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Terror Management

Could a shared fear of climate change unite enemies?

Reflecting on U.S.-Soviet relations late in his presidency, Ronald Reagan once mused about one thing that could unite humanity: a threat from a "power from outer space." At the time, the sci-fi reference seemed a little out of place in a discussion about international relations, but the Gipper had a point: Bitter rivals don't tend to unite unless they face a common threat from a third party. Think of the U.S.-Soviet alliance against Nazi Germany, the period of bipartisan consensus that followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States -- or, more to Reagan's point, the now clichéd scene of mortal enemies putting aside their differences in alien-invasion movies. (Remember the Arab and Israeli pilots who join forces near the end of Independence Day?)

Some psychologists, however, now suggest we may not have to wait for flying saucers in our search for a global threat that can bring humanity together -- we may already have created one ourselves in the form of hotter temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasingly unpredictable weather. According to a recent article in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, just hearing about the dangers posed by global warming can turn you into a pacifist.

The study was led by University of Colorado professor Tom Pyszczynski, one of the leading proponents of an emerging school of social psychology known as "terror management theory," which holds that a wide array of human behavior and thought is motivated by fear of death. In this case, a common fear of the dangers of climate change, he argues, can lead to global cooperation. "When you think of yourself as facing a shared enemy and a shared threat, it brings people together," Pyszczynski says.

Ironically, defense strategists have been warning for years of exactly the opposite scenario when it comes to global warming: that a new world of extreme weather and rising seas could usher in a new age of confrontation as countries compete for increasingly scarce resources and habitable land. More recently, a 2012 report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council forecast that, by 2030, climate change could spawn this kind of conflict in developing and fragile states.

Still, Pyszczynski is no starry-eyed optimist. "My guess is that as things get worse, people will come together and a consensus will emerge, but by then it may be too late," he says. Then again, in disaster movies enemies always unite just in time to fight off the bad guys.

Chris Hyde/Getty Images News

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