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Greening Up: Jumping to Conclusions

The survey, which drew respondents through the use of popular online games like Angry Birds and Dragon City, ranked Canada seventh out of 50 countries in its perception of the importance of responding to the changing climate.

“We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know.” – Daniel Kahneman

All of us, and especially experts, are prone to an exaggerated sense of how well we understand the world.

Most of our judgments and actions are appropriate most of the time. (Note that the word most is repeated twice here.)

But even with adequate information, some people often jump to a wrong conclusion. Unfortunately, many of those jumping to such conclusions about climate change are Canadian men.

In what is described as the biggest climate survey yet conducted, the UN Development Programme poll found Canada had the largest gap between men and women in their assessment of the importance of climate change.

Canadian women and girls surveyed were 12 percent more likely to rate it an emergency than men and boys. (More about this later.)

Globally, the survey found there wasn’t much difference.

However, the survey found several silver linings for a Canadian government seemingly on the threshold of an ambitious climate program. (We must remember this effort has been a work in progress since late 2015, although it appears to be gathering increasing importance.)

The survey, which drew respondents through the use of popular online games like Angry Birds and Dragon City, ranked Canada seventh out of 50 countries in its perception of the importance of responding to the changing climate.

“Canada was at the top end of the group of countries we surveyed in terms of the recognition of the climate emergency,” said Steve Fisher, an Oxford University sociologist who helped run the survey on behalf of the UNDP.

Fisher, who researches political attitudes and behaviour, said climate change is a more partisan issue in Canada, the United States and Australia than elsewhere on the globe.

“It is related to partisanship in those countries,” he said. “Women are much more likely to vote for the more climate-conscious left parties.”

Three-quarters of Canadians surveyed agreed that climate change is an emergency compared with the global average of 64 percent.

That belief was strongest among the under 18 age group – 83 percent – followed by those over 60 at 72 percent. The survey also found that Canadians who believed climate change is an emergency believed it strongly. Three-quarters said action should be urgent and on many fronts.

“Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine that they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.” – Hippocrates

But let’s return to that difference in belief in the urgency of climate change between men and women.

I could just agree with Daniel Kahneman – a world-famous Israeli psychologist and economist – who said our minds are a machine for jumping to conclusions.

He added that a reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from the truth. (Think television commercials and Donald Trump here.)

Awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, Kahneman distilled 40 years of his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

When people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound. – Daniel Kahneman

He explains that the main reason why people jump to conclusions is that our cognitive system relies on mental shortcuts (called heuristics), which increase the speed of our judgment and decision-making processes, at the cost of reducing their accuracy and optimality.

Kahneman‘s book is organized around the metaphor of System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is intuitive, automatic, unconscious, and effortless; it corresponds to thinking fast as it answers questions quickly through associations and resemblances.

System 2 corresponds to thinking slow; it is conscious, controlled, deliberate, effortful, statistical, suspicious, and lazy, that is, costly to use.

Human “normal” decision-making is System 1, with System 2 only used occasionally.

It would be too easy – and incorrect – to label men System 1 thinkers and women as System 2 thinkers. (Although, men how often in a restaurant are you waiting for your female partner to make her choice when you made yours at first glance?)

Brendan DeMelle, executive director of DeSmog, a website that bills itself as “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science”, has identified the world’s top 10 climate science deniers and they are all male!

Time magazine has identified 15 women who are using their voices to take leadership and call for action on climate change.

As Kahneman points out in his book many times, people – regardless of gender – do not just get hard problems wrong, but they get utterly trivial problems wrong because they don’t think about them the right way.

Clearly, the decision-making that we rely on in society is fallible. It's highly fallible, and we should know that. – Daniel Kahneman

Yet other research by scientists has shown that neural brain circuitry differs in males from females.

A researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Ragini Verma, said a study of nearly 1,000 brain scans supported commonly held stereotypes that men’s brains are apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women's for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.

“If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,” Verma said. “Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved – they will listen more.”

“Effective listening does not involve hearing something and comparing that information with our own views. We learn nothing from such an exchange.” – James Hoggan

An article in Scientific American says research suggests men tend to organize the world into distinct categories whereas women see things as more conditional and in shades of gray.

Psychologists at the University of Warwick had men and women judge how each of 50 objects fit into a certain category – whether it belonged, did not belong, or only partially (somewhat) belonged.

Men were more likely to see an object as fully belonging or not belonging to a category, while women more often judged that objects only partially belonged.

The researchers concluded their study suggested men and women perceive the world differently since both genders were equally confident about their decisions. This meant the gender difference was not due to men simply being more certain or women more uncertain about their judgments.

“We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” – Daniel Kahneman

The article goes on to postulate that societies and cultures tend to assign certain roles by gender thereby promoting more absolute, black-and-white views in men and more detailed, complex views in women.

“Traditionally, cultures have rewarded males for being decisive and proactive, even if it means jumping to conclusions. In contrast, females are socialized to be more thoughtful and receptive to others’ views, even if it means being more self-critical,” Ilan Shrira, the article’s author writes.

Shrira then points to research that indicates women have a greater perceived likelihood of negative outcomes and lesser expectation of enjoyment from taking risks whereas   risk-taking is a central and esteemed component of the masculine gender role.

Kahneman labels this tendency to foolishly take on risky projects our “planning fallacy”: overestimating the benefits and underestimating the costs.

“The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.” – Daniel Kahneman

Trying to figure out why men and women view climate change differently could possibly be explained by their occupations in the workplace. Men outnumber women in occupations that degrade the environment – such as logging, building pipelines, and tar sands extraction. The 2015 Canadian census found women outnumbered men 4 to 1 in the health occupations.

It is well-documented that women suffer the consequences of climate change more severely than men. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have a greater impact on the poor and most vulnerable – 70 percent of the world’s poor are women.

The United Nations says the threats of climate change are not gender-neutral and estimates 80 percent of those who have been displaced by climate change are women.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says there is a global need to further empower women in climate decision-making because women have proven to be leading the way towards more equitable and sustainable solutions to climate change.

The organization says women’s participation and leadership can have transformative effects in their countries and communities.

“Every single problem is a subset of this mega problem of not being able to understand the complexity that we have created.” – Peter Senge

Climate change is the most complex challenge of our time. Its solution requires a determined, practical and holistic response. We need both women and men in positions as decision-makers, stakeholders, educators, carers, and experts if we are to have successful, long-term solutions to climate change. 

The experiences we endured in 2020 should have convinced us of how little we know and how difficult it is to deal with sudden, complex problems. This should lead us to long-term changes in the way we think.

Self-righteousness gets in the way of healthy constructive debate. An “I’m right” attitude exhibits a lack of reasonableness and empathy, leading to polarization.

As James Hoggan writes in his book “I’m Right and You’re An Idiot, greater awareness of climate change is essential but “we cannot transform a system’s behavior until we transform the quality of awareness and actions of people within the system.”

We need one another and we have a shared responsibility for others and the world. Global warming and the subsequent changing climate is a moral issue and a social fairness issue that will harm the most vulnerable people on our planet.

What we need to do – all of us, female and male – is not worry whether we are thinking fast or slow about climate change but to look long and hard at the current scientific evidence and reach the conclusion that we are part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.

I encourage everyone, but especially men and boys, to take 11 minutes to watch this YouTube video from the Just Have A Think channel, and then take some of the suggested actions.

We are the only ones who can preserve our hope – and our children’s hopes. It is our duty to love and protect each other and the planet. The time to commit to this cause is now.

“There is nothing more empowering than to own your own desire to make change. We all need to lean in, we all have power.” – Mindy Lubber

Michael Jessen is a writer living at Longbeach on Nelson’s North Shore. He can be reached at zerowaste@shaw.ca