How sticky thinking makes it impossible for societies to respond to climate change

February 2024

Societies have known about the risks of anthropogenic climate change since the 1970s. Yet emissions have continued to rise and the pace of global warming has accelerated. In September 2023 it passed the 1.5ºC tipping point which the IPCC said societies must avoid, though the full effects of this will not become clear for a decade or two.

Without change, societies will pass the more serious 2ºC tipping point around 2030. Over the following decades vast areas of the planet are expected to become gradually uninhabitable. Though the worst effects will not be seen for half a century, many places will be badly impacted by higher temperatures and rising sea levels by the mid-2040s, with hundreds of millions of people forced to migrate to places where they are unlikely to be welcome.

Though there are still technically a few years remaining for societies to act, and avoid the 2ºC cliff-edge, it is already clear that they will not do what is needed. There has been half a century of ineffective action already, and no sign of any serious shift in political sentiment. The changes needed to stop the warming are now so drastic as to be beyond the comprehension of most people, and those in power. To be effective, there would need to be an 80% reduction in fossil energy use within a few years, leading to a substantial drop in economic activity. Though this would be less damaging than continuing on the current path long term, there is no indication that such a radical change in climate policy is under serious consideration.

The enormous scale of the transition needed is one of the reasons societies do not act today. But this does not explain the past. Why have societies not done anything meaningful to combat climate change over the last 50 years?

The heating of the Earth is the result of rising emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), notably carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Most of these emissions are because of the way humans generate energy and grow food.

Natural emissions of greenhouse gases have been rising too, accelerating the pace of warming, though this is a result of rising temperatures. As the planet has warmed, the permafrost has melted releasing gases trapped beneath. Warming wetlands have also started to release more gases than before.

Superficially, the solution to the climate problem is simple and obvious: societies should stop producing those damaging emissions. They also need to find a way to capture or reabsorb the gases that have been released over the last 200 years to bring the atmosphere back into long term equilibrium. But that is secondary. The first step is to stop making the situation worse.

But societies do not do this. Why?

There are many reasons why people have not responded adequately:

  • For many, there is a lack of understanding about what is happening. They do not understand climate change properly, perhaps because they see it is too complex, inconvenient, or boring. Some see it as a conspiracy. Even within the environmental community, understanding is often poor. This leads to simplistic solutions that focus on only a small element of the problem, and policies that do not slow the rate of warming quickly enough.
  • Another explanation for inaction is that humans have a tendency to focus on short term issues, and the local environment, while climate change is a long term, global problem.
  • A further factor is that the consequences of inaction are not yet obvious enough for many people to support radical change. They see climate change as a problem for the next generation to address, partly because they want to avoid disruption to their own lives and don’t want to be thought accountable.
  • Humans have a fear of change generally.
  • Finally, political leaders know that doing what is needed would not be popular. In democratic societies they would not get re-elected if they tried to tackle climate change seriously, as it would lead to long term economic upheaval.

There are philosophical roots to the inaction too, and these are perhaps the biggest challenge.

I argue that, especially in the rich world, there is a belief system that blocks change.

In much of the world, many people currently appear to believe that humanity is on a steady upward development path, and that today’s social, technological and economic progress has become largely irreversible. There is considerable evidence to support this thinking. Despite a few ups and downs, there has been steady economic growth in most of the world for more than 75 years, with rising living standards for much of that time. It appears reasonable to believe that this trend will continue if the same policies are applied. This thinking argues that societies should be democratic and free if they are to prosper. They should focus on boosting economic output, and take a liberal approach to regulation and trade.

A key element of this idea is that science and technology will be able to address any difficult challenges that crop up along the way, such as climate change (or viruses).

As a consequence of this thinking, rather than cutting energy output to reduce GHG emissions, societies have chosen instead to maintain their focus on growth and develop alternative forms of energy. To support the fossil fuel energy sector they have promoted the idea that today’s emissions will be increasingly offset in the future, by planting trees for example, or through carbon capture and storage. To avoid any loss of economic momentum, “net-zero” emissions targets have been set for 2050, or later, ignoring the fact that this is 20 years after the critical tipping point will have been crossed.

That is, a narrative has been created which makes it unnecessary for societies to interrupt their push for economic growth, which in effect says, “it’s okay climate scientists, we business leaders, politicians and economists know what we are doing”.

The focus on growth is seen as the fuel that improves living standards. It is growth that improves life expectancies, and funds new developments in technology. Economic growth is seen as the impulse that creates more jobs, and reduces inequality. As growth generates wealth, it stimulates more investment, which leads to more growth, and so a steady upwards spiral in human development.

Effective action on climate change is strongly resisted because it threatens these ideas. To slow the pace of warming within a relatively short time requires a different approach, with a reduction in economic output.

The reluctance to respond adequately is ironic, because many of the beliefs that lie at the core of the current economic growth narrative are questionable. The belief in endless growth appears itself mistaken. For thousands of years human progress has come in waves, with advances punctuated by long periods of stagnation and decline.

There is also a question about exactly what societies mean when they talk of “progress”. Has the focus on economic growth brought progress? Or have societies remained much as before? Is it simply the technology and the way people live that has changed? Are people still the same animals they were before, or has the growth focus elevated them to a higher level of development?

Other ideas at the core of the growth narrative can be questioned. For example, the pursuit of growth does not appear to have lifted millions out of poverty as many economists suggest. While it is a statistical fact that a billion people no longer live on less than $1 a day, the vast majority of these people remain extremely poor. They are not rich. They have simply moved from a state of dire poverty to state of slightly-less dire poverty. They still live in poverty. As well as those how scrape a living with almost nothing, 40% of the global population still lives on less than $10 a day. This, after decades of record global growth.

Economic development has also brought many of the world’s poorest people difficult new challenges. Many now live with debts they struggle to pay. They work longer hours in more dangerous conditions and have less healthy diets. They often live in overcrowded places, and are more easily exploited. Many suffer from the consequences of air and water pollution.

In some countries life expectancies are falling, not rising. This is not only the result of ageing populations, but also poorer diets and declining healthcare standards. In many parts of the rich world, living standards have stagnated or fallen for over a decade. In the US, real wages have not risen since the late 1970s. High rates of food and energy inflation have cut real living average standards further.

Income inequalities have widened in many countries, as well as between the rich world and the poor world. Unemployment and under-employment have risen in many places too, as more workers are substituted by machines. Much of the natural world has been badly degraded.

Political divisions have also widened. Within the rich world, the voices of those on the fringe, those who oppose the status quo, have become louder, notably in parts of Europe.

Outside the rich world, countries that do not follow the neo-liberal growth-focussed path, that oppose the free-market system of development, have become increasingly demonised, partly for simply having a different way of thinking – China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, for example. Others appear to sit on the ideological fence, and are under pressure from the rich world to conform to free-market policies. In this group might be included India, Indonesia, South Africa, Angola and Egypt.

Many countries that lie outside the free-market system have recently taken steps towards uniting, to form something like a reborn 1960s Non-Aligned Movement through the expansion of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for example, as a counterweight to the Western hegemonic narrative based on neo-liberal economic thinking.

For many people around the world then, the narrative of progress through economic growth has become something of a myth, or an idea to oppose.

While it no longer delivers what it claims, support for neo-liberal thinking remains strong. The narrative that poor countries need to pass through the same industrialisation process that the rich world went through in the 19th century is still powerful. The belief that free trade benefits everyone is deeply embedded too, even though there is much evidence to suggest that the long term rewards mostly go to the rich world.

Within the rich world, support for democracy as a form of governance remains largely unquestioned. This, despite many governments putting the needs of businesses before that of their citizens, and many elected governments failing to keep their pre-election promises of reform. In many countries that claim to be democratic there are only two political parties to choose from, and both look much the same. Elections and the development of new legislation are often heavily influenced by large corporates and the rich, while the governing party in many countries is often elected to power with less than half the popular vote. The majority are ungoverned by a minority, in other words.

In the US, millions have been disenfranchised, and more than a third of the eligible population does not vote.

Similarly, the belief in personal freedom, in people’s right to do whatever they wish, remains a powerful idea throughout the rich world. In neo-liberal countries, freedom is seen as a way of living, not a way of thinking as it is elsewhere, and as it was in the European Enlightenment. In much of the rest of the world, and many parts of Europe, freedom is not about unrestrained behaviour.

As a consequence, many of those who live in the richest countries on Earth have a worldview that is full of false ideas and inconsistencies. It is a worldview that focusses on boosting economic growth but which widens social divisions and destroys the natural environmental. While the thinking is still enthusiastically supported by the majority, only a tiny percentage, mostly the rich, benefit from the system any longer, as well as many large corporations and the military.

Why do so many people continue to believe in a system that does not reward them as it claims? Why do they defend a system that is destroying their future?

As philosopher Martin Heidegger might perhaps argue, people are not thinking. “Wir noch nicht denken”, we’re still not thinking, he said, “even though the current state of the world requires us to think more deeply” and, as a consequence, as another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “die Wüste wächst”, the wasteland grows.

Why is this happening? Why do so many people unquestioningly embrace an impaired and ecologically destructive worldview?

The answer is that their thinking has been partially and deliberately guided by those who gain from it. It is also the result of a social phenomenon that makes collective thinking ‘sticky’ and hard to change.

In terms of design, today’s neo-liberal mindset is partly the work of a small group of people at the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS). For more than 70 years, the MPS has worked systematically to implant free-market thinking in people’s minds. It has has published “learned” articles in journals and popular media, infiltrated the political and academic world, gained great influence in international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, established well-funded, right-leaning think-tanks, and manipulated the media to propagate free-market ideas. Many of Ronald Reagan’s top advisors were members of the MPS, as was Margaret Thatcher’s chief economic advisor. The influential Chicago Economics School was mostly populated by MPS members. Many of the world’s central bankers are members.

While some of those involved in the MPS have participated in this process for ideological reasons, many within the group have been paid generously for their work by those who benefit from such thinking, mostly large corporations and the rich. Thanks to the spread of neo-liberal ideas, many wealthy individuals and international businesses have been able to operate across borders with less constraint, circumvent the wishes of the democratic majority at times, and insert secretive clauses in trade agreements to protect their interests, with adjudication outside the normal legal system.

Writers such as Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, or Bob Constanza and Herman Daly who developed the concept of Natural Capital, have strengthened neo-liberal thinking too, by arguing that almost everything should be seen through an economic lens, and monetised in some way. Many of those working in technology and science have often-unwittingly spread neo-liberal ideas as well, by changing what Herbert Spencer meant when he talked of the “survival of the fittest” for example, so as to encourage people to favour competition over cooperation, which is arguably more natural. Books like Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” have encouraged neo-liberal economic mindsets too, by promoting individualism and denying any spiritual element to existence.

The widespread acceptance of neo-liberal ideas is also the result of a particular facet of human behaviour, identified by Marx and others, and perhaps best described by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. People subconsciously, but willingly, have a tendency to adopt a “common sense” narrative which then lies at the core of their thinking. They accept a worldview that reinforces itself and that is hard to change, even when it is flawed.

The Island of California 1650

Everyone has a picture of the world in their heads that they believe reflects reality. It determines their values, thoughts and actions. Everyone believes what they think and do makes sense, and that it is right, at least most of the time. Russia’s leadership thinks it is right to invade Ukraine. China’s government thinks it is right for the state to own key industries. The US thinks it is right to oppose Russia and China ideologically.

Everyone thinks what they do makes sense.

Everyone’s worldview develops when they are young and is progressively refined. As people get older, their worldview gradually solidifies into something like jelly before becoming even firmer, sometimes like concrete. At a certain point, most people’s worldview becomes hard to change, except in minor ways.

In exactly the same way, societies develop a collective common sense too, a broadly shared view of the world, which resists change. None of these worldviews are a true reflection of reality. They are simply a collection of beliefs and opinions that are individually and collectively accepted, like a religion.

For example: for many hundreds of years before the 17th century, the majority of people believed the world was flat, even though the ancient Greeks had known otherwise. When Galileo re-discovered the truth, it took decades before most people accepted this information, and changed their views.

This illustrates the point that even solid evidence does not always change people’s thinking quickly, nor does the understanding of past generations. Scientific evidence of climate change has not been enough to persuade many people to accept that it is real, greatly because their thinking has become too “sticky”.

Similarly, for more than a century, Europe’s map-makers thought the US state of California was an island, despite being repeatedly told otherwise. Ships were carried across the Nevada desert to sail to this island, even though it didn’t exist.

A topical example of sticky thinking can be seen with perspectives on mask wearing. This again illustrates that people do not quickly or willingly change their ideas once they become fixed, even when they make little objective sense. In this case, people knew a dangerous virus was circulating. They had been told too that wearing a mask could greatly reduce the chance of becoming infected. Yet, especially in countries such as the UK, Australia, the US, as well as much of Europe, where ideas of individual freedom are most deeply embedded, it became “common sense” to view mask wearing as a restriction on individual liberty. Protecting yourself, or considering the needs of others, was seen as a personal failing. Mask wearing appeared to show a lack of commitment to getting on with life, to the business of supporting economic growth.

Other cultures saw it differently. In Asia, for example, where people were more motivated by the fear of infection, mask-wearing was largely unquestioned. Asian societies are also less individualistic, and so there was a greater concern about protecting others too.

Words and conceptual labels have also become an integral part of the neo-liberal armoury, with many associated with strong emotions that can reinforce neo-liberal thinking.

In neo-liberal states, especially in the English-speaking world, words and terms such as “economic growth, liberty, democracy, free-market and military veteran” have become emotionally charged with a sense of right and duty while words like “welfare, regulation, China, Muslim and paternal” have become more associated with negative or angry emotions. Words have helped widen the division between “them” and “us”, between those outside the neo-liberal world, and those who believe in minimally-regulated markets and economic growth.

There is very little public discussion in the rich world about how these “other” people think. Those who live in the rich world rarely ask if the worldview of those who live outside the system has any merit. They rarely ask if the people of North Korea are content with their system of governance, or want to understand why President Putin is so popular in Russia. Instead, the Western media labels non-aligned governments as “regimes”, while mocking or condemning their perceived restrictions on freedom and approach to social development.

This is not to suggest that non-aligned states have better systems of human development, or a more accurate understanding of the world. For almost no one in the world is it easy to get a fully balanced perspective, because the media is everywhere biased. The difference is that more people outside the neo-liberal world appear to question its merits, than inside.

Inside, the neo-liberal worldview has become too deeply embedded in the minds of the majority of people for them to question it, even though it is a construct of carefully manipulated sticky ideas, many of which are wrong.

It is this sticky thinking which has established and perpetuated an approach to global economic organisation and development that is based on nothing more meaningful than resource extraction for excessive consumption, which has generated so much pollution that it has taken the planet close to the point of ecological collapse, and which has reduced the well-being, dignity and harmony of people and communities throughout the world. The dominant thinking of the majority of people in the rich world has become stuck in this false reality, which is no less compelling for its being false. It is the opposite. It is more compelling because it always appears to offer a means of escape from reality.

It is this mindset, I argue, that explains why humanity cannot change direction and introduce the radical measures that are needed to combat climate change in the time remaining. Those with political power are simply unable to understand what’s needed because they cannot accept that their worldview is flawed. They continue to believe that economic growth is the fuel that drives progress, and that only democracy, the free-market and technology will fix the climate problem, despite this thinking being the root cause.

What to do?

In Hegelian dialectical terms the seeds of an alternative way of thinking, and a different approach to human development, must already exist within the current system. The seeds of the antithesis to challenge the neo-liberal thesis are out there, somewhere.

Where might they lie? Some almost certainly lie somewhere within religious and other spiritual mindsets. When it comes to identifying a better way ahead, much has been written by religious, Buddhist and Taoist scholars for centuries, as well as by philosophers, and even the odd economist.

Alternative ideas may also lie on today’s political fringes, and in the countries that lie outside the neo-liberal world, in Russia, China, India, Iran and North Korea, for example. Alexander Dugin in Russia has written with considerable reflection and much philosophical understanding about the flaws of Western thinking. The paternalistic belief system in North Korea and other parts of Asia, where the government behaves like a parent to the populous, may offer food for thought too. Much Indian and Chinese philosophy is based on fundamentally different values as well, being less materialistic and more closely attuned to nature.

To prosper long term humanity will need a less sticky system of thinking. It will need to find a system of development that ensures people live in harmony with each other, that respects nature, and that nurtures the spiritual element within each of us.

Such ideas are not new, nor radical, of course, it is just that they have been overwhelmed by different, and much more destructive, thinking today.

Climate change is the biggest physical challenge humanity faces, but it cannot be fixed without a change in thinking.

Trapped ant image by nur firdaus from Pixabay

Earth image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Sun and telegraph pole image by Mollyroselee from Pixabay

Facemask image by cromaconceptovisual fromPixabay

Head sculpture photo by Daniel Tran on Unsplash