Why We Delay: How Human Cognition Impairs Our Response to Climate Change

By John Morley Rolls.

Published by The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The IPCC has been warning of the danger of human caused climate change for well over a decade, and the global climate science community is essentially unanimous in advising that the world must drastically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate disruption.

All national leaders have access to that advice, but no nation is taking action at a rate commensurate with the scale of the problem. Undeveloped nations with very small emissions can be excused because of lack of capacity, and genuine, more imminent threats to survival.

That excuse is not available to wealthy developed nations–the nations responsible for the problem. Much of the explanation for their failure lies within political economy: we are hugely dependent on fossil fuels, and the interests of a large number of politically powerful people would be affected by reducing emissions.
However, given the huge scale of projected impacts, the political economy reasons barely seem adequate.

This paper discusses the underlying reasons for this failure, in the many non-systematic, affect-driven features of human perception and processing of information generally, and risk information specifically. It concludes that if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, one of the things we need to do is to quickly and comprehensively incorporate the insights from the social sciences into public engagement and information processes, decision making by political leaders, and national and international decision making processes. The peak national bodies representing the social sciences need to take much higher profile and more direct role in response to climate change.

Keywords: Climate Change, Human Cognition, Risk Response, Decision Making

The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp.173-186. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 437.554KB).

Dr. John Morley Rolls

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Barbara Hardy Institute, Division of Information Technology, Engineering and the Environment, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

John Rolls is a physical scientist who has spent most of his working life in water resources policy and management in Australia’s driest state, South Australia. He has worked more recently in energy policy and climate change response policy. He became interested in climate change as a threat to water supply in the late 1980s. Over the last three years he has been conducting a literature review of human response to climate change, as represented in public opinion about its reality and human causation, its media representation and communication, and the psychological factors affecting human perception and information processing.

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