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Our memories impact imagining and planning for the future

By Eric Claus - posted Wednesday, 5 September 2018

On 13 August On Line Opinion published an article entitled Your memory may be hiding the inconvenient truth about climate change by Misia Temler a PhD in Psychology specialising in how social and cultural factors affect memory. Her arguments as they relate to climate change are not particularly compelling, but that does not mean the entire premise should be thrown away. She is not the first and won't be the last to imply that her specialty can be critical to solving one of the world's great problems. In a weaker moment I would probably admit that I had done exactly the same thing a few times.

First the downside regarding why failure of memory is probably not a significant reason that the Australian public isn't making the fight against climate change the highest priority.

1. Fighting Climate Change means reducing the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The average Aussie knows that Australia is not a major producer of CO2. In fact, Australia produces less than 2% of the world total. Even if Australia eliminated all its CO2 generation, it would not come close to solving the problem. Getting total CO2 emissions down would require international cooperation and the average Aussie knows that doesn't often happen.


2. Fighting Climate Change also requires sacrifices today that won't have benefits for many years. (This was described in a different context by Dr Temler) Some Australians might be willing to make those sacrifices, but that is not the way governments work, because they have a 3 year election cycle. It is also not the way that most businesses work because management requires short term profits to keep the business competitive.

3. Fighting Climate Change requires effective policies by the government. Recent history has shown that neither the Coalition nor Labor has been able to come up with any effective policies that could stand the test of time. It is hard to expect the average voter to get enthusiastic about a policy that they can't imagine, from political parties that have previously failed to deliver.

These are the main factors and they are sufficient for any rational Australian citizen to hesitate in the fight against Climate Change. In addition, though, there are still others that are reducing the enthusiasm for climate change action worldwide.

4. Not everybody in the world is negatively impacted by Climate Change. Farmers in northern inland latitudes will get a longer growing season. Russia's President Vladimir Putin is almost a cheerleader for global warming. Secondly, the poor are likely to be more negatively impacted than the rich and the poor don't have the pull that the rich do. As the IPCC Assessment Report 2014 says:

Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.

5. Global warming is complicated. That is enough to reduce many peoples enthusiasm for fighting it.


6. Although 97% of scientists agree that global temperatures have increased and will continue to increase due to the actions of man, it is unlikely that 97% of scientists agree on what the long term impacts will be. It is also unlikely that 97% of scientists agree on what the best course of action is. It is probably fair to say, though, that 97% would agree that some action is necessary.

7. When the possibility of mass extinction is included in the reasons to fight global warming people familiar with the causes of extinctions would think that loss of habitat, invasive species and pollution that are at least as likely to contribute to extinctions, as global warming.

Although Dr Temler's analogy with Climate Change was not really appropriate, the overall point she makes about the fundamental adaptive function of our memory is still very important.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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