Overcoming Inaction to Understand & Address Climate Change

by | Sep 6, 2012

Last month an opinion piece appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review that is one of the best summaries of our climate change dilemma I have read in a long time.

The author, Beth Gardiner, concludes that the greatest barrier to taking action about climate change is that we are all idiots. This is a simple, eloquent conclusion in and of itself and the more perverse side of my nature tempts me to stop writing at this point. However, Ms. Gardiner is more sympathetic, she goes on to explain that the problem is rooted deep in the very way that our brains work.

Ms. Gardiner cites the work of Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, whose studies into the behavioral barriers impeding climate change action have identified a simple problem. Our brains simply do not want to deal with overwhelmingly complex problems that lack straightforward solutions (an accurate description of the climate change issue).

In a poetic turn of phrase, Dr. Gifford refers to this mental evasion as the “dragons of inaction.” A term that I believe Sir Francis Bacon, writing 400 years earlier, would have approved. In Aphorism XLIX, Sir Francis Bacon observes,

“The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride…”

This would suggest a greater problem. Not only are we idiots, we are persistent idiots.

I acknowledge that this observation is not helpful. However, while the solution may not be simple, the approach we can take towards a solution can be distilled to four simple steps.

1. Understanding the problem – climate change is too abstract and complex an issue for the human mind to easily grasp, and its impact is too subtle and gradual to be easily understood. Our brains have evolved to deal with local, practical demands and urgent situations with immediate impacts. This is compounded by the fact that we pay closer attention to information that reinforces what we want to believe, rather than facts that contradict our preferred opinions.

2. Agreeing that the problem or the opportunity needs to be addressed – I am firmly convinced that, were the problem to be explained with clarity, the issue of climate change is real and troublesome to every individual on this planet. If we understand the decision-making process and the barriers to behavior change, we can frame the issues in ways that have greater appeal to our proclivity for local, practical action on an issue that affects us directly.

3. Knowing what to do about the problem – we cannot easily choose to “do something about climate change.” We can however, effect changes that will mitigate the accumulation of greenhouse gases that are the single greatest contributor to climate change. For example, not many people are planning an arctic cruise to visit the polar bears so their demise, while sad, does not have a tangible impact on the average citizen. However, if you argue, as published in a recent environmental report, that coal fired plants contribute to thousands of deaths, asthma attacks and hospital visits every year, you will immediately galvanize every community within striking distance of a coal-fired power plant into demanding action on reducing pollution.

4. Choosing to act differently –  Homo Sapiens is distinguished from other species by one striking characteristic – we are emotional creatures. Our decisions are influenced by fear, love, self-interest, aspiration, pride, hope, jealousy…and the list goes on. If we understand how to appeal to these emotions, behavioral change will naturally follow. There are many documented examples of local power and waste management companies pitting one neighborhood against another in friendly competitions (often with a financial incentive or award of additional community amenities) to reduce their energy and waste consumption. The most successful of these have employed current technology to prominently display real time financial savings, energy usage, or waste reduction data. When Neighborhood A sees that Neighborhood B has reduced its energy consumption by 20% and realized equivalent financial savings, Neighborhood A will redouble its efforts.

People may not care about the abstract notion of “climate change” but they do care, deeply, about the things that touch them directly – health, happiness, opportunity, safety, security, their children…and the list goes on.

Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.

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