Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making. Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal. His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience. What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify. Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists. And vice versa. For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.
The potential catastrophe is terrifying. (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.) Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change. That has now changed. A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years. If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures. That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years. 40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions. 1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire. Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th. 2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater. That’s in 60 years from now! And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.
Why aren’t we doing something about this!?
Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.
Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do. Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive? if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering? if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs? if I don’t turn on the lights at all? if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven? The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.
I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.
In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.” They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets. And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem. But it would be a huge start. And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.
Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.