The Social Psychology behind Ignored Climate Change Warnings and Recommendations for Business Leaders

Water surges over the seawalls of lower Manhattan, businesses are inundated with up to four feet of water, and the subway tunnels coursing under the city, as well as out to New Jersey and Brooklyn, are all flooded. Tens of thousands of people are injured, temporarily dislocated or entirely displaced by the storm’s impact. Sound like the future? It’s not.
That was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and scientists and meteorologists continue to warn of similar storms that will cause as much if not worse damage than Sandy did due to the impact of global warming. Yet, sadly, our greatest struggle may not be in coping with the aftermath of these storms, but in battling against human nature that prevents us from listening to and acting on these warnings.
When it comes to global warming and climate change, there are plenty of reasoned and advanced warnings that aren’t of the last-minute “sky is falling” variety. Credible sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a United Nations scientific panel and bipartisan environmental groups have shared undeniable data that Earth continues to get warmer and that the price tag to reverse this trend is getting exponentially larger. Yet despite their reports, we’re falling behind in addressing the causes (like carbon emissions) and risking disastrous results (like flooding of major cities or large-scale food shortages) if we don’t turn things around soon.
So why aren’t we making more progress? It’s often tempting to point to the political influence held by climate change deniers, who don’t believe the research itself that the planet is getting warmer. But they are actually a relatively small minority.
The bigger roadblock is with the majority—those who believe that temperatures may be rising, but don’t quite believe that will lead to catastrophe. Social psychologists describe an unfortunate phenomenon known as the “normalization of deviance”, in which individuals get a false sense of security when an unacceptable practice or event has gone on for too long without a serious problem or disaster.
We have “normalized” the human activities that have led to global warming, and the resulting disaster is referred to as “predictable surprise.” For example, we’re surprised at the relatively new strength and frequency of damaging weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, even though scientists and meteorologists have been predicting this outcome for several years. And unfortunately, as long as we continue to view such disasters as surprises—outside the normal cause and effect of human action—we will remain immune to fundamentally changing our preparations.
As psychologist Albert Bandura noted, “Most everyone is virtuous at the abstract level.” The question is how to translate a vague concern, such as one about climate change, into concrete preventive measures. Here, we can take lessons from another area that has long struggled to overcome psychological barriers in correcting mistakes—the healthcare industry.
Professor John Banja of Emory University has written extensively on the normalization of deviance in healthcare delivery, and we should repurpose some of his recommendations if we want to lead the fight against global warming. Banja’s recommendations start with the need for leadership to model the concept of duty over self-interest, while fostering an environment that “eradicates, as much as possible, factors that sustain rule and standards violations.” Among Banja’s multiple suggestions for how leaders can reduce violations is to realize that oversight and monitoring for rule compliance are never-ending, and that behind every system flaw or practice deviation stands one or more human beings responsible and accountable for it. Banja points to this fact as the need for a prompt and effective response to rule violations and violators. Translated to global warming in “carrot and stick” fashion, political and business leaders will need to establish rewards for companies and individuals who take action to combat climate change, while also holding accountable those who brazenly and recklessly contribute to environmental harm.
The thing we have to realize with global warming is that, because of our psychological propensity to discount events that look like outliers, we can’t expect society to recognize its real threat until the disasters are big enough or frequent enough that it is too late. Similarly, we can’t expect the majority of individuals to overcome the psychological bias of ignoring warnings on their own. This, more than anything, is the reason we have to count on political and business leaders for dramatic actions. There are some initiatives underway already to facilitate this partnership, including the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative and the non-profit Ceres organization. But the truth is, averting disaster is often a thankless job. Just as it is human nature to ignore warnings, it is also human nature to take for granted the efforts that keep us safe day to day, or decade to decade.
As President Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” It looks less heroic than fixing a leak when the downpour begins, but it takes true courage and foresight—and, not least of all, it’s a lot more effective.
About the Author
Dave Yarin is a compliance and risk management consultant to senior management and directors of large and mid-size companies, and author of the soon to be published book Fair Warning – The Information Within. Dave follows and researches news stories regarding ignored warnings that lead to bad outcomes, along with the social psychology theories that explain why these warnings were ignored. Dave lives near Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and two children. Follow Dave on Twitter at @DaveYarin, or subscribe to his FlipBoard magazine – Fair Warning.

Dave Yarin
Written by Dave Yarin

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