“JUST DO SOMETHING!” – how fear-induced actions are leading to disastrous climate change decisions, and examples of the opposite


Researchers have been analyzing the relationship between mental anxiety and the quality of decision making. While it may seem silly to study what is so glaringly obvious, there can be value when the study leads to new insights.  In this example, researchers, perhaps bored with the unpredictable antics of humans, showed that a group of rats made poor rat-decisions when given an anxiety-inducing drug and being simultaneously subjected to environmental distractions.

We as a species often exceed the prowess and mental scope of harried rats, but that doesn’t mean our brains work any differently. Actually, everyone knows this – when subjected to extreme stress, as in a panic situation, the quality of decision making goes hopelessly down. Almost everyone can think of a stressful situation where they did something that, in hindsight, is almost pathetically stupid. Finding a parking spot at the mall on a Saturday is often enough to generate a whole spate of “why on earth did I do that” sort of next-day head-holding.

This can also happen on much grander scales, when we foment maximal anxiety into populations. The phenomenon is perfectly scalable too; shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre has the same effect as shouting “earthquake” over social media.

The phenomenon is now most readily observed with respect to climate change. The average citizen is bombarded with apocalyptic warnings about how we are all doomed, doomed I say, unless we make immediate and unprecedented and unfathomably large changes to every aspect of our lives.

Most citizens listen for a while in mildly-to-moderately agitated state, then go back to shopping. For a significant few though, the fear grows and grows in their minds and the need to act becomes more important than anything.

Here is where we see the anxiety-led poor decision-making start to kick in. Some activist groups look around and start kicking at anything they can kick. In Canada’s case, this is the energy industry, and the easiest thing to kick is energy infrastructure development. From a bang for the buck perspective, it works. A ten billion dollar project can be immobilized indefinitely by a handful of protesters.

What makes this an example of bad decision making is the fact that these actions do nothing to help the climate (because the rest of the world is building energy infrastructure, including almost 50,000 km of petroleum pipeline, not to mention over a thousand new coal-fired power plants planned or under construction), but cause irreparable damage to the country. And any transition to green energy is going to require healthy strong economies; that is the only way it is affordable.

Now, on the other hand, if we take a calm approach, we can make useful decisions. We can start by analyzing what exactly is entailed in transitioning to a renewable energy economy. By doing so, we come to the disheartening conclusion that a very great deal is required, but if that is reality, then that must be the starting point.

Out of this thoughtful process comes useful initiatives that will actually drag things forward. A fantastic example is the US Alternative Fuels Corridor project. Under this program, US interstates are, in a measured way, being developed with usefully-spaced alternative fuel stations. This methodic program does far more to entice people away from gasoline than any amount of shouting and protesting ever will.

Furthermore, the corridors support 4 types of alternative fuels: electric, hydrogen, natural gas, and propane. Here again we see a brilliant strategy, because it doesn’t try to make an impossible leap to futuristic and implausible solutions like forcing everyone into electric vehicles, it recognizes the value of existing infrastructure and fuel sources. We simply can’t all start driving EVs without crashing the electrical grid, but we can transition with careful planning.

Rational thought will lead us towards a viable green energy future. Panicked, fear-driven demands to “JUST DO SOMETHING” will lead to fights/chaos, will create no progress, and will be just another example of poor rat-decisions.


  1. Jack Hingley says:

    Great article. Horsepower is the same no matter where it comes from. We would need many more site Cs if everything turns electric. Unless the treehuggers plug into the poplars and spruce.


  2. R Barbour says:

    There are many other considerations besides reducing energy consumption. Holland has lived many years mostly below sea level. Others can do the same. The artics in both Canada and Russia are likely to become inhabitable and are far larger than the areas that may be too warm or under water if climate change changes ocean levels. Cooling is also possible as weather becomes controllable. Why is only one action taken to solve the problems forseen whether real or dreams?


    • Terry Etam says:

      All true! And also worth asking: a catalogue of a million horrors that will happen if the earth warms more – but according to all the literature not a single good thing will happen. Kind of odd, particularly if one considers that much of Canada was under hundreds of meters of ice not very long ago.


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