climate change. The fact that climate change does not have a clear definition and no single, visible nemesis makes it an extremely complex problem, open to misinterpretation and prone to confirmation bias. The degree of severity of the outcome is not predictable all at once, and no reward system exists to incentivise people. The inherent multivalency of climate change makes it difficult to understand and even more difficult to resolve.
Our basic behavioural instincts also make us less than adept at dealing with a problem as complex as climate change. Humans are social creatures and the instinct to seek social conformity is deep within all of us. The fact that climate change is a global issue and requires collective social response makes it susceptible to the bystander effect, which states an individual is less likely to act on a problem if they assume more people know about it. The instinct in such a situation is to observe what others are doing and find an appropriate response, most likely one that conforms with others. Social cues, therefore, hold vital importance in assessing people's response to climate change.
Professor Dan Kahan, a leading expert involved with the Yale Cognition Project, stresses the same and reasons that people are more likely to obtain information from their social circle. They listen to the people they trust and, on a larger scale, media that affirm their worldview. This almost always holds true, except when the information becomes 'polluted' with additional meanings that place it into a broader matrix of social values, politics and identity. For example, Kahan discusses his research on resistance to vaccination to show how science becomes contaminated with added meaning.
"In Britain a single research paper in 1998 arguing that the combined mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism in children was accepted as proof by one-quarter of the public, and immunisation rates plummeted. Scientific data was soon abandoned in the dirty public battle that contrasted the cold, mechanistic approach of the scientists with the raw emotional appeal of the parents convinced that their children had changed immediately after their immunisation shot."
Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
Similar contamination has punctured the information around climate change. Studies at Yale show that it is possible to predict with some accuracy if someone believes in climate change or not by observing specific cultural characteristics. College graduates, liberal democrats and women are more likely to be Homo Credans (the ones convinced about climate change) and strongly conservative, rich people belonging to powerful groups are more plausibly the sceptics. The fact that cultural, social and political characteristics can deduce people's attitude towards climate change shows that the scientific information has been polluted.
Noting that science can lose its credibility in the face of "raw emotional appeal" alludes to the dominance of our emotional side over the rational one. Well-reasoned scientific data appeals to the analytical side of our brain. While it may help us understand the problem, it does not motivate us enough to do something about it. In fact, many actions taken towards saving the environment were triggered by some personal or community belief or event. Saalumarada Thimmakka’s case demonstrates this. Thimmakka received the Padma Shri award in 2019 for planting 384 banyan trees across a 4-km stretch. After getting married at a young age to Bikaalu Chikkaiah, Thimmakka did not get pregnant for a while. Grief-stricken, the couple tried various pilgrimages, rituals and prayers. A ritual of planting saplings was suggested to the couple, which they undertook whole-heartedly and carried on for all their lives. The banyan trees now form a canopy over the 4-kilometre stretch of the highway. The Chipko Movement in 1973, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) in 1961 in the US, and many other environmental movements that took place in the world's history have something very personal, experiential, and emotional at their core.
The lapse, therefore, seems to be in the manner in which information about climate change is communicated from the scientists to the general public. One solution to impressing the urgency of climate action could be to build a suitable narrative about it. We need new metaphors and new diction to talk about what climate change means for individuals. We need a narrative that provides facts as well as appeals to the emotional half of the brain to inspire real action. The toil and little possibility of finding such a narrative is work that is cut out ones who wish to bring a change.
Coming back to the story discussed in the beginning, we cannot negate the possibility that there may be resistance to believe in the next climate catastrophe. The remaining population might be overcome with the desire to return to normalcy and stay there as long as possible. They would surely like to believe that the worst is behind them. Maybe their biases will get the best of them. Maybe it will depend on how Dr Chitnis communicates his findings to the people and how the journalist pens it down. Maybe our search for a solution in the story will lead us to find our own as well.
Utkarsha Arvind is an aspiring writer and amateur photographer.