The Reason why Covid Scares Us more than Climate Change
Evolution has left us with a skewed response to threat
The global pandemic that has swept across the world in 2020-21 has evoked a colossal response from all quarters. Virtually unheard of before 2020, Covid-19 has utterly dominated the world’s media for the last 12 months. Governments have mobilised trillions of dollars to counter the threat. Billions of people have willingly surrendered to lockdown, and frequently demanded its enforcement, in the hope that it will control the spread of the virus. Much of the world’s workforce and industrial output finds itself on hold. Outside of World War, no modern phenomena has provoked anywhere near such a level of response.
But, if we step back for a moment, how big a threat truly is Covid? Actually, even the most pessimist predictions from experts in the field conclude that only something like 0.01% to 0.1% of the world’s population are at risk of dying from it. This is not to in any way denigrate the ongoing efforts we are making to control Covid, merely to make a comparison.
Now let’s take a look at Climate Change. This has been on our radar for at least 2 decades. Literally thousands of scientific papers have been written on the subject, the overwhelming majority of which point to dire consequences should we not take action. How big a threat is this phenomenon? The simple reality is that within a relatively short space of time, climate change could lead to the extinction of all human life on this planet. All Human Life.
Yet, have we as a people made even a tiny fraction of the response to Climate Change that we have to Covid? No.
The purpose of this short piece is not to heap guilt onto any already emotionally-battered population. It is simply to point to a huge fallibility in our brain’s threat-detection mechanism.
Forty Years and You’re On Your Own!
This phrase sums up the reality of human natural selection. Being the result of a billion plus years of biological evolution, natural selection has forged us according to one overriding criteria - survive long enough to raise the next generation.
Those traits that forward this purpose will survive. Those that don’t will fail to make it.
For humans, this basically means that our body is highly equipped to survive for forty years - the average length of time it takes to raise another generation. After that, we’re on our own. Once our forty years are up, it’s increasingly down to us to stay in shape and to create a good life for ourselves. Nature ain’t gonna do it for us.
It’s brutal. But it is what it is.
The areas of our brain that assess threat and mediate our response to it - our amygdala and autonomic nervous system - evolved in line with these criteria. Any threat likely to stop us from reproducing, or from reaching our 40th birthday, we developed defences against via natural selection. But if a threat was non-critical until after this age, then as far as Nature was concerned, it didn’t really matter. We’d already fulfilled our natural purpose and could die off without jeopardising the survival of the species.
Response to Threat
When those areas of our brain charged with protecting us perceive a threat, they trigger a response from our autonomic nervous system - fight or flight. Our body floods with adrenaline and cortisol to ready ourselves. Our breathing changes and our heart beats more prominently. Our capacity to undertake routine tasks - digesting or taking in a wide view for example - stop and all our energy is focused and mobilised for battle or escape.
This very visceral response is our felt experience of threat. It is utterly palpable. We feel it. In addition, because this response to threat is mediated by the older, pre-human areas of the brain, it also limits our access to rationality. Our rational mind is centred in our neocortex, a far more recent addition to our evolving brain.
As Covid-19 began to hit Western society in February 2020, so media articles repeatedly triggered a huge fight-flight response in the nervous systems of a billion humans. In the face of a limited and seemingly inadequate initial response from Western governments, citizens en masse demanded stronger and stronger measures to keep them safe. Within weeks, initially resistant governments were compelled to comply and to initiate lockdowns.
Contrast this situation with that surrounding Climate Change. For most of us, it is something that we feel governments and industry should be tackling in the background while we broadly get on with our lives. Perhaps we consider buying a Tesla instead of a Ford. Maybe we begin to buy food in recyclable packaging. But the sense of visceral threat is almost totally absent.
This is not because we don’t care. It is simply because the threat that Climate Change presents is not recognised by the areas of our brain associated with threat. Our neocortex understands that action does need to be taken but there are none of the physical, palpable effects that come when our fight-flight system is triggered. Our breathing is normal. Our heart rate is normal.
This lack of visceral response has made fighting Climate Change immensely challenging for those who fully recognise the threat. It requires huge changes to the way our society functions industrially. It has been easy for industrial conglomerates to “push back” against change for greener alternatives by hiring their own scientists to try and refute the risk.
Of course, should a truly epochal event associated with Climate Change visit us then our threat response system will truly trigger. We will find ourselves flooded with adrenaline and absolutely motivated to make change.
The problem is that, by then, it may be too late.
As it seems that we are now coming out of many of the restrictive measures evoked to suppress Covid, I for one will be looking much more attentively at the situation surrounding Climate Change and trying to spread more awareness of the threat being presented.