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Blaming evolution for our slow response to global warming

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An expert on resilience talks about how our evolutionary tendencies make it all but impossible for us to fear -- and act on -- climate change.

What's to blame for our slow reaction to the threat of global warming? Andrew Shatte, an expert on resilience and a research professor at the University of Arizona, says our evolutionary tendencies make it all but impossible for us to fear -- and act on -- climate change.

When we spoke last week, Shatte explained why many Americans believe global warming is a serious issue that requires immediate action, but few have taken major steps to curb it.

Why haven't most people changed their habits when it comes to staving off global warming?

We have evolved several traits that push our behavior down certain pathways that even we consider somewhat irrational. Some of these evolutionary aspects provide limitations on how well we can respond to a threat like global warming. And others of these evolutionary forces distract us. Evolution isn't Santa Claus. It doesn't give us everything we want. It gives us only what we need to survive. When our sensory system was being shaped three or four million years ago, we were reacting to some pretty specific threats. The concept of evolution is that whatever gives you greater reproductive success, it's going to be kept in the gene pool. The things that were selected were things like our ability to spot a lion in the grass.

We never developed a capacity to detect carbon dioxide because we never needed to. For us, carbon dioxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, until it reaches proportions where it's lethal. Our sensory system never developed a way to detect it because it was never a threat. We never needed to detect the elements that comprise global warming and so we haven't. We also don't detect things at a distance. From where you're sitting in the Northeast in the middle of a snowstorm, it's really difficult to even entertain the concept of global warming as a threat. Those people who are closest to the front line of global warming, on the Arctic Circle seeing melting ice day in and day out, they are much better responders because their sensory system is detecting a threat. My tagline is, "What we don't detect, we don't sweat." You can tell me all the time about global warming, but I'm not seeing it, I'm not smelling it, I'm not tasting it or touching it or hearing it, and so it's less meaningful for me.

Human beings will respond with alarm only to those things they fear. Take a look at the list of [some of the top] killers in American civilization: heart disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, injury, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, Alzheimer's. [By contrast, our top fears are] animals, insects, heights, enclosed spaces, driving a car, water, storms and blood. There's almost no crossover between the two lists. Psychologists have a theory that says the phobias we developed are based on what were threats a couple of millennia ago. Our modern genes haven't caught up with our modern realities. Whenever it comes to evolution, it's important to realize that we're constantly playing catch-up. We're fearing spiders when we really should be fearing cardiovascular disorders and potentially global warming. Everything about the evolution of our fears works against us being afraid of global warming.

To what extent does this become an extinction-level threat?

I'm not a climate scientist. I've read the reports of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. I know what the academies of science in most developed countries say. And what they're suggesting is that man-made global warming is real, that we have contributed to the warming of our globe and that there will be some pretty serious consequences of global warming if it goes unabated. Climate change can cause drought in some areas, floods in others, loss of crop. Whenever we have a loss of crop and we don't have enough food to feed the world, then we have to seriously consider the concept of war. I don't know what the consequences will be, but we're not really in a very fit position to respond to the threat. And if the threat is not an extinction-level event, then it probably doesn't matter. But if it is an extinction-level event, then we really need to take stock because everything about evolution has pushed us away from being able to mount a challenge.

Coming tomorrow: Shatte talks about how to beat the evolutionary forces that hinder our fight against global warming.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Shatte

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure