“Minding” Climate Changes

Are we unwittingly in conflict with ourselves?

Robert Wheatley
4 min readDec 29, 2022

In the end, climate change and its resulting impacts are an outcome of human behavior, whether that is by individual citizens or business leaders, policy makers, elected officials and anyone else in a position to make a decision one way or another. In short, everyone contributes to our challenging climate situation — and everyone is responsible for its existential impacts.

Yet the climate change issue oddly finds itself at cross-purposes with how human beings think and operate.

History tells us people show remarkable resilience in solving the challenges to our own survival. Witness the incredible behavioral shifts and attending rapid gains in technology, from immunization tech leaps to work-from-home productivity, facilitated over a short span of time as society wrestled with the impact of a global pandemic.

However, facts are we just don’t solve all problems equally well. Even existential threats like climate change can frustratingly run counter to hardwired behaviors that govern our decisions. This helps explain why consumers may voice rising concerns about seemingly out-of-control climate events around us like droughts, floods and superstorms, while also driving gas guzzlers and walking past displays of more climate friendly food options at the grocery store.

“Our evolutionary history equips us to perceive, prioritize and find solutions for some kinds of problems more easily than others,” reports Ann-Christine Duhaime MD, Professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. “Our brains can make us feel more effective by sending money to flood victims more so than modifying behaviors that would help contribute to mitigating the cause of floods.”

People struggle with abstract challenges

Humans are guided by an internal mechanism that, second-to-second, constantly evaluates our actions in relationship to a shifting collection of perceived human rewards. In the end, climate impact falls from human behavior and our minds are both the source of the cause — as well as — the solutions.

· It’s fair to ask why we struggle to respond quickly to the degradation of the world around us.

· What’s more, global warming comes at us with a time limit attached to it. We are hurtling towards the end of the runway to address the sources of greenhouse gas emissions — a condition that didn’t arrive yesterday. It has been getting steadily worse for 50 years.

Equally perplexing, it seems, because the causes of climate change aren’t obscure. We know what we’re doing with respect to fossil fuel use, the impacts of industrial agriculture, deforestation, declines in biodiversity and over-consumption of limited resources like water and fish in the sea. Despite this knowledge we remain slow to change our ways even in the face of increasingly urgent consequences.

The challenge ahead isn’t outward, it is inward.

Ultimately large-scale behavior change will be required. Consuming less. Reducing waste. Conserving resources. However, we inherently discount anything that is perceived as far off in the future (2050 anyone?) or in geographically distant places (devastating floods in Pakistan or deforestation of the Amazon).

That rascal, our own brain, isn’t cooperating just yet

We have already responded and adapted to social changes (albeit slowly in some cases) brought on by the industrialization of everything, racial inequality, women’s rights and the historic lifestyle transformation wrought by the pandemic. Yet we still struggle with climate change.

According to experts in neuroscience, from the brain’s point of view, the required behavior changes in response to global warming aren’t interpreted as particularly rewarding. We have a conflict here between engrained desires to acquire and consume contrasted with what is at stake for ourselves and the planet.

Here it is in sum: our behaviors are influenced by a highly refined rewards system. In addition to consuming things, we are also rewarded by a sense of accomplishment and recognition. For that matter, social rewards of esteem, status and respect are among the most powerful.

Solving the climate crisis will require prioritization and actions by executives, office holders, influencers, economists and voters. The fundamental unit of change still remains person to person; until such time as climate-responsible behaviors ultimately become woven into the fabric of a cultural shift — and the desired actions are widely seen as culturally accepted, rewarding and meritorious.

Meantime important questions:

· What behaviors of ours most contribute to environmental harm?

· What works or doesn’t to foment behavior change?

· How can we make pro-environmental behaviors more rewarding? More socially recognized, acknowledged and valued?

If we can bridge the gap from awareness to reward, we will start to see differences in closing the distance from “understanding” to taking real, specific actions. For climate activists everywhere, attempting to scare people into action isn’t nearly as effective as working to identify psychic rewards for the changes we want people to make. It’s part of our DNA.

Please use this link to share your thoughts and opinions on what kind of rewards might be most effective to elevate climate action.

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Robert Wheatley

CEO of firm focused on helping brands understand, navigate and engage the consumer's growing passion for healthy living. Author, blogger, speaker. Home chef.