Sunday, May 03, 2009

Changing the Climate of People’s Minds

Over the past thirty years of my life, I have been amazed at how poorly the U.S. has addressed environmental and energy concerns, especially when it comes to how we invest in our future health and welfare.

America’s top priorities are jobs and the economy, followed by health care, terrorism, budget deficit reduction and energy, while at the bottom of this list comes climate change and environmental concerns.

This reminds of me of the study by social researchers on low income and poverty in the 60s. People were offered three dollars; most opted to get a dollar now rather than wait a day to get two dollars. It appears people have little future orientation when it comes to seriously investing in the long-term.

Over the years there has been a great deal of research addressing the implications of our choices regarding consumer goods and health, and how we spend our dollars. A recent New York Times Magazine article, “Why isn’t the Brain Green”, discusses behavior regarding climate change.

A question occurs to me. If there is a widespread consensus that climate change is the result of human activity, then will people change their behavior to attempt to cool our planet? Changing consumer behavior to lessen greenhouse emissions may become a national security issue as carbon emissions continue to climb even in this recession.

Remember when President Jimmy Carter was laughed out of office for asking Americans to turn their thermostats down? At the other extreme what about Reagan and Bush Jr. preaching to Americans to consume even more? Will Americans today make certain life style changes now, such as expend less carbon in exchange for uncertain climate benefits far off in the future?

One thing is for certain, American environmental communications have been inadequate. Improved environmental messages that engage the public to act are lacking, especially when we educate ourselves about the costs and benefits of what we do. Just take a look at how obesity is being addressed. How we react to danger is interesting if it is the result terrorist activity, but if it is a result of an irresponsible life style then this is another matter.

We prefer immediate gratification to long-term benefits. Maybe this is why McDonalds is doing so well. It is cheap, easy and fast, and in this brutal recession, the fact that it tastes good outweighs what it is doing to our health.

We want what we want now, no matter the future outcome. This represents what, in the 60s, social science termed the “culture of poverty”. If we had the choice to take $100 now to, say $200 in six months from now, most would opt for the immediate $100. Perhaps the human ancestral practice of leaving our world better for future generations may soon become extinct along with the loss of millions of our plant and animal species. Or are we likely to make lifestyle changes in order to invest in the possibility for a safer future climate?

Many of our decisions involve risk assessment. Our county is divided over two key questions: are environmental problems caused by human activity, and can we do anything about it? The majority of Americans underestimate the danger of the melting arctic ice or epic water shortages. When it comes to changing weather that we have never experienced, we have nothing to compare this with.

Certain social researchers think that there is only so much worry we can tolerate. Our loss of financial confidence coupled with increased societal pressures to live well, work hard and enjoy life all take a toll on what people can actually do and focus on. We live in overwhelming and complex times where there are just too many worries to deal with.

Also we live in times where distressing emotional circumstances are constantly being reported by the mass media. Living in a hyper-information society we are continually over stimulated with questionable information, and so, many have grown indifferent and estranged.

Biking, recycling, composting, improving insulation or purchasing more energy-efficient products are all good measures to minimize our generation of carbon. However, many are skeptical since it seems that it may not matter anyway--especially when compared with predicted future carbon emissions for China and India. Cynical?

Doubt is everywhere despite the evidence. You hear from more skeptics as to climate change than from articulate scientists. And how many politicians are willing or able to address issues of long-term change? Media focuses more on the unknown than what we know, and more on what is wrong than what is of benefit. We are becoming characters in the fictional Brave New World where “ending is better then mending”.

At Columbia University, research on group decision making focused on four key variables: uncertainty, time, potential gains, and potential losses. Researchers there are seeking to better understand how group dynamics shape decisions. Various experiments have established the ease of getting random individuals to cooperate.

Community action is activated when there is a significant shared crisis. When local support is solicited, the community itself becomes the decision-making unit. The subjects’ analytical and emotional methods of risk assessment are most interesting in these experiments. One finding was that groups could demonstrate more patience than individuals when considering delayed benefits. Group involvement can change the decision-making process and its results.

America is clearly in its adolescence with regard to understanding the dynamics of human interaction and relationship with the environment. Presently 2 percent of federal financing goes to “human dimensions” research. This is mainly for studies on how individuals and groups interact with the environment. Human-dimensions work has three categories: 1) human activities creating environmental change, 2) impacts of environmental change on people and the earth, and 3) public responses to these impacts.

98 percent of federal financing for climate-change research goes to the physical and natural sciences; this is clearly a metaphor for our present crisis—we are not emotionally comfortable with this subject. Perhaps this represents another tipping point in the acceleration of global warming.

Just how smart is it to spend billions on physical and natural scientific research, while we ignore the human dimensions of decision-making processes? What is tragic is that many Americans consider climate change to be a vastly distant problem. Do we need a 9/11-type environmental shock to realize that it is happening now? How many studies must be commissioned and carried out before we act?

I live part of the time in rural Virginia. Any awareness of the urgency of climate-change issues is rare in rural Virginia because most people see no reason whatsoever to change their behavior—they prefer the immediate gratification of doing things the way they want to do them, or at the least, as they’ve always done them. Yes, it’s the Bible Belt here, and I find it ironic that even familiarity with Genesis 2:15 does not warrant greater environmental responsibility.

It is essential to communicate, effectively and constantly, the feasible and cost-effectives benefits of lessening climate change, but in order to do so, we must become much more skilled in identifying relevant information, useful tools, innovative and responsible products, and sound policy initiatives. Even the use of language itself is critical in this endeavor. Just consider your own gut reaction to the use of the term “carbon tax” when compared to “carbon offset”—even though they both signify measures to finance cleaner energy. A simple shift in semantics can influence views even before any consideration of costs vs. benefits is brought to the table. At any rate, increased debate and dialogue are necessary in garnering public support and active engagement in the effort to address climate change. Open forums, reliable information resources, responsible media and local, regional and national leadership can guide us in the quest to meet the carbon challenge. The challenge is to encourage people to do what they believe is right without feeling they are being manipulated. We must effect a cultural revolution and encourage and enhance communal solidarity in the goal of saving our planet and leaving the world a better place for those who come after us.

There are huge psychological benefits to this: by doing the right thing, we can reduce despair, and indifference and share in a new vibrancy and sense of purpose in life. By reducing our carbon footprint through open dialogue and communal effort, we are ensuring democracy and the very future of freedom. No one can afford to wait another minute, each of us must begin to do what we can now to alleviate our carbon load and diminish climate change.