Climate changing and improving decision-making

by Rob Tiller

It was unseasonably warm this week in central North Carolina. Some daffodils and forsythia are starting to bloom. They’re beautiful, of course, but there’s something that doesn’t feel right. They’re not supposed to be here for another month or so. It’s hard not to think about climate change (a/k/a global warming) and be worried.

At least, hard for some of us. There’s a vocal minority of climate change-deniers that somehow keep grabbing the spotlight and the microphone. They create enough of a stir to prevent any serious political discourse on the most serious global environmental problem humankind has ever faced. It’s bizarre.

Yesterday’s NY Times reports that Tea Party activists are fighting local efforts to conserve energy on the grounds that such efforts are part of a United Nations-led conspiracy. Fox News is also involved in spreading of this lunacy. What is wrong with these people? There should be no debate about whether or not to pay attention to overwhelming body of scientific evidence establishing global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences — but there is.

Our species is headed towards the edge of a cliff. We should be focusing enormous resources on minimizing CO2 and other emissions. This should be our new Apollo program — to land our grandchildren on a planet that’s sustainable.

We’ve really got to get this effort started. I suggest as a first step we agree that the opinions of science-deniers be subjected to appropriate brief ridicule and then ignored. Yes, everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but not every opinion is entitled to be taken seriously. Whether the source is ignorance, greed, or mental illness, opinions that have no basis in factual reality are at best a waste of time. In this case, they’re also increasing the risk of mortal peril. Basta!

For step two, or maybe step one-and-a-half, we should read Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and I’m confident it will be in my list of top thought-provoking books of 2012. Kahneman is a Nobel-prize-winning psychologist and founding father of behavioral economics. His most recent book summarizes the research he, Amos Tversky, and others have done in the last few decades into the psychology of decision-making.

Kahneman divides judgment into two main parts: intuitive processes (thinking fast) and rational ones (thinking slow). The fast part plays a much greater part in our decisions that we think. We all rely on heuristics and biases to simplify complex matters. This mode of thinking is important — without it we’d be paralyzed — but it also sometimes leads to very bad decisions. Understanding more about the points of failure of our ordinary thought processes may help us avoid some errors and make better decisions. I hope.