clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19)

“Shifting baselines syndrome” means we could quickly get used to climate chaos.

The afternoon sky glows red from bushfires exacerbated by climate change near Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, 2,800 Americans died from Covid-19. That is more than died on September 11, 2001 in a horrific attack that sparked a national convulsion and two wars that are still ongoing.

If an accident or attack had violently killed this many US citizens in January of this year, there would have been a reckoning, a demand that authorities bring the full might of the country to bear on finding and addressing the causes. It would have been experienced as an unbearable collective tragedy. The names of the dead would have been carved into a new national monument.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, infections started slowly and grew. There was no line crossed, no sudden trauma that shook us awake, just a creeping death toll spread out over to which we have been incrementally adjusting for nine months.

But now there’s a 9/11 happening every day, and there’s still no real national mobilization. We can’t even get everyone to wear masks. Millions of people traveled for the Thanksgiving holidays, despite expert warnings that the Covid surge is ongoing.

Because the virus crept up on us, we adjusted to it, like we’re adjusting to climate change, like we adjust to everything. It’s called “shifting baselines syndrome” and it’s the theme of a piece I first published back in July. It is, unfortunately, at relevant as ever.

For as long as I’ve followed global warming, advocates and activists have shared a certain faith: When the impacts get really bad, people will act.

Maybe it will be an especially destructive hurricane, heat wave, or flood. Maybe it will be multiple disasters at once. But at some point, the severity of the problem will become self-evident, sweeping away any remaining doubt or hesitation and prompting a wave of action.

From this perspective, the scary possibility is that the moment of reckoning will come too late. There’s a time lag in climate change — the effects being felt now trace back to gases emitted decades ago. By the time things get bad enough, many further devastating and irreversible changes will already be “baked in” by past emissions. We might not wake up in time.

That is indeed a scary possibility. But there is a scarier possibility, in many ways more plausible: We never really wake up at all.

No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise.

The youth climate movement continues agitating, some of the more progressive countries are roused to (inadequate) action, and eventually, all political parties are forced to at least acknowledge the problem — all outcomes that are foreseeable on our current trajectory — but the necessary global about-face never comes. We continue to take slow, inadequate steps to address the problem and suffer immeasurably as a result.

A Palestinian girl fills plastic bottles with drinking water from a public tap during a heat wave in Gaza City on July 6, 2020.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

David Wallace-Wells, author of the popular and terrifying climate change book The Uninhabitable Earth, discussed this possibility in a New York Magazine piece written during the apocalyptic fires late last year in Australia. One might have thought that fires consuming hundreds of millions of acres and killing more than a billion animals would be a wake-up call, but instead, Wallace-Wells writes, “a climate disaster of unimaginable horror has been unfolding for almost two full months, and the rest of the world is hardly paying attention.”

Maybe climate chaos, a rising chorus of alarm signals from around the world, will simply become our new normal. Hell, maybe income inequality, political dysfunction, and successive waves of a deadly virus will become our new normal. Maybe we’ll just get used to [waves hands] all this.

Humans often don’t remember what we’ve lost or demand that it be restored. Rather, we adjust to what we’ve got.

Concepts developed in sociology and psychology can help us understand why it happens — and why it is such a danger in an age of accelerating, interlocking crises. Tackling climate change, pandemics, or any of a range of modern global problems means keeping our attention on what’s being lost, not just over our lifetimes, but over generations.

Shifting baselines are a form of generational amnesia

In 1995, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly published a one-page article in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution titled “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome in fisheries.” It contained no original experiments, no numbers or equations, but it went on to be the most cited and widely discussed thing he ever wrote.

Pauly had something particular in mind about the transition from pre-scientific (anecdotal) to scientific data, but the conceptual architecture of shifting baselines also proved to be incredibly fruitful in other contexts and went on to be “revolutionary for the field of ecology,” write Jeremy Jackson (an emeritus professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Jennifer Jacquet (an environmental studies professor at New York University). The notion was later introduced to the public by filmmaker Randy Olsen in a 2002 LA Times piece and has since become a subject of much popular discussion.

So what are shifting baselines? Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

And so it goes, each new generation shifting the baseline downward. By the end, the fishers are operating in a radically degraded ecosystem, but it does not seem that way to them, because their baselines were set at an already low level.

Over time, the fish goes extinct — an enormous, tragic loss — but no fisher experiences the full transition from abundance to desolation. No generation experiences the totality of the loss. It is doled out in portions, over time, no portion quite large enough to spur preventative action. By the time the fish go extinct, the fishers barely notice, because they no longer valued the fish anyway.

“An animal that is very abundant, before it gets extinct, it becomes rare,” says Pauly in his TED talk on shifting baselines. “So you don’t lose abundant animals. You always lose rare animals. And therefore, they’re not perceived as a big loss.”

The same phenomenon is sometimes called “generational amnesia,” the tendency of each generation to disregard what has come before and benchmark its own experience of nature as normal.

A 2009 study from researchers at the Imperial College London examined a series of case studies, from “hunters’ perceptions of change in prey species populations in two villages in central Gabon” to “perceptions of bird population trends of 50 participants in a rural village in Yorkshire, UK.” Sure enough, they found evidence of generational amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs because younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions.”

It’s easy to see the same thing happening on a larger scale with climate change. Few people are aware, in a conscious way, of how many hot summer days were normal for their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Recent research shows that “extremely hot summers” are 200 times more likely than they were 50 years ago. Did you know that? Do you feel it?

It’s not just intergenerationally that we forget, either. The Imperial College researchers also demonstrated the existence of another form of shifting baselines syndrome: personal amnesia, “where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience.”

Just as generations forget about ecological loss, so do individuals

It turns out that, over the course of their lives, individuals do just what generations do — periodically reset and readjust to new baselines.

“There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He cites the London Blitz (during World War II, when bombs were falling on London for months on end) and the intifada (the Palestinian terror campaign in Israel), during which people slowly adjusted to unthinkable circumstances.

“Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant,” he says, “You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.”

He notes that big events, or “teachable moments,” can momentarily shock us into willingness to make big changes, but “a teachable moment is only a moment,” he says. “Once the fear is gone, the willingness to take measures is also gone.”

Even those big personal moments fade quickly. One of the most robust findings in modern psychology — made famous by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert — is that we have an incredibly robust “psychological immune system.”

We tend to dramatically overestimate the effect that large events, good or bad, will have on our happiness. We think the death of a family member will make us enduringly less happy, or winning the lottery will make us enduringly happier. In fact, what psychologists find again and again is that we quickly return to our personal happiness equilibrium. A soldier who loses a leg and a soldier who returns home safe to a new baby will generally, a year or two later, be roughly as happy as they were before those events. It’s called “hedonic adaptation.”

Just as we adjust emotionally, we adjust cognitively. We forget what came before; we simply don’t think about it. For the most part, only our recent experience is salient in defining our baselines, our sense of normal.

XKCD on shifting baselines.

The process of forgetting, of resetting, is almost impossible to resist, even for those acutely aware of it. In 2013, author JB MacKinnon released a book called The Once and Future World, about the extinction crisis and the abundant natural world that Americans are barely aware is draining away.

“Even though I spent several years writing a book about things disappearing from the natural world,” MacKinnon says, “I can’t hold it in my head. I have to go back and reread it in order to refresh my eyes so that when I go out into the natural world, I think, ‘there are things missing here’. Otherwise, I’m just gonna go, ‘What a beautiful day’.”

“I mean, who remembers what the price of coffee was 10 years ago?” he asks.

Humans view the world through the lens of recent experience

UC-Davis environmental economist Frances Moore thought of a clever way to test this phenomenon of short-term salience in the context of weather.

How many times must unusual temperatures be repeated before they cease to be experienced by individuals as unusual? How fast do unusual temperatures become unremarkable? To find out, Moore and colleagues turned to Twitter. In a study published last year, they analyzed Twitter’s massive US database to correlate unusual heat or cold events with chatter about the weather. In this way, they tried to track the “remarkability” of temperature anomalies.

“Something crazy happens, and then the same crazy thing happens the next year, and people are able to realize, ‘Oh, it’s two crazy things’,” Moore says. “Then it starts happening again, and people start to think, ‘I guess this isn’t so notable anymore.” Accordingly, tweets about the weather decline.

How quickly does the effect take hold? “The reference point for normal conditions appears to be based on weather experienced between 2 and 8 years ago,” the study concluded.

“It’s a powerful phenomenon, this normalization or reference-dependent utility,” Moore says. “It’s not super-rational behavior.”

The study’s conclusion about what this portends for climate change is unsettling: “This rapidly shifting normal baseline means warming noticed by the general public may not be clearly distinguishable from zero over the 21st century.”

Let that sink in. Even though atmospheric temperatures are, on a geological time scale, changing at a headlong pace, on a human time scale, they are still changing too slowly to be perceptually or emotionally salient. Put more bluntly: The public may never notice that it’s getting warmer.

Research based on social media in a single country has obvious limitations, and Moore is reticent to speculate about how long the window of salience might be for other kinds of weather, or in other places.

But it stands to reason that something like the same window applies to other natural or even social phenomena. It may be just as likely that the public never notices the increasing intensity of storms or frequency of flooding or regularity of crop failures. However rapidly those phenomena might change, they rarely change fast enough to be dramatically different from conditions two to eight years ago.

The window of experience that humans find emotionally and cognitively salient is simply too narrow to take in long-term changes in ecological systems. What was unthinkable to previous generations — say, regular nuisance flooding in southern Florida — is normal now. What seems unthinkable to us now — say, stay-at-home orders in large swathes of the US Southwest for several weeks a year due to dangerous heat — will be, by the time it rolls around, not that much worse than what came just before it.

We adjust; we can’t help it. If we wait for ecological change to thrust itself into the consciousness of ordinary Americans, we may be waiting forever.

Global Warming, Full Moon, High Tide Cause Flooding In Miami Beach
Walking through a daylight flood in Miami Beach, Florida, on September 29, 2015.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shifting baselines apply to several other social problems

Once you start thinking in terms of shifting baselines, you start seeing them everywhere, not just in ecology.

What is the unending debate over the “normalization” of Trump but a debate over shifting baselines? President Trump has degraded and discarded longstanding norms of presidential behavior with astonishing speed and recklessness, but it has proven incredibly difficult for the press and the public to assess his record based on pre-Trump baselines. This is why people are always asking, “What if Obama did this?” They are trying to ask, “Why have we shifted our moral and political baselines so quickly?”

Similarly, the US is busy normalizing the grim reality that college graduates will enter a world of high debt, expensive housing, and parlous job prospects. The post-war expectation of a middle-class life with a family-supporting job and a reliable pension might as well be ancient history.

Shifting baselines are evident in the steady erosion of unions, the militarization of police, and the infusion of US politics with dark money. They are even evident, as we’ll discuss in a moment, in our experience with Covid-19.

For the generation of Americans coming of age today, Trump, gridlocked politics, and a rapidly warming planet have become normal. Can the incoming Biden administration convince them that they should expect, and demand, something better?

How to fight shifting baselines and personal amnesia

The human propensity to rapidly adapt is part of our evolved cognitive and emotional machinery. But our ability to heed and remember the past is also shaped by culture.

“I looked at Native Hawaiian culture,” MacKinnon says. “They had individuals within communities who were assigned to have a social relationship with species that were never even given names in English.” North America’s indigenous cultures still carry an enormous amount of accumulated knowledge that can help reveal what’s been lost.

That kind of historical consciousness — a day-to-day awareness of the obligations that come with being a good ancestor — has faded. And modern consumer capitalism might as well be designed to erase it, to lock everyone into an eternal present wherein satisfying the next material desire is the only horizon.

One answer is for journalism and the arts to pull the lens back and try to recenter a richer historical perspective. One ambitious effort to do that is journalist John Sutter’s Baseline 2020 project. He and his team have picked four locations around the world that are particularly vulnerable to climate change — Alaska, Utah, Puerto Rico, and the Marshall Islands — and will visit them every five years until 2050, documenting the changes facing the people who live there. (It is modeled on director Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, which check in on the same group of Brits every seven years.)

“Change is invisible in any one moment,” Sutter says. He notes that scientists often do studies that last for years or decades, but “that longitudinal approach just doesn’t happen in journalism.” Taking the long view is one way to make changing conditions salient and emotionally impactful.

In a similar spirit, artist Jonathon Keats has designed a special camera to take a 1,000-year exposure of Lake Tahoe. He calls it a “sort of cognitive prosthesis, a mechanism for us to be able to see ourselves from that far-future perspective.” The Long Now Foundation, established by Stewart Brand in 1996, has been hosting seminars to spur long-term thinking for decades.

“Culture will hang on to knowledge of things that are changing or gone longer,” MacKinnon says, “if those things are the kinds of things that they pay attention to.”

It’s not just about documenting decline, either. There have been long-term victories, too — reductions in poverty, increases in the number of educated young girls, declines in air pollution, and so forth. These also happen incrementally, often beneath our notice. We adjust our baselines upward and do not register what, over time, can be substantial victories. Making those victories more visible can help show that decline is not inevitable.

There is no substitute for leadership and responsive governance

It can not ultimately fall to ordinary people to hold baselines stable. On these matters, as on much else, they take their cues from their leaders. Studying and understanding the long arc of history, considering the experience of previous generations and the welfare of coming generations, making decisions with the long view — those are things leaders are supposed to do.

The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics. They can’t be held steady through acts of collective will. They have to be hardwired into social infrastructure.

Unfortunately, US politics has become almost completely unresponsive, which reinforces rather than ameliorates our slipping baselines. One crucial part of registering a crisis as a crisis is a sense of agency, and Americans increasingly feel that they have no ability to shape national policy.

Negative changes “are normalized more quickly if you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Moore. “That might be what’s going on with the coronavirus — people don’t feel like they have agency on a collective level, because the government is not doing anything, so their response is to say, ‘well, I gotta live my life’.”

On top of that, it’s just tiring to feel anxious for so long. “The combination of adaptation and fatigue is absolutely deadly in terms of our ability to respond to the virus at this point,” says Loewenstein.

What if Americans simply accommodate themselves to thousands of coronavirus deaths a day? As writer Charlie Warzel noted in a recent column, it’s not that different from the numbness they now feel in the face of gun violence. “Unsure how — or perhaps unable — to process tragedy at scale,” he writes, “we get used to it.”

Biodiversity loss, deforestation, and climate change may make pandemics more common. It is not difficult to imagine Americans forgetting a time when mingling freely was taken for granted. When being in public did not mean constant low-level exposure anxiety. When there weren’t regular waves of infection and death.

“If we keep getting zoonotic disease pandemics, then we’ll just say, ‘well, here comes the winter one, catch you on Zoom until June’,” says MacKinnon. “Our baseline could shift to the point that we don’t remember there was a time when people went most of their lives without hearing the word pandemic.”

Our extraordinary ability to adapt, to get on with it, to not dwell in the past, was enormously useful in our evolutionary history. But it is making it difficult for us to keep our attention focused on how much is being lost — and thus difficult for us to rally around efforts to stem those losses.

And so, little by little, a hotter, more chaotic, and more dangerous world is becoming normal to us, as we sleepwalk toward more tragedies.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.