Brain Science Must Be on COP 26 Agenda

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As the COP-26 (Conference of the Parties) gets ready to convene to discuss climate change, it is crucial for them to consider brain science.

COMMENTARY

Can we really solve the climate crisis without taking brain science into account? We say, no. Our brains are accelerating the climate catastrophe.1 Indeed, brain health is intertwined with climate change. This relationship often resembles a vicious cycle in which the climate crisis worsens brain skills and brain health, and diminished brain skills and brain health perpetuate climate inaction. Seen from this vantage point, existing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approaches are incomplete to drive change. Agreeing on emissions targets and trying to stabilize the climate will not be enough if we do not understand how people fit into—and can affect—the system.

The French have mooted neuroscience as a top priority when they take up the European Union Presidency next year.2 Therefore, they are well placed to drive this critical innovation, as fighting climate change is as much a psychological and neurological battle as it is a political or economic one.

Understanding climate change-related factors means one must accept and recognize them. But we know that science denialism is a brain-based phenomena that blocks otherwise rational and intelligent people from accepting facts and issues.3 Likewise, greed and self-interest of entities and individuals (such as those profiting from carbon emitting industries) are detectable via various brain imaging technologies.4 Understanding the neurological underpinnings of greed can help identify the neurocognitive mechanisms that explain selfish and reckless behavior at the expense of others, such as with climate change inaction and denialism.

Amplified by science denialism, a host of climate change-related factors will have devasting neurological effects. For example, air pollution is second only to carbon emissions in subtly damaging all our brains.5 This is chilling to consider, but it also means our colleagues, companies, and organizations will lag in productivity due as a result.6 Furthermore, as climate leads to inevitable sea level risings, mass migration, and more extreme weather events, this will put incredible traumatic stress and pressure on all of us, further tanking our productivity and leading to severe mental and brain health conditions that may even be transmitted to later generations.7 In additions to rising rates of known neurological and psychiatric conditions, new connections between climatic events and mental health disorders have also emerged, and are known as eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, eco-psychology, ecological grief, solastalgia (distress caused by environmental change), biospheric concern, among others.7

The brain science lens gives us a more complete picture of our roadmap out of the climate crisis. We can invest more in the neuroscience research to understand these issues as well as how to screen, diagnose, and treat these ecological mental health issues. For example, the “Cranky Uncle” game can be employed to improve brain function and teach individuals about logical fallacies and critical thinking in the context of climate change.8 In the game, players must identify the form of science denial that matches the possible arguments of a climate denialist, such as “How can models predict climate 100 years out when they cannot get the forecast right next week?” and “Climate models are imperfect so they can’t be trusted.” Likewise, a novel framework was recently developed for addressing cognitive biases of climate change that can help develop solutions to depolarize climate beliefs and promote action to mitigate climate change.9 Overcoming cognitive biases and improving brain function will be key to equip us to prevent climate change, which conversely will help prevent significant harm to brain health.

Furthermore, the ability to creatively shift away from carbon emitting industries to renewable and green technologies requires the development of brain skills such as divergent thinking, resilience, and agility. These brain skills are additionally needed to navigate the complexity of social-ecological challenges of climate change, and they are trainable and detectable on brain scans.10 There is also emerging literature on how brain skills and brain health can boost economic productivity.11 Likewise, research on the neuroscience of wisdom is key to help the captains of industry, who seem to be hostage to revenues and taxation from carbon emitting industries, see into the long term and recognize their activities are running society into oblivion.12

In addition to traditional public neuroscience funding for clinical mental health and neurological disorders,13 we must increase funding toward neuroscience-inspired approaches to address the climate crisis. We must also broaden stakeholder rights from just shareholders to our employees, communities, and ecosystems in a way that factors in the brain health of these various constituencies. Not doing so is disingenuous and woefully inept.

Existing ESG approaches have driven positive business and societal value; however, they are incomplete. Incorporating brain health into ESG frameworks—shifting to B-ESG—would provide a more comprehensive, robust approach to create long-term positive impacts for the economy, environment, and all stakeholders. Channeling even a small percentage of the existing $40.5 trillion aligned to ESG into neuroscience innovations and solutions as part of a B-ESG approach would have an unprecedented impact.14 A B-ESG approach would also let us leverage the financial and capital markets to clean up other brain-based “pollutants” (eg, workplace stress, toxic effects of social media and toxic brain effects of nanoplastics leaching into our foodstuffs and water) exacerbating the climate crisis.15 A B-ESG approach would send a signal for more investment in venture capital-type vehicles to fund the scaling of science-backed solutions.

Without brains there is no capital, and without capital there are no brains. Come on COP-26 (Conference of the Parties), and come on France!

References

1. Ellsworth W, Smith E, Hynes W, et al. Our brains are accelerating the climate catastrophe. Psychiatric Times. April 5, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/our-brains-are-accelerating-the-climate-catastrophe

2. Matthews D. France to prioritise brain research when it takes on EU presidency next year. 2021. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://sciencebusiness.net/news/france-prioritise-brain-research-when-it-takes-eu-presidency-next-year

3. Lanata S, Miller B. A vaccination against the pandemic of misinformation. Scientific American. February 22, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-vaccination-against-the-pandemic-of-misinformation/#

4. Mussel P, Hewig J. A neural perspective on when and why trait greed comes at the expense of others. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):10985. Published 2019 Jul 29.

5 Peeples L. News Feature: How air pollution threatens brain health. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020;117(25):13856-13860.

6. Neidell M. Air pollution and worker productivity. World of Labor. June 2017. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://wol.iza.org/articles/air-pollution-and-worker-productivity/long.

7. Cianconi P, Betrò S, Janiri L. The impact of climate change on mental health: a systematic descriptive review. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:74. Published 2020 Mar 6.

8. Cranky Uncle game: building resilience against misinformation. 2021

9. Zhao J, Luo Y. A framework to address cognitive biases of climate change [published online ahead of print, 2021 Sep 14]. Neuron. 2021;S0896-6273(21)00626-7.

10. Onarheim B, Friis-Olivarius M. Applying the neuroscience of creativity to creativity training. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:656. Published 2013 Oct 16

11. Greene M. Boosting brain health is key to a thriving economy. Financial Times. August 12, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/d202b1f3-0a69-4acd-bb1b-e2fa06b21df3

12. Jeste DV, Lee EE, Cassidy C, et al. The new science of practical wisdom. Perspect Biol Med. 2019;62(2):216-236.

13. Vigo DV, Patel V, Becker A, et al. A partnership for transforming mental health globally. Lancet Psychiatry. 2019;6(4):350-356.

14. Baker S. Global ESG-data driven assets hit $40.5 trillion. Pension & Investments. Luettavissa:. Luettu. July 2, 2020. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www. pionline.com/esg/global-esg-data-driven-assets-hit-405-trillion

15. Prüst M, Meijer J, Westerink RHS. The plastic brain: neurotoxicity of micro- and nanoplastics. Part