If people understand the facts about climate change, then they will take action to slow its advance. Right? Wrong. A cursory glance at modern society makes it clear that the statement is not necessarily, or even mostly true. Even those who fully accept the science of climate change often do not act to delay its disastrous predictions.

Which raises an important question: why doesn’t climate science trigger the human moral judgement system? 

That is precisely what Ezra Markowitz and Azam Shariff address in a paper published earlier this year in the journal Natural Climate Change. Fortunately — at least for those of us who might not have the time to read a full paper — Markowitz recently detailed some of their research in an article on the website Big Think.

So, how do Markowitz and Shariff answer the question above? In six ways. 

1)  First, for most people, climate change is a complex, distant (for now) and abstract phenomenon; as a result, it tends to produce fairly limited emotional reactions in people, starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.

2)  Second, the moral judgment system is finely tuned to recognize specific types of moral transgressions, such as intentionally performed actions that cause harm to identifiable victims; yet as the philosopher Dale Jamieson and others have argued, climate change lacks many of these features: its victims are by-and-large strangers or not yet alive and it is a side-effect of modern life, not something anyone is intentionally trying to cause (there is no single moustache-twirling villain we can blame).

3) Third, Americans (in particular) are exposed to a lot of messages blaming them for causing climate change, many of which seem designed specifically to make people feel guilty; yet we are highly motivated to view ourselves as good, moral people. To maintain such positive self-assessments, people engage in a host of motivated moral reasoning techniques, many of which operate outside of conscious awareness. The net result is that instead of changing either their views of themselves as good or their harmful behaviors, people tend to reject those messages of blame and the issue behind them.

4) Fourth, uncertainty regarding the timing, severity, and location of future climate change impacts provides room for overly optimistic beliefs about the issue, allowing individuals to avoid feeling obligated to do something about the problem until the uncertainties are resolved (which of course is unlikely to occur any time soon).

5) Fifth, because the victims of climate change live faraway in both space (from Americans) and time, they are likely to be perceived as out-group members and thus as less deserving of moral standing. Such perceptions further weaken moral resolve.

6) Sixth, much of the existing framing of climate change as a moral issue targets only a subset of people’s moral values, particularly those that are important to political liberals. As a result, potentially powerful triggers of moral intuition about climate change have largely been ignored by advocates and communicators, likely contributing to political polarization on the issue.

“Starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.” I couldn’t help but immediately think of this quote from philosopher David Hume: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” 

In case you’re confused: picture reason as a human holding the reigns to an elephant, which represents emotion. Best of luck getting that elephant going without some sort of emotional kick. And once it gets going, best of luck trying to steer — or worse yet, stop!