Recognition of climate change and its potential consequences is certainly not new. As Fagan describes in The Little Ice Age, it was nearly thirty years ago that NASA’s James E. Hansen explained to the US Senate that the probability of ongoing changes being due to some factor other than human influence was on the order of 1 percent, and raised concerns about increasing incidence of coastal flooding. In spite of the long-standing awareness of these risks, climate change has failed to become a major focus of government policy. While this essay was being written, the Trump administration was preparing to step back from commitments made by the United States in 2015 to implement emissions standards to limit the pace of anthropogenic climate change.
Several recent works argue that human history, and evolution itself, can help to explain why the human species is ill-equipped to take decisive action against a gigantic and widely appreciated threat. In What We Think about When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, Per Espen Stoknes argues that humans’ inability to understand climate change as an urgent problem derives from aspects of evolutionary history and contemporary lifestyles in many parts of the world. The increasing emphasis on indoor activities and transportation powered by fossil fuel in contemporary industrial society make it all too easy for humans to think of phenomena of the natural world (e.g., tides, seasons, etc.) as separate from individual lives, even for those who venture outdoors for recreation. Stoknes also points out that the evolutionary fitness of individuals is closely tied to the ability to anticipate or avoid danger in the near term, but only very loosely tied to the ability to anticipate and avert future risks, even those with the potential to profoundly alter life on Earth. George Marshall has similar goals in Don’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, but takes a somewhat more pragmatic perspective and one that is ultimately optimistic, arguing that those familiar with the physical science of climate change bear responsibility to accommodate these features of human ecology and evolution in bringing attention to this urgent problem. Finally, in the edited volume Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change, W. Neil Adger, Jouni Paavola, and Saleemul Huq highlight that the human inclination to ignore climate change has profound ethical implications, given that worldwide, rising sea levels and increased incidence of extreme temperatures and associated crop failures will have a disproportionately greater impact on impoverished peoples.