Opinion: Human brains aren’t wired to fight climate change

File photo/David Robert Elliott/The New York Times / A dry field near Garden City, Kansas, is shown on Oct. 17, 2023. Groundwater levels are falling in much of the country, often the result of overpumping and underregulation, made worse by climate change.
File photo/David Robert Elliott/The New York Times / A dry field near Garden City, Kansas, is shown on Oct. 17, 2023. Groundwater levels are falling in much of the country, often the result of overpumping and underregulation, made worse by climate change.

Humans are very likely the only species that can imagine very distant futures. Unfortunately, our brains aren't wired to behave in a way that optimizes those futures. After all, most of us don't even save enough for retirement.

Individual choices can have broad social implications. If we're broke in retirement, we'll rely on public assistance. But society as a whole is also prone to toxic short-termism. Take climate change. Burning fossil fuels, clear-cutting forests and mass-producing cows serve our immediate needs for lights, farmland and cheeseburgers, but at the cost of ruining the climate for many future generations.

How many generations, exactly? Andrew Dessler, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University, recently posted a version of a chart to "The Climate Brink," the Substack newsletter he co-authors with climate scientist Zeke Hausfather. He labeled it "the scariest plot in the world":

The chart lays out global temperatures since the depth of the last ice age, almost 20,000 years ago, and projects them out another 10,000 or so years. It demonstrates the many slow millennia it took for Earth to warm by roughly 4 degrees Celsius until reaching the pleasant climate of the Holocene interglacial period, the era in which humans thrived and developed electricity, agriculture and cheeseburgers.

The chart also demonstrates just how quickly the Earth could heat by 3 degrees Celsius as a result of humanity's wanton burning of fossil fuels over just a few hundred years. And that would occur in the blink of a geological eye compared to Earth's previous gradual warming phase. That amount of heating would be catastrophic for billions of current and future humans.

Unfortunately, that outcome is more or less what we can expect, given current policies and practices around the world. And even if we stop burning fossil fuels in the decades to come, most of the human-caused heating would likely stick around for another 100,000 years, according to Dessler. "The decisions we make in the next few decades will determine the climate for the next 5,000 generations," Dessler wrote. "If we choose unwisely, people in the future will justifiably be furious with us because we know what we're doing but we're doing it anyway."

At the moment, we are choosing very unwisely.

Our failure to act isn't just short-sightedness; it's willful ignorance. This may be the result of another flaw in human wiring: We tend to assume the future will look a lot like the present, so even if the present is slightly worse than the past, it's hard for us to imagine things could get even worse still.

The good news is that none of this is a mystery. We do have leaders who at least give lip service to making the world safe for future generations. Most voters worry about climate change and want to see action. We have the technology to end our reliance on fossil fuels; we just have to be willing to make the investment to deploy it at scale.

"This is not a science problem; it's a political problem," Dessler said in an interview. "If we don't solve it, it's because we chose not to solve it, not because we didn't have the solution."

Some of us break into a cold sweat when trying to figure out what to make for dinner on any given night or when an job interviewer asks us where we see ourselves in five years. It's ironically easier to have a vision for where the planet could be in five, 50 or 5,000 years. We just need to share that vision, loudly and often, with the people and organizations who have the power to make that vision a reality. Our future selves will thank us.

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