1. Because their salaries depend on them not understanding. Applies to anyone working for the big oil companies, and apparently to a handful of “scientists” funded by them .
  2. Because they cannot distinguish between pseudo-science and science. Seems to apply to some journalists, unfortunately.
  3. Because the dynamics of complex systems are inherently hard to understand. Shown to be a major factor by the experiments Sterman did on MIT students.
  4. Because all of the proposed solutions are incompatible with their ideology. Applies to most rightwing political parties, unfortunately.
  5. Because scientists are poor communicators. Or, more precisely, few scientists can explain their work well to non-scientists.
  6. Because they believe their god(s) would never let it happen. And there’s also a lunatic subgroup who welcome it as part of god’s plan (see rapture).
  7. Because most of the key ideas are counter-intuitive. After all, a couple of degrees warmer is too small to feel.
  8. Because the truth is just too scary. There seem to be plenty of people who accept that it’s happening, but don’t want to know any more because the whole thing is just too huge to think about.
  9. Because they’ve learned that anyone who claims the end of the world is coming must be a crackpot. Although these days, I suspect this one is just a rhetorical device used by people in groups (1) and (4), rather than a genuine reason.
  10. Because most of the people they talk to, and most of the stuff they read in the media also suffers from some of the above. Selective attention allows people to ignore anything that challenges their worldview.

But I fear the most insidious is because people think that changing their lightbulbs and sorting their recyclables counts as “doing your bit”. This idea allow you to stop thinking about it, and hence ignore just how serious a problem it really is.


  1. # They are natural contrarians — whatever the consensus is, they’re against it.

  2. Dr. Wilson has a point. I’m that way in regards to music. If it becomes popular I don’t like it anymore. I can’t help myself.

    What *is* “doing your bit”? What more can you realistically do once you’ve dumped your car, changed your lightbulbs and sorted your recyclables? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I’d like to know of as many ways as possible)

  3. And you also have people who think that there are other important things to deal with first, like eliminating poverty and achieving world peace. I’ve heard that before.

  4. I think another one is that people have a hard time visualizing an abstract cataclysm. Particularly after Ehrlich et al.’s predictions failed to come true (well, for now), I think these type of apocalyptic predictions fall on deaf ears.

    More importantly, there are very real problems in the here and now that people are faced with: paying the mortgage. day care. illiteracy. homelessness. the aids epidemic. terrorism.

    I’m not saying any of these is more or less important than climate change, but I do know what issues I can do something about. And turning my lights off for an hour isn’t it.

  5. Guillaume: Your question deserves an entire blog post (or several) for an answer. I’ll work on that. The short story is that I’m now convinced that the best chance we stand is if as many people as possible from different technical backgrounds ask themselves “how can I use my specialist knowledge and skills to help?”. Scientists and engineers have a much more important job to do than just working on their own personal carbon footprints. The trouble is, it will take lots of effort to get educated to figure out how best to apply our skills. It took me a couple of years to figure out what I could do (as a software engineering researcher) to help. I’m doing some of that now, but am still learning about what needs doing…

  6. There are also the social norm effects whereby if there isn’t peer pressure to act (or there is peer pressure not to act) then it ain’t going to happen. Here’s that article about it in the Star:


    Also, “Grok” is a big word. There’s a difference between understanding the science (or not) [2, 3, 5, 7, and 10 to some extent] and not internalising the moral imperative the science suggests.

    Finally, for Guillaume: doing your bit isn’t just a matter of changing your own consumption habits. I say it’s about becoming aware of the issues and becoming engaged politically, within your country, community, family, etc.. It’s also about having these sorts of discussions openly with others rather than pusshing these thoughts out of your mind — as an antidote for all of the reasons above, but especially 8, and 10.

    For more reading, I’d suggest the Australian Psychological Society’s web page on psychology and the climate. It’s got some of the most down-to-earth and sensible prescriptions:


  7. Thanks, Jon. I used the term “grok” very deliberately:
    understand = “get the basic idea”
    grok = “to understand something so deeply it becomes part of your being”

  8. Aws Albarghouthi :
    And you also have people who think that there are other important things to deal with first, like eliminating poverty and achieving world peace. I’ve heard that before.

    They may say that, but the people I hear saying this aren’t generally devoting their lives to eliminating poverty, for example.

  9. Pingback: Stakeholders in our own destruction | Serendipity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *