Hiding the Social beneath Climate Change’s Rule of Thumb

The cognitive heuristic behaviour model has become very prevalent in the social science of public responses to climate change (Weber, 2006; Mooney, 2011: Biegler, 2012). This model has been inspired by the ideas of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist much lauded in the sphere of social science (Burkeman, 2011). His research has been based on identifying various reaction tendencies in how humans judge or problem-solve through the application of practical shortcuts or rules of thumb referred to as heuristics. These heuristics draw upon a variety of cognitive biases. Weber (2006) describes the heuristic of the “finite pool of worry” bias where people are deemed to limit their worries to a minimum amount of threats (p: 116). The model argues that when other threats, such as terrorism, become more salient people tend to neglect their fears concerning climate change (ibid).

Some of these cognitive biases offer useful descriptions of decision-making and judgement: most notably “confirmation bias” wherein people exhibit the “tendency to overemphasise anything that confirms what [they] already believe” (Douglas, 2011). Regarding climate change, the confirmation bias is exhibited when contrarians visit websites that only support the contrarian position or by “cherry-picking” supportive data such as viewing temperature declines during short time-periods as proof against global warming (Mooney, 2011).

Although heuristic models step beyond the ideas of the rational calculating person, they  often reproduce a similar uncritical biological determinism that overlooks the role of society. While the literature recognises that such heuristics can develop out of experience through “trial and error” (Douglas, 2011) advocates of the model often neglect this more socially sensitive genesis in favour of an evolutionary biological origin. Many view human biases as having been hard-wired in the brain as a result of evolutionary development (Winter and Koger, 2004: 5) and often as part of “fight-or-flight reflexes” (Gardner, 2008; Biegler, 2012). They generally support this explanation through the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. Starting with the premise of hunter-gatherer genetic leftovers or hard-wiring as explanation for responsiveness, they then invent or generalise some ancient hunter-gatherer recurrence to support specific claims about how we operate (Biegler, 2012; Camakaris, 2012). For some it seems the miniscule nature of civilisation’s 12,000 years on earth in comparison to the vast period spent in the Stone Age is treated as concrete proof that evolution has anachronistically locked the reflexes of our brain (Gardner, 2008; Camakaris, 2012). This evolutionary hard-wiring emphasis neglects how these reflexes might be influenced by socially and culturally induced dispositions (Bourdieu, 2005: 247).

Essentially the inherent weakness in this approach is the rendering of society as the ‘forgotten other’. The evolutionary psychology explanations and heuristic models often obliterate the role of societal contexts by standardising individual psychologies; over-emphasising ancient pre-civilisation legacies and selfish gene survival strategies. This nullifies the roles of class, institutions, infrastructure, social structure and community and thereby rendering invisible options for societal change. Therefore it is little wonder that the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology seem at least partially responsible for the sense of hopelessness found in the writings of some advocates, scientists and academics (e.g. Hagens, 2010). Gibbons (2011) views behavioural change as largely trapped by the supposedly self-interested survival predispositions of our “reptilian brain” (Rees, 2010).(1) The scientist Lovelock (2009) harbours obvious views on a human nature evolving too slowly for to respond sufficiently to the ecological crisis (p: 80), adding to the overwhelming bleakness of his future climate change imaginary (Vince, 2009b).

Potentially the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology will play a potent role in influencing climate change debates in the years to come. This is especially so now that rational choice or conscious calculation explanations are so easily exposed. Bourdieu recognised how the dominance of a particular vision of the world is supported by the close fit between objective structures and cognitive structures in order to conceal its arbitrariness: e.g., gender domination is aided by the distinctions between male/female. There is much in these heuristics and evolutionary psychology theories that is likely to be a close fit to the objective and cognitive structures of elite players in decarbonisation. High-ranking environmentalists, policy-makers, and especially the array of geoscientists schooled in the art of studying the material world will likely see legitimacy in the scientificity (apparent rather than actual science) of the Darwinian-backed hard materiality of reptilian brain, hardwiring and dopamine receptor type explanations.


1. Although Rees describes a co-evolutionary relationship between culture and biologically determined behaviour – calling for a rewriting of the cultural narrative away from destructive economic growth and towards sustainable equality – the meme effect of reptilian brain itself is potential fodder for promoting ideas of an immutable humanity.


Biegler P (2012) How we evolved to reject climate science. The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.edu.au/how-we-evolved-to-reject-climate-science-10711 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Bourdieu P (2005) The Social Structures of the Economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Burkeman O (2011) Daniel Kahneman: ‘We’re beautiful devices’. The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/nov/14/daniel-kahneman-psychologist [Accessed 12/03/2012].
Camakaris H (2012) Don’t trust your Stone Age brain: it’s unsustainable The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/dont-trust-your-stone-age-brain-its-unsustainable-9075 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Douglas K (2011) Decision time: How subtle forces shape your choices New Scientist, 2838.
Gardner D (2008) Risk. London: Virgin Books Limited.
Gibbons J (2011) The decline and fall of the Human Empire. ThinkorSwim.ie [Online]. Available at: http://www.thinkorswim.ie/index.php/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-human-empire/.
Hagens N (2010) The Psychological Roots of Resource Overconsumption. In: Douthwaite R & Fallon G (eds.) Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic collapse Dublin: Feasta,
Lovelock J (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. New York: Basic Books.
Mooney C (2011) The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones, May/June
Rees W (2010) Whats blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy [Online], 6. Available at: http://sspp.proquest.com/archives/vol6iss2/1001-012.rees.html [Accessed 02/02/2014].
Vince G (2009) One last chance to save mankind New Scientist (2692).
Weber E U (2006) Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: why global warming does not scare us (yet) Climatic Change 77: 103-120.
Winter D D N, Koger S M (2004) The Psychology of Environmental Problems. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



Climate Change Mitigation Needs more than Technological Fixes: Examples from Aviation and Shipping

Even though globally, flying remains a very privileged practice (only 3% of world’s population fly internationally in any given year) it adds over 3% to global carbon emissions. Shipping is just under 3% and both are rising rapidly. They are significant contributors to the problem of climate change. Long-haul flying is one of the most carbon heavy acts that a person can do. One return flight between Australia and Europe has the equivalent of 4.5 tonnes of CO2. That is equal to average global per capita emissions per year. It is the reason why past estimates attribute as much as 47% of the EU15’s carbon emissions from aviation to just 6% of the trips and 43% of France’s aviation emissions to 2% (1). Cruising typically requires even more energy than long-haul flying (2, 3). Also while many cruise products on offer draw people to Europe, plenty of other products are to destinations beyond Europe such as to the Caribbean, Australia or Dubai, and indeed some of the products themselves incorporate long-haul flights.

However, as with dealing with climate change in general, a purely technological deus-ex-machina fix is not going to be the answer. A look at the aviation and leisure cruise industries will give you some sign of the flaws in going solely down that path. “Boeing’s order book” already contains orders for the 747 (first made in 1968) which ensure that more will be built and sold up to year 2030 at least. Similarly cruise ships, with an approximate lifespan of 30 years (4), have just undergone a record order year that will add a combined berth capacity equivalent to 25% of the current global fleet (5). With the supposed biofuel solution for aviation and shipping fuel already causing more problems than it solves future carbon-heavy supply is therefore already set in motion.

Clearly dealing with the social components of demand is an essential part of any realistic response. For example Ceron and Dubois (2005)(6) list multiple broad social factors that are influencing international leisure travel demand: “economic growth and inequalities, demography (including family patterns), conditions of travel (safety…),… tourism and leisure supply (how far will liberalisation go and the market sector penetrate the activity), marketing strategies, … the way society values amenities linked to tourism (sunshine, sport, etc.) and of course two fundamental variables: time resources and disposable income.” Many of these are going to have to be addressed by Governments and organizations seeking to lower emissions in this sector.

Some serious changes are going to have to be made to aviation and shipping taxes and subsidies. For example flying is exempt from VAT in the UK and amazingly no tax is charged anywhere in the world on fuel for passenger jets or on shipping. These added costs would be more punitive towards long-haul due to a higher ticket price. Additionally the aviation industry receives massive subsidies from Governments – £600 million for Ryanair alone between 2008 and 2010 – largely to encourage them to start new routes.

None of this of course is helped by the UNFCCC excluding international shipping and flights from national inventories and that the recent Paris agreement fails to mention either of them. In addition the EU has only focused on intra-European flights and carbon-neutral growth – as opposed to reduction – from 2020.



  1. HALL, C. M., GOSSLING, S., PROFESSOR, HEAD OF THE CENTRE FOR TOURISM C MICHAEL HALL, P. & SCOTT, D. 2015. The Routledge Handbook of Tourism and Sustainability, Taylor & Francis.
  2. HOWITT, O. R., V. SMITH, I. J. RODGER, C. J 2010. Carbon emissions from international cruise ship passengers travel to and from New Zealand Energy Policy, 38, 2552-2560.
  3. WALNUM, H. J. 2011. Energy use and CO2 emissions from cruise ships — A discussion of methodological issues. Western Norway Research Institute: Vestlandsforsking.
  4. WARD, D. 2015. Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016, APA.
  5. CLARKSONS. 2015. Cruise Orders full of Eastern Promises? Clarksons Research [Online]. Available: https://clarksonsresearch.wordpress.com/category/orderbook-2/ [Accessed 09/11/2015].
  6. CERON, J.-P. & DUBOIS, G. 2005. More mobility means more impact on climate change: prospects for household leisure mobility in France. Belgeo, 1-2 103-120.
  7. UNFCCC. 2013. Emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport (international bunker fuels) [Online]. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available: http://unfccc.int/methods_and_science/emissions_from_intl_transport/items/1057.php [Accessed 23/03 2013].



How Creative Accounting Hides the Environmental Impact of Countries

State accounting practices are quite flimsy when it comes to measuring a country’s impact on the environment. The national figures on greenhouse gas emissions that we often hear bandied about exclude emissions from imported goods and international shipping and flights – known as “international bunker fuel emissions” – which are reported separately (UNFCCC, 2013).

Claims towards more efficient use of natural resources or ‘resource productivity’, which are used to support important claims of ‘decoupling’ resource use from economic growth, are similarly inept. In calculating how much material is used up in an economy state economists:

“take[] the raw materials we extract in our own countries, add[] them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtract[] our exports, to end up with something called ‘domestic material consumption’” (Monbiot)

What’s missing from this are the raw materials in other countries used to manufacture the imports. When these are included rich country claims to recent improvements in “resource productivity” prove false. In fact a country such as the UK is shown to have been “becoming less efficient in its use of resources”prior to the financial crisis (Monbiot).

Continue reading

Climate Change and its Contribution to the Syrian War and ISIS

Media coverage of anything typically lacks a critical spine. This is particularly the case with the coverage of ISIS. Too often the reporting surrenders to a black and white, good vs evil othering of ISIS, which marks them as the opposite of us (the West) and beyond our comprehension. While an understandable cathartic response to the horrible cruelty perpetrated by them this narrative dangerously oversimplifies. It denies the complex history of the conflict, the social, material and political origins of the perpetrators and it quickly wipes clean the role of Western governments such as France who continue to play a massive role in militarising Western Asia.

Some of this coverage is knee-jerk demonisation but some is guided by an underlying linear simplicity that views ISIS actors as somewhat spontaneously radicalised by an extreme interpretation of Islam. This in turn leads them to carry out these heinous acts of terror. Essentially the logic here is A + B = C. However, the social world is far from linear. A proper analysis needs to take into account the systemic nature of the social world and recognise that multiple systems of factors are involved. In this video Prof. Christian Parenti manages to go some way towards providing such an analysis as he links ‘climate change’ to the Syrian war and terrorism. Note he is not saying that climate change alone causes the current conflict but that it is bound up in other socio-political and material developments which together have culminated in the Syrian War. You can see the video for yourself below:


Climate Change and Depolitisation in Ireland

This piece is from a section I wrote for my 2014 thesis – Power, Society and Climate Change: A Social Critique of the Public Receptivity to Climate Change in Ireland. It illustrates how State and Civil society relations shape the public and their role in climate change mitigation.(1) The chapter this section is from is centred around establishing how climate change fits into the symbolic order of Irish society. The “symbolic order” (Bourdieu, 1994: 14) is that projection of everyday reality wherein much of the world appears to operate in a sort of self-evident harmony. In such an order unexamined notions of priority and ways of being are supported by how they are complimented by the existing objective structures. The school system, for example, reproduces the separation of the disciplines into distinct school subjects, sheering them of inter-relational interdisciplinarity, appearing as a self-evident part of the natural order by not being seen at all. The chapter argues how the order supports a reformist version of climate change. This position seeks change within the current institutional and economic system rather than recognising climate change as a product of that system.

The state-endorsed response to climate change, which has entered much of Irish civil society, in many ways mirrors the pre-existing economy of practices and classifications of that society. The ensuing objective relations of a heavily centralised democracy and a largely depoliticised civil society favour an economy of practices where commitment to social change, political protest and engagement is minimal. The relations veer instead towards the paradoxically elevated positions of solidarized (English, 2000: 88-9; Kirby, 2010b: 10) and individualised configurations of responsibility (Cronin, 2009; Allen, 2010: 29), sectoralism, the poor visibility of class and an emphasis on service provision rather than actual social change (Meade, 2005; Varley and Curtin, 2006). Continue reading

A Summary of My Research on Public Receptivity to Climate Change

SmallerA strangely metaphorical photo of an oil tank that blew over during an extreme weather event: when ‘Storm Darwin’ hit Ireland at the start of 2014.

Somehow I have whittled down my doctoral thesis of over 300 pages on public receptivity to climate change  into a two-page summary which can be found by clicking here on the following link: Executive summary of a study of Irish public climate change receptivity.

As this is just a two-page summary it but touches on the substance of the thesis. For example I had to leave out the work on how broad societal power relations manifested within the focus group discussions, which was too complex to reduce to one or two sentences. For a more in-depth reading of the research an online copy of the thesis itself can be found by clicking here. For a quicker route through the thesis I would recommend reading the findings chapters 5 to 8. I would argue that chapter 4 is also an essential chapter while sections 2.3 to 2.3.5 provide my interpretation of Bourdieu’s main concepts which are used throughout. Chapter 1 may have to be read if you find yourself getting lost.

A Ridiculous Juxtaposition: The Contradictions of Sustainability and the ‘Good Life’ of the Wealthy


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Ah the contradictions of modern living abound! Here’s one such example from Dublin’s D6 Living publication. This is really just a junk-mail circular targeted towards the lifestyles of the rich in wealthy areas such as Rathgar and Ranelagh. It has next to zero reporting on local community activities and politics or when it does it focuses on elite interests such as preserving Georgian Rathgar. It mostly discusses travel, health, interior design and contains interviews with celebrities in the area of upmarket-living such as celebrity chefs. It is interesting when such views of the ‘good life’,  which often carry higher environmental consequences than that of the average Joe, are juxtaposed against what should be a contrary narrative of sustainability. Take a look at the two-page spread above from its most recent edition. The article featured discusses water conservation while around it are pictures touting the ‘good life’ of bathing and showering. There is an advertisement on wet rooms telling you to enjoy every drop. The top right hand corner features a hot-tub which requires far more water than your average tub. And then there are what appears to be ridiculously joyous poses celebrating showering as some form of leisure (as opposed to functional) activity.