Human evolution: how it hinders and helps fight climate change

We know that climate change is happening. We know that this is the result of increased carbon emissions from human activities such as soil degradation and the burning of fossil fuels. And we know that climate change needs to be addressed urgently.

According to the latest reports from international climate experts, within 11 years, global warming could reach an average level at which the temperature rises by 1,5 °C. This threatens us with “increased health risks, reduced livelihoods, slower economic growth, worsening food, water and human security.” Experts also note that rising temperatures have already profoundly altered human and natural systems, including melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather, droughts, floods and loss of biodiversity.

But even all this information is not enough to change human behavior enough to reverse climate change. And our own evolution plays a big role in this! The same behaviors that once helped us survive are working against us today.

However, it is important to remember one thing. It is true that no other species has evolved to produce such a large-scale crisis, but other than humanity, no other species has the capacity and extraordinary ability to solve this problem. 

Factor of cognitive distortions

Because of the way our brains have evolved over the past two million years, we lack the collective will to tackle climate change.

“People are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term change,” says political psychologist Conor Sale, director of research at One Earth Future Foundation, a program that focuses on long-term peace support. “We are paying full attention to the immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to understand, such as terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, such as climate change.”

In the early stages of human existence, people constantly faced problems that threatened their survival and reproduction as a species – from predators to natural disasters. Too much information can confuse the human brain, causing us to do nothing or make the wrong choice. Therefore, the human brain has evolved to quickly filter information and focus on what is most important for survival and reproduction.

This biological evolution ensured our ability to survive and procreate, saving our brains time and energy when dealing with a huge amount of information. However, these same functions are less useful in modern times and cause errors in the decision-making process, known as cognitive biases.

Psychologists identify more than 150 cognitive distortions that are common to all people. Some of them are particularly important in explaining why we lack the will to tackle climate change.

Hyperbolic discounting. It is the feeling that the present is more important than the future. For most of human evolution, it has been more profitable for people to focus on what could kill or eat them in the present moment, rather than in the future. This focus on the present limits our ability to take action to address more distant and complex issues.

Lack of concern for future generations. The theory of evolution suggests that we care most about several generations of our family: from our grandparents to great-great-grandchildren. We may understand what needs to be done to address climate change, but it is difficult for us to comprehend the challenges that generations will face if they live beyond this short period of time.

bystander effect. People tend to believe that someone else will deal with the crisis for them. This mindset formed for an obvious reason: if a dangerous wild animal approached a group of hunter-gatherers from one side, people would not rush at it all at once – it would be a waste of effort, only endangering more people. In small groups, as a rule, it was quite clearly defined who was responsible for what threats. Today, however, this often leads us to mistakenly think that our leaders must do something about the climate change crisis. And the larger the group, the stronger this false confidence.

Sunk cost error. People tend to stick to one course, even if it ends badly for them. The more time, energy, or resources we have invested in one course, the more likely we are to stick with it, even if it no longer looks optimal. This explains, for example, our continued reliance on fossil fuels as our primary source of energy, despite ample evidence that we can and should move towards clean energy and create a carbon-neutral future.

In modern times, these cognitive biases limit our ability to respond to what could be the biggest crisis humanity has ever provoked and faced.

evolutionary potential

The good news is that the results of our biological evolution are not only preventing us from solving the problem of climate change. They also gave us opportunities to overcome it.

Humans have the ability to mentally “time travel”. It can be said that, compared to other living beings, we are unique in that we are able to remember past events and anticipate future scenarios.

We can imagine and predict complex multiple outcomes and determine the actions required in the present to achieve desired outcomes in the future. And individually, we often find ourselves able to act on these plans, such as investing in retirement accounts and buying insurance.

Unfortunately, this ability to plan for future outcomes breaks down when large-scale collective action is required, as is the case with climate change. We know what we can do about climate change, but solving this problem requires collective action on a scale beyond our evolutionary capabilities. The larger the group, the more difficult it becomes – such is the bystander effect in action.

But in small groups, things are different.

Anthropological experiments show that any person can maintain stable relationships with an average of 150 other people – a phenomenon known as “Dunbar’s number”. With more social connections, relationships begin to break down, undermining the individual’s ability to trust and rely on the actions of others to achieve collective long-term goals.

Recognizing the power of small groups, Exposure Labs, the filmmaker behind environmental films like Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, is using its content to mobilize communities to take action on climate change locally. For example, in the US state of South Carolina, where most leaders are climate change denial, Exposure Labs invited people from various fields such as agriculture, tourism, etc. to talk about how climate change affects them personally. They then work with these small groups to identify practical actions that can be immediately taken at the local level to make an impact, which helps create the political pressure needed to get legislators to pass the relevant laws. When local communities talk about their individual interests, people are less likely to succumb to the bystander effect and more likely to participate.

Such approaches also draw on several other psychological strategies. First, when small groups themselves participate in finding solutions, they experience a contribution effect: when we own something (even an idea), we tend to value it more. Secondly, social comparison: we tend to evaluate ourselves by looking at others. If we are surrounded by others who are taking action on climate change, we are more likely to follow suit.

However, of all our cognitive biases, one of the strongest and most influential in our decision-making processes is the framing effect. In other words, how we communicate about climate change affects how we perceive it. People are more likely to change their behavior if the problem is framed positively (“the future of clean energy will save X lives”) rather than negatively (“we will die out due to climate change”).

“Most people believe climate change is real but feel powerless to do anything,” says Exposure Labs managing director Samantha Wright. “So in order to get people to act, we need the issue to be direct and personal, and to be captured locally, pointing out both local impacts and possible solutions, such as switching your city to 100% renewable energy.”

Likewise, behavior change must be stimulated at the local level. One of the countries leading the way is Costa Rica, which introduced an innovative fuel tax back in 1997. To highlight the taxpayer’s link between fuel consumption and benefits to their own communities, a portion of the proceeds goes to pay farmers and indigenous communities to protect and revitalize Costa Rica’s rainforests. The system currently raises $33 million each year for these groups and helps the country offset forest loss while growing and transforming the economy. In 2018, 98% of the electricity used in the country was generated from renewable energy sources.

The most useful trait humanity has developed is the ability to innovate. In the past, we have used this skill to open fire, reinvent the wheel, or sow the first fields. Today it is solar panels, wind farms, electric cars, etc. Along with innovation, we have developed communication systems and technologies to share these innovations, allowing one idea or invention to spread far beyond our own family or city.

Mental time travel, social behaviors, the ability to innovate, teach and learn – all these evolutionary consequences have always helped us to survive and will continue to help us in the future, albeit in the face of a completely different threat than that faced humanity in the days of hunter-gatherers.

We have evolved to be able to stop the climate change we have caused. It’s time to act!

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