Guest essay by Eric Worrall
NPR author and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett thinks the reason people don’t care about climate change is most people can’t imagine what 120F feels like. But the reality is that Lisa is demonstrating her personal lack of insight.
Simulating The Bodily Pain Of Future Climate Change
September 23, 20179:03 AM ET
LISA FELDMAN BARRETT
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. You can keep up with Lisa on Twitter: @LFeldmanBarrett.
Close your eyes and imagine a beautiful spring day in the forest. In your mind’s eye, try to see tall, green trees and smell the aroma of blooming flowers. Can you hear the gentle breeze rustling the leaves above you?
Most people can conjure up this mental scene without much effort, at least for a few moments.
Now, imagine that the temperature rockets upward. It’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Try to produce, in your mind, the discomfort you’d experience under that scorching sun. I don’t mean just the idea of being hot — actually try to feel the physical sensations of stifling, smothering heat. Can you invoke these feelings on demand?
Most people cannot.
If the sensory consequences of climate change are unimaginable to our government officials, what can we do? Perhaps we can help them feel those consequences directly. The next time a city like Las Vegas has a record heat wave, as it did in June of this year (117 degrees F), we could petition President Trump to travel there. Perhaps a three-day stay at Trump International Hotel — with the air conditioning turned off — would be swelteringly educational. Or shall we ask Vice President Pence to visit Nuatambu, one of the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia, where rising ocean levels have washed away half the habitable land and forced families to flee? Let him live there for a month or two. Or maybe Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, should survive on minimal drinking water for a few days, so he can understand viscerally what a drought feels like.
What our leaders cannot simulate, they can make themselves feel. All it takes is the courage to do so.
One of my first jobs was working in a poorly ventilated rubber factory, operating hydraulic hot plates to produce pressed plastic products. I don’t have to imagine what 120F feels like, because in Summer I used to experience 120F pretty much every work day. Some days the temperature inside the factory hit 130F.
My experience is hardly unique – anyone who has worked a factory job or mining job in a place with warm summers has likely experienced similar conditions.
My friends tell me that when they worked day shift in the mines in the scorching hot Marble Bar region, with outside air pumped straight in through the ventilation system, 120F would have been welcome relief.
120F simply isn’t terrifying, for anyone who ever experienced similar temperatures on a regular basis. Uncomfortable, moderately unpleasant, but not a reason for panic.
But Lisa obviously doesn’t know any of this. So she creates specious theories within the limits of her personal experience of the world, of why attempts to frighten people about the horrifying climate pain people will experience on a 120F day fall flat; especially I suspect with working class audiences.