Is your memory hiding the inconvenient truth about climate change?

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(Image via @ElissaSursara)

Humans may fail to prioritise climate change because our memories limit our capacity to envision its possible catastrophic effects, writes psychologist Dr Misia Temler.

RECENTLY, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Treaty agreement to fight climate change despite overwhelming evidence of global warming caused by human activity. Some scientists predict that if we do not take action now, within 20 years we will suffer harm to all sectors of civilisation — food, water, health, land, national security, energy and economic prosperity. Others warn of more dire consequences, such as the  possibility of mass extinction if we continue our present carbon emission.

Yet a poll from last year found that Democrats rank climate change sixth in importance out of 23 policy issues, trailing after issues such as economy, health care and income inequality. Republicans rank climate change lower, rating it between 21st and 23rd in importance. Similar trends were reflected in a survey from this month, with the majority of Americans not prioritising climate change over other issues for the country.

Considering we are talking about longstanding damage to our planet and possible extinction, one may wonder why fighting climate change is not higher in priority. If the future survival of the human species may be at stake, why is climate change not ranked first in importance across both parties? Examining these questions from a memory perspective may offer some insight. This is because our memories of past experiences may hinder our foresight for the future.

One of the main adaptive functions of our memory is to remember past experiences to help prepare us for novel similar situations. Humans may therefore fail to prioritise climate change because our memories may limit our capacity to envision the possible irreparable catastrophic effects of climate change. We can’t imagine our planet changing because we have never experienced our planet changing. This is because our ability to remember the past is linked to our ability to imagine the future.

Researchers have found that remembering the past and imagining the future rely on many of the same cognitive and neural processes. This link has been illustrated in case studies where individuals who have serious deficiencies in remembering their past also have serious deficiencies in imagining their future. Our autobiographical memory of the past has evolved to be reconstructive like a kaleidoscope and not reproductive like a video camera. This mechanism then allows us to reconstruct the past and construct the future. We extract relevant information blocks from past experiences to build imagined possible novel scenarios. We thereby continually rely on information from the past to guide us in future decision making and problem solving. The majority of us in the western world have been very fortunate to have not experienced a longstanding environmental catastrophe in our lifetime, yet this lack of past experience may hinder our ability to objectively imagine and approach the threat of global warming.

Humans may also fail to prioritise climate change because our memory is goal directed and this may affect our judgement in properly assessing goals in the more distant future. Our memory functions to maintain a record of progress to help us reach our evolving goals. It provides us with correspondence of facts and coherence of achieved subjective milestones. Our present goals influence what we remember and what we remember influences our present goals. This feedback loop can then limit the goals we set.  We use selective information recalled to project us in the future. But just as we are generally better at remembering recent memories at the expense of older memories, the same is true for imaging near future to distant future events.

This, in turn, may affect short term vs. long term goal processing. Short term goals that we can imagine in our lifetime take precedence over long terms goals spawning future generations. Vividly imaging a clear detailed plan of what one wants to achieve can help in reaching future goals. But relying on vivid visualization may affect priority in assessing long term goals properly, particularly if people see today’s goals as conflicting with future goals. Different goals require different action and this disrupts coherence. The consequence is that humans will ultimately do what is best for now largely ignoring the repercussions for later. People may struggle to commit to long term goals to fight climate change because their present day goals, such as economic ones (reliance on our fossil fuels will benefit the economy because of the lower cost in making electricity with domestically produced natural gas) are usually in conflict with our future goals (curbing fossil fuel reliance now will help stop economy losses from natural catastrophes in the future).

Finally, humans may fail to prioritise climate change because our memory filters what information is accepted and remembered. Unfortunately, over the years, climate change has become very political. The general beliefs of members of the U.S. Republican Party are that climate change is a hoax or conspiracy, and to believe otherwise challenges the parties core beliefs. Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues found, in particular, conservative free market worldviews were important predictors in rejection of climate science. We remember to maintain a sense of personal identity. What this means is that we accept information that is consistent with our beliefs and attitudes, and ignore the information that is not. The adaptive function of maintaining a sense of identity thus helps explain the gap between Democrat and Republican opinion differences in their climate change policy rating. People tend to read and remember information from sources that support their political affiliation and party’s beliefs. On the contrary, people are more likely to reject information that challenges their political ideology.

Taking a memory perspective in examining humans’ approach towards climate change suggests that changing or creating memories of the past may alter goal prioritisation in the future. There is already some evidence that creation of collective social memories, through media narratives, images and memes can raise awareness for the potential threats of global warming, and make climate change more personally meaningful.

Examining the relationship between remembering the past and planning for the future illustrates that our approach to some impending world issues may be driven by cognitive by-products rather than by objective assessments of importance. By understanding this link we may be better equipped to tackle the inconvenient truth about climate change.

Dr Misia Temler is a forensic psychologist and project coordinator of Not Guilty, The Sydney Exoneration Project at the University of Sydney. You can follow Misia at @MisiaTemler.

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