In the Midst of Climate Change, Can We All Just Get Along?

by | Oct 25, 2012

Can we all just get along?

This plea, famously uttered by the late Rodney King in a TV appearance during the eponymous riots in Los Angeles 20 years ago, is as relevant to the climate change debate as it then was to the social inequity debate.

The Fall 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review is dedicated to the notion that climate science has in fact become a cultural war. The article notes that the public debate around climate change is no longer a scientific exploration – but rather a struggle over values, culture and ideology.

The science is clear. And, just in case we needed further evidence, with the recent publication of the results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) Project Professor Richard Muller, a physicist and climatechange skeptic, has declared himself converted. Interestingly, this project was funded in large part by the Charles G Koch Foundation, established by the billionaire US coal magnate who is the key backer of the climate-change skeptic Heartland Institute think tank. Indeed, in the spirit of the newly converted, this report not only finds that climate change is real, but concludes that it is likely all attributable to the human emission of greenhouse gases.

So why are we still not doing anything about it? Why are there still so many people who choose to deny, contradict and scoff at the evidence? Why are we not seeing society changing behaviors and instructing its governments and marketplaces to make different choices to avoid undesirable consequences?

Because we’re human. And humans, notoriously, are not rational creatures.

We need look no further than the advertising industry – experts in the manipulation of all that triggers behavior change in humans. They don’t deal in facts, in threats, in dire warnings. They deal in aspiration, desire, self-interest, ego and nostalgia. And it works.

So, as uncomfortable as it may be to we practical types who plan, design, build, and measure, our drive for rationality may be the greatest barrier to communicating with audiences who think emotionally. As creators of the built environment we have a tendency to believe that audience members who do not take our design sensibilities seriously, who do not appear to care about environmental concerns, are either ill-informed, ill-intended or both. Regardless of the audience’s education, level of interest or stake in the issue, it is not their responsibility to understand us. It is our responsibility to make ourselves understood.

It is long overdue that we start paying more attention to our humanities colleagues who analyze, sympathize and empathize.

The most successful developments that catch my eye today are the ones that emerge from a collaborative process that engages the entire community in the solution. This is true whether we are looking at infrastructure investment in East London or a new water well in rural Ethiopia. The very best projects begin by listening to community needs and desires and taking the time to understand what must to change if their project is to have the best chance of success.

In this scenario, projects fulfill a private (personal) need at the same time as they fulfill a public (societal) need. This is evidenced by the testimony of happy residents who enjoy the health benefits and social interaction afforded by a walkable, green neighborhood where their children can safely play. Or by the proud mother, now a skilled water technician, who watches her daughter walk to school every day instead of walking five miles to the nearest (dirty) water source.

Our duty then, is not to preach climate change from the rooftops, but to work with communities, to try and help them figure out what to do today to get the future they want tomorrow. There are always barriers. But these barriers are emotional, not physical. We must begin with the understanding that everyone is acting rationally from his or her perspective. From there we must find the right way to communicate understanding, demonstrate responsiveness to concerns and needs, and offer a vision of a future that will meet not only their needs, but the needs of generations to come.

We cannot wait for consensus (and I speak as one who bears the deep scar tissue from my days as the former Planning Director of Seattle) but we can achieve informed consent.

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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