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Your memory may be hiding the inconvenient truth about climate change

By Misia Temler - posted Monday, 13 August 2018

Sweltering heatwaves and raging fires wreak havoc on the Northern hemisphere. A severe drought ravages NSW as Australia experiences the driest autumn since 1902 devastating its farmers. With every year bringing new record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather patterns, it is hard to ignore the indicative signs of global warming on climate change and the overwhelming evidence that it is caused by human activity. Scientists predict that if temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we will suffer harm to all sectors of civilization-food, water, health, land, national security, energy and economic prosperity. Others warn of more dire consequences, such as the possibility of mass extinction if we continue our present carbon emission.

Yet the Turnbull Government has done little to prioritise any initiatives to combat the effects of global warming and Australians allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise. Considering we are talking about longstanding damage to our planet and possible extinction, one may wonder why fighting climate change is not presently the highest priority. I examine this issue from a memory perspective to offer some insight. In this article I argue that we fail to prioritise fighting climate change because our memories of past experiences hinder our ability to imagine, plan for and objectively assess the future.

Memory limits our ability to imagine the effects of global warming


A fundamental adaptive function of our memory is to remember past experiences to prepare us for similar novel situations. Humans may therefore fail to prioritise climate change because our memories may limit our capacity to envision the possible catastrophic effects of climate change. This is because our ability to remember the past is linked to our ability to imagine the future. Both rely on many of the same cognitive and neural processes. The link between remembering and imagining has been illustrated in case studies where individuals who have serious deficiencies in remembering their past also have serious deficiencies in imagining their future. Our autobiographical memory of the past has evolved to be reconstructive like a kaleidoscope and not reproductive like a video camera. This mechanism then allows us to extract relevant information blocks from past experiences to construct imagined possible novel scenarios. We thereby continually rely on information from the past to guide us in future decision making and problem-solving. The majority of people in the western world have been very fortunate to have not experienced a longstanding environmental catastrophe in our lifetime, yet this lack of past experience may hinder our ability to imagine and approach the threat of global warming objectively.

Memory affects our ability to plan for long term goals to fight climate change

People may also fail to prioritise climate change because our memory is goal directed and this affects our planning for goals in the more distant future. Our memory functions to maintain a record of progress to help us reach our evolving goals. It provides us with correspondence of facts and coherence of achieved subjective milestones. Our present goals influence what we remember and what we remember influences our present goals. This feedback loop can then limit the goals we set. We use selective information recalled to project us in the future. But just as we are generally better at remembering recent memories at the expense of older memories, the same is true for imaging near future to distant future events. This may affect short term vs. long term goal processing. Short term goals that we can imagine in our lifetime take precedence over long terms goals spawning future generations. Vividly imaging a clear, detailed plan of what one wants to achieve can help in reaching future goals. However, relying on vivid visualization may affect priority in assessing long term goals properly, particularly if people see today's goals as conflicting with future goals. Different goals require different action, and this disrupts coherence. The consequence is that humans will ultimately do what is best for now largely ignoring the repercussions for later. People may struggle to commit to long term goals to fight climate change because their present day goals, such as economic ones (reliance on our fossil fuels will benefit economy because of the lower cost in making electricity with domestically produced natural gas) are usually in conflict with future goals (curbing fossil fuel reliance now will help stop economy losses from natural catastrophes in the future).

Memory shapes our assessment of climate change by filtering out identity inconsistent information.

Finally, humans may fail to prioritise climate change because our memory filters what information is accepted and remembered. Unfortunately, over the years, climate change has become very political in the US and Australia. The general beliefs of conservatives are that climate change is a hoax or conspiracy and to believe otherwise challenges the party's core beliefs. Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues found in particular conservative free market worldviews were important predictors in rejection of climate science. We remember to maintain a sense of personal identity. What this means is that we accept information that is consistent with our beliefs and attitudes and ignore the information that is not. People tend to read and remember information from sources that support their political affiliation and party's beliefs. On the contrary, people are more likely to reject information that challenges their political ideology.

Working towards collective social memories


Taking a memory perspective in examining humans' approach towards climate change suggests that changing or creating memories of the past may alter goal prioritization in the future. There is already some evidence that creation of collective social memories, through media narratives, images and memes, can raise awareness for the potential threats of global warming and make climate change more personally meaningful. Examining the relationship between remembering the past and planning for the future illustrates that our approach to some impending world issues may be driven by cognitive by-products rather than by objective assessments of importance. By understanding, this link we may be better equipped to tackle the inconvenient truth about climate change.

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About the Author

Dr Misia Temler is a forensic and cognitive psychologist. Her expertise is memory. She has worked in private practice providing assessment reports for courts but now spends her time researching, writing and educating others on the important role memory plays across different contexts. Her current research focuses on how people remember information from the media. Misia is an honorary associate at the University of Sydney. She is also project coordinator of Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project. Misia enjoys writing about a wide selection of topics and current affairs from a memory and psychological perspective. Her work has been published or showcased in The Conversation, New Zealand Herald, Independent Australia, New Matilda, Sky News, ABC, and various blogs.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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