Local View: Brains struggle with a slow-motion catastrophe like climate change

One of the more disconcerting things I've noticed over the last decade in American politics is the polarization into opposing "tribes". We seem to have demonized each other and just yell instead of building bridges. This is poor form and ultimate...

2923762+Opinion 1.jpg
Denfeld’s 1947 boys basketball team is the only Denfeld basketball team to win a state title. The team’s head coach was Lloyd Holm. Team members were Rudy Monson, Larry Tessier, Paul Nace, Kenneth Sunnarborg, Eugene Norlander, Howard Tucker, Tony Skull, Jerry Walczak, Bruce Budge, Keith Stolen and student manager Bob Scott.

One of the more disconcerting things I've noticed over the last decade in American politics is the polarization into opposing "tribes". We seem to have demonized each other and just yell instead of building bridges. This is poor form and ultimately self-destructive.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only 12 years, until 2030, to make deep reductions in our carbon emissions or catastrophic damage becomes inevitable ("' Incredibly grim' report on climate change carries call for action ," Oct. 9).

So, at a time when our backs are to the wall with regard to climate, we need to come together more than ever - and that demands that we understand that people are essentially born conservative or liberal. That's right, the level of dopamine a person has in their brains largely determines what ideology appeals to them. People with high dopamine levels have high levels of anticipation; they look forward to change and the future. Such people tend to be writers, entrepreneurs, tech types, artists, etc. People with lower levels of dopamine tend to be more risk-averse. A desire for tradition, wanting to slow "progress" down, an emphasis on ways and means, and a nostalgia for the past are typical expressions of the conservative mind.

So, just as polite people would never assume that someone could change the color of his or her skin and therefore must be accepted as they are, we should get used to the fact that liberals and conservatives will always be around and that the body politic in fact needs both types of people to move sensible climate policy forward.

However, that isn't what is happening. Instead, we are being pulled further to the edges of political conflict and even violence by cynical politicians and corporations. A case in point is the fate of climate initiatives in the Southwestern states of Nevada and Arizona where an elegant experiment played out. Both states were presented with an option to increase renewable electricity production to 50 percent by 2030. Both were promoted by the same group, NextGen. However, in Arizona, the utility spent millions in ads to defeat the measure, and it lost 69 percent to 31 percent. In Nevada, the utility stayed neutral and the same proposal passed 59 percent to 41 percent.


If ever there was an example of the deleterious effect of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision on our ability to grapple with tough issues when corporations are considered to be people, with money as their form of speech, this outcome was it. The risk-averse conservative mind is particularly sensitive to a message of fear, and fossil fuel-burning corporations seized upon it.

We are also segregating ourselves geographically, which is setting up a dangerous urban-rural divide, as was seen in the defeat of Washington State's Initiative 1631, which would have established a carbon price. It was defeated 56 percent to 43 percent after the state's oil companies outspent proponents. The urban areas voted for climate action and the rural areas against. Interestingly, people in urban areas frequently converse about climate change, while in rural areas the subject is nearly taboo, according to the Yale Climate Communication maps.

Our brains evolved to meet immediate threats to our lives. We are poorly adapted to deal with slow-motion catastrophes like climate change. We can listen to one another, however. Let's have a quiet conversation over coffee this holiday season about the great existential threat of our time, climate change, and see that in each other's brains we are constitutionally inclined conservative or liberal but that we are not inherently evil on the subject of climate action.


Dr. Eric Enberg practices family medicine in West Duluth and is the group leader of the Duluth Citizens' Climate Lobby ( ). He also is a member of the Duluth Climate and Environment Network.

What To Read Next
Get Local