Our Brains Are Accelerating the Climate Catastrophe

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Investments in brain health and brain skills are key to sustaining the environment and navigating the complexities of social-ecological challenges.

COMMENTARY

Brain health is intricately linked with climate change; when one improves so does the other, and vice versa. Overcoming evolutionary cognitive biases can both improve brain health and equip us to prevent climate change. Conversely climate change and environmental collapse may significantly harm brain health.

Denialism and Other Cognitive Maladies

Science denialism is a major hurdle to managing many global crises. For example, denialism has had devastating consequences in the COVID-19 pandemic. Science denialism drives “antimask behavior, antivaccine beliefs, conspiracy theories ... and ... support ... for unproven therapies.”1 The impact of science denialism extends beyond COVID-19; it has also impeded efforts to address the modern-day climate crisis, where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories abound. For example, George Mason University scientist John Cook notes that while around 97% of scientists agree that climate change is primarily anthropogenic, “only 12% of the American public are aware that the scientific consensus is higher than 90%.”2 Furthermore, Cook writes that 20% of Americans think climate change is a “hoax.”

Psychological factors make fighting misinformation a difficult task. For one, misinformation is sticky. Cook writes that “Once people internalize misinformation, it is notoriously difficult to dislodge.”2 Additionally, misinformation is compelling, and human beings have an innate proclivity for consuming denialist media. Vosoughi et al, analyzing 12 years of Twitter data, found that fake news stories spread much faster on Twitter than real news—and individuals are to blame for their circulation, not bots. Fake news stories “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”3 True news stories took about 6 times longer to reach 1500 people on Twitter than hoax stories, according to the study. As the satirist Jonathan Swift observed in the 18th century, “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Even without direct denialism, the human brain is hard-wired to underestimate the threat of the climate crisis. Matthew Wilburn King, writing for the BBC, explains that evolutionary cognitive biases (like the sunk-cost fallacy and the bystander effect) are a hindrance to responding to long-term, large-scale threats like climate change.4 Similarly, a report from the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that, “Many think of climate change risks (and thus of the benefits of mitigating them) as both considerably uncertain and as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them.”5

Furthermore, there is a sort of climate change bystander effect, with the APA stating that “many people… believe that others should act, or believe that their actions will make no difference or are unimportant compared to those of others.”5 The upshot is that fighting climate change is as much a psychological battle as it is a political or economic one. Together, we must overcome the cognitive barriers to popular acceptance of the realities of climate change.

The Interplay Between Brain Health and Climate Change

There is growing recognition that fostering brain skills will be crucial to confronting climate change. Cook recently developed the “Cranky Uncle” game to teach individuals about logical fallacies and critical thinking in the context of climate change. 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 can’t get the forecast right next week?” and “Climate models are imperfect so they can’t be trusted.”

But the ties between the brain and the climate go even further. Just as improving brain health can help avert climate change or create preparedness should a changed climate eventually result in environmental collapse, climate change may significantly harm brain health. Nancy Sicotte, chair of the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, explains that the brain has an “optimum temperature,” and global heating could reduce productivity and worsen symptoms for multiple sclerosis patients.6 Furthermore, the APA reports that climate change, and in particular the resultant severe weather events, can lead to mental health issues.7 Finally, the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that higher temperatures might lower worker productivity and increase conflict.8 Even in the absence of further climate change, brain health already hangs in the balance: it has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant challenges lie ahead.9 The effect on brain health is just 1 of potentially many unintended consequences of climate change.

All in all, the relationship between climate change and the brain resembles a vicious cycle: the climate crisis worsens brain skills, and diminished brain skills perpetuate climate inaction or rejection of the scientific consensus. To break the cycle, we must develop a plan to improve brain health and brain skills at scale. But how?

The Road to Better Brain and Climate Health

In the corporate world, the use of metrics is vital to accomplishing directives. Want a happier staff? Start tracking employee well-being. Want more loyal customers? Start recording net promoter scores. Or, more pertinently, as many companies attempt to foster a sense of corporate purpose that may value priorities like environmentalism, researchers have suggested an approach for measuring purpose through converting purpose-related metrics into “monetary values.”10

In light of this, we have launched the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative. With this work we aim to advance the notion that in our brain economy, investments in brain health and brain skills are critical for post-COVID economic renewal, re-imagination, and long-term economic resilience that are in multiple ways connected to healthy ecosystems. This Initiative previously proposed Brain Capital, a new paradigm promoting policies, investment, and tracking related to improving brain health and brain skills. In particular, by developing a Brain Capital Index, we can measure progress in brain health and brain skills.

Humans are embedded in, rather than apart from, the world as a global ecosystem, meaning our health and welfare can eventually be dragged down by ecosystem deterioration. Such may be the case if our global climate shifts into an irreversible Hothouse Earth, according to an international group lead by Will Steffen from the University of Canberra and Stockholm Resilience Center.11 We believe the Brain Capital framework will help us unlock critical thinking skills, creativity, and resilience, which are needed today more than ever to navigate the complexity of social-ecological challenges in the face of climate change.

William Ellsworth is an associate with the PRODEO Institute and student at Stanford University. Erin Smith is an associate with the PRODEO Institute and Thiel Fellow at Stanford University. Dr Hynes is Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary General and Head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit at the OECD. Dr Angeler is Researcher at the Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment; Section for Ecology and Biodiversity at the Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet. Dr Eyre is cofounder of the PRODEO Institute, colead of the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative, adjunct associate professor with IMPACT at Deakin University, and instructor in brain health diplomacy with the Global Brain Health Institute based between the University of California, San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin.

References

1. Miller BL. Science denial and COVID conspiracy theories: potential neurological mechanisms and possible responses. JAMA. 2020;324(22):2255-2256.

2. Cook J. Understanding and countering misinformation about climate change. In: Chiluwa I, Samoilenko S, eds. Handbook of Research on Deception, Fake News, and Misinformation Online. IGI-Global; 2019:281-306.

3. Vosoughi S, Roy D, Aral S. The spread of true and false news online. Science. 2018;359(6380):1146-1151.

4. King MW. How brain biases prevent climate action. BBC Future. March 7, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190304-human-evolution-means-we-can-tackle-climate-change

5. American Psychological Association. Psychology & global climate change: addressing a multifaceted phenomenon and set of challenges. 2009. https://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/executive-summary.pdf

6. Neuroscience News staff. The brain and climate change. Neuroscience News. February 27, 2020. https://neurosciencenews.com/climate-change-brain-15806/

7. Weir K. Climate change is threatening mental health. Monitor on Psychology. 2016;47(7):28.

8. Belsie L. Exploring how climate change affects conflict and productivity. National Bureau of Economic Research. 2015;4.

9. Ellsworth W, Smith E, Chapman SB, et al. Move over data, brain capital is the new oil. Psychiatric Times. January 14, 2021. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/move-over-data-brain-capital-is-the-new-oil

10. Barby C, Barker R, Cohen R, et al. Measuring purpose: an integrated framework. Social Science Research Network. February 9, 2021. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3771892

11. Steffen W, Rockström J, Richardson K, et al. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. PNAS. 2018;115(33):8252-8259.