Urban Green pulled together a fascinating conference last week on the current science of climate change, exploring how it is impacting the building industry and why polls reveal public skepticism on the subject. The format included two excellent panels and a short keynote by the distinguished scientist and activist, Dr. James Hansen. There was a lot of intellectual firepower on display, including fascinating data on perceptions of climate change from Lisa Fernandez at Yale, and deep discussions of the role of the building industry. David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant and the author, most recently, of How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, offered the most unexpected perspectives of any speaker and clearly challenged our assumptions about how to effectively message on climate change.
Ropeik walked the audience through the current neurological research on risk perception, all of which supports the sense many of us have had over the years- that something as abstract and slow moving as climate change does not appear to motivate most of us to change our behavior. Ropeik points out that very few of the tools we use to assess risk are cognitive- most of them are subconscious. Our brains are wired to focus on things that will impact us directly, right now or in the very near future. Threats that are catastrophic are deeply important, but chronic issues barely register on our internal threat scale. Most of us in the environmental community act as if the simple communication of additional knowledge will cause people to change their minds- the more facts people know about climate change the more they will be motivated to change behavior. But a deep body of research (and probably if we are honest with ourselves and our own experiences) tells us this simply is not the case. People are not generally motivated to significantly alter their behavior because of threats to other species, or threats to our own that are likely to occur years from now. Mr. Ropeik’s distillation of this context colored all the other discussions at the event and made for lively discussion. In this context, Mr. Hansens’ slides communicating the impact of climate change through bar graphs and statistical plots seemed, though intellectually rigorous and important research, seemed somehow not up to the task at hand. Based on Mr. Ropeik’s presentation I came away with the overwhelming sense that we need to find new ways of communicating that humanizes climate change and describes how it will impact each of us directly.
Which is not to minimize the critical importance of Hansen’s presentation. For those of us familiar with his work and the work of his colleagues on the IPCC it was exciting (though sobering) to see the latest research on climate change. Hansen pointed out that we have increased the amount of atmospheric CO2 from 280ppm to 390ppm, with every indication that average global temperature will increase by 2 degrees within a century. The last time this happened, sea levels were 15 meters higher than today. Already, significant changes are moving through the system. The extent of arctic sea ice at the end of the melt season, as reported elsewhere, is reduced by half. And the sea ice is significantly thinner, so the actual mass has been reduced by three-fourths. This is a monumental shift that augurs more changes to come. In addition, the % of land mass that experiences extreme weather events annually (droughts, flooding, fire) has increased 10 times since about 1920. Dr. Hansen’s primary concern today are impacts that might be irreversible- like losing the ice sheet altogether, or a melt off of the Greenland ice sheet, or climate zones that move so fast that it triggers mass extinctions and failing ecosystems. These are sobering but very real possibilities in our near future.
To produce a reduction in greenhouse gases Dr. Hansen proposes a “fee and dividend” policy that would ramp up a tax on carbon emissions and distribute the collected money equally among the population. The funds would not go to the government and if current subsidies were removed it would level the technological playing field. With our political establishment locked in a sweaty wrestling hold that allows for considerable activity but no resolution, it is highly unlikely that Hansen’s proposal will be enacted, or even discussed seriously. But considering such a proposal allows us, at a minimum, to contemplate the high degree to which our current system is reliant on petroleum, and the significant degree to which the “market” is currently weighted in favor of the fossil fuel industry- which dominates energy subsidies despite being wildly profitable and flexes its lobbying muscle to influence almost every aspect of federal and state energy policy. As Dr. Hansen stated, “the government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.” His fee and dividend proposal would remove the embedded advantage of the wealthiest industries and if ramped appropriately would spur innovation. Activism and individual action, Dr. Hansen points out, are wonderful but without a price signal that makes carbon emissions pay something like their share of externalized costs there will be little movement on the issue. In fact, he seemed almost concerned that making buildings and other users of energy more efficient simply reduces demand and drives the price of oil down, incentivizing others to burn it.
Some years ago, Gore Vidal recommended that the world would be considerably improved if we simply swapped the cost of a university education with the cost of an intercontinental airline ticket- thereby making education available to all and significantly reducing the swarms of tourists senselessly marauding the globe. Whatever the merits of this improbable idea, Dr. Hansen’s “fee and dividend” proposal might go a long way to achieving Vidal’s dream. In a world where there is no tax on aviation fuel- the “market” will have to change significantly for us to re-assess how we do things. Without a bold move like carbon tax it is difficult to feel confident about our prospects for combating climate change. As we wait (hopefully not in vain) for such a solution to gain traction, it is heartening to consider how much we now know about how our brains function. Amory Lovins likes to say, “The good news about climate change is that it is cheaper to fix than it is to ignore.” The bad news might be that we are not well equipped to deal with it. Despite this, I found myself invigorated as I left the conference. We are truly beginning to understand how, at a primal, subconscious level, we respond to long range threats. This knowledge suggests a way of crafting our messages that might actually compel a majority of us to take the threat of climate change seriously. Nothing could be more important, though I can’t expect my saying that to change your mind.