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Dave Cohen writes the blog Decline Of The Empire. His commentaries cover a wide variety of subjects, including the American economy & macro-economics, the oil…

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Why are we Still Doing so Little About Climate Change?

Freelance journalist Beth Gardiner had an editorial called We're All Climate Change Idiots in the New York TimesSunday Review on July 21, 2012. There are valuable insights in it, though they are not the ones Beth had in mind when she wrote it.

Climate change is staring us in the face. The science is clear, and the need to reduce planet-warming emissions has grown urgent. So why, collectively, are we doing so little about it?

Yes, that's the Big Question.

Yes, there are political and economic barriers, as well as some strong ideological opposition, to going green.

As you'll see shortly, Beth does not explicitly refer to the economic barriers to "going green" again. That's a glaring omission, dontcha think?

But researchers in the burgeoning field of climate psychology have identified another obstacle, one rooted in the very ways our brains work. The mental habits that help us navigate the local, practical demands of day-to-day life, they say, make it difficult to engage with the more abstract, global dangers posed by climate change.

Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who studies the behavioral barriers to combating climate change, calls these habits of mind “dragons of inaction.”

•    We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions.
•    We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains.
•    And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.

“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Next we get an invaluable insight into opinions about climate change. This is where Beth starts to go off the rails.

Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant. A new study by the psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, published in last month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that participants seated in a room with a ficus tree lacking foliage were considerably more likely to say that global warming was real than were those in a room with a ficus tree that had foliage.

As I've said in the past, no one who is unfamiliar with the climate science is entitled to an opinion about whetherglobal warming is real, a view which is made stronger still if those opinions are influenced by whether the ficus tree has foilage or not. Nevertheless, and regardless of the health of the ficus tree, Beth still thinks it matters what people think about global warming.

We also tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our minds, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Dan M. Kahan, a Yale Law School professor who studies risk and science communication, says this is crucial to understanding the intense political polarization on climate change.

He and his research colleagues have found that people with more hierarchical, individualistic worldviews (generally conservatives) sense that accepting climate science would lead to restraints on commerce, something they highly value, so they often dismiss evidence of the risk. Those with a more egalitarian, community-oriented mind-set (generally liberals) are likely to be suspicious of industry and very ready to credit the idea that it is harming the environment.

There are ways to overcome such prejudices...

And there you have it—liberals and conservatives. Prejudices?  I want to address the liberals in the crowd. I've got some bad news for you. There are many layers of confusion here, so let's unpack them.

First, consider this sentence: conservatives sense that accepting climate science would lead to contraints on commerce. Not accepting the science is indeed a prejudice, but the truth of the matter is that doing somethingabout global warming would lead to constraints on commerce, to wit—

•    Burning fossil fuels results in carbon dioxide emissions.
•    Such emissions amplify the greenhouse effect.
•    We burn fossil fuels to access the vast amounts of latent energy they contain.
•    Without that energy, most human commerce would come to a grinding halt.

This is the 500-pound elephant in the room that liberals don't want to see. It explains why CO2 emissions can be used as a proxy for (alternative measurement of) economic growth. That growth is inextricably bound to energy consumption. See my post Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable. So-called "renewable" energy sources can not now, and likely never will, come anywhere close to replacing all the energy we get from fossil fuels.


If push came to shove, and humankind started radically reducing emissions at something like the rate required to mitigate global warming, industrial economies would all but disappear. And nobody, I mean nobody, liberals and conservatives alike, would be happy with that result. Those emissions would reappear faster than you can say "global depression."

See my post For Humans, The Economy Is Everything.

So while it is true that Robert Gifford's "dragons of inaction" (listed above) are definitely in play psychologically, the real problem is the 500-pound elephant in the room which Beth Gardiner never discussed.

Surprise, surprise! Beth doesn't see the elephant! It's invisible!

Beth is right: we're all climate change idiots. Unfortunately, she is wrong about why. Global warming is not a political issue. It is a human issue. It's all about that invisible 500-pound elephant.

By. Dave Cohen

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  • @stopheles on August 13 2012 said:
    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I fully agree with you on the matter of the 500 pound elephant. You also make some valid points about the combustion of fossil fuels serving as a proxy for economic growth - something I have taken for granted for many years, but rarely see expressed in print. I am, however, somewhat more optimistic than you on the future of our civilization, and couldn't help but sigh when reading the oft-heard "renewables likely never will come anywhere close to replacing all the energy from fossil fuels."

    I have every confidence that the primarily political barriers to this problem will eventually collapse under the tide of economic pressure. The Berlin wall may serve as a useful metaphor. Few people like to hear positive news it seems - our mass media somewhat more comfortable with the programmed bombardment of shock-horror, disaster-ridden, doom and gloom pieces. Never would it occur to beat on about the positive stories that underlie this unfortunate backdrop to our daily lives. Such is the case for solar pv in particular, and other renewables lying somewhat higher up the cost curve, yet rapidly forcing their way down. Numerous recent articles have documented well-researched analyses that forecast grid parity in anywhere from a few years to within at most a decade in most regions. Difficult choices separate us from a clear path ahead. Yet renewables will get comparatively cheaper. The same cannot be said of fossil fuels. No-one truly believes today's gas prices are sustainable to name but one.

    In the future, sovereign nations will be urged by necessity to better cooperate. It's in our very nature to innovate, something never taken into consideration in these analyses. Best practices, new materials, economies of scales, cutting-edge technologies, smart grids and cheap storage systems, to name a few, are all in the pipeline. The problem, as always, is politics. There's a lot at stake here. Decentralised energy means decentralised power. That isn't an easy sell to energy corporations, long-term investors, pension funds or anyone with a vested interest in the status quo - of which there are many. I'd like to see people like yourself channelling your creative energy into a blueprint, a roadmap for exactly the kind of change you can't currently imagine taking place. Let's start to look at the glass half full for once. It's exhilarating, really. @stopheles
  • Jay on August 14 2012 said:
    Dave, may I respectfully suggest that there are many 500-pound elephants in the room.
    One such elephant is that we use our energy in insanely inefficient and wasteful ways. Fortunately, another invisible elephant that stands on a teter-board trying to counterbalance this is the fact that we have the technologies and resources to radically improve our energy efficiency - and there is money to be made doing so.

    Another elephant is the incredible array of proven existing technologies that can replace a great deal - and over time, all - of our fossil fuel use. There's one rather aggressively self-protective elephant trying to suppress this relative newcomer (the one with 'RE' painted on it's side) but the incumbent champion is tired and old and beginning to lose every one of it's arguments. Through sheer brute force its hanging in there...for the moment

    Yes, historically there has been a correlation between wealth and emissions. But everything changes. The new correlation is between intelligent reduction of emissions and wealth. More emissions is starting to mean reduction of wealth. Business winners always read the tides and act accordingly. 500 pound elephants rarely have the ability to surf.
  • Raymond DeBrane on August 14 2012 said:
    These are two great comments. Let me put my 2 cents in. What really needs to happen is that climate change denial for profit needs to be declared illegal, just as yelling fire in a crowded theatre is illegal when the aint no fire. A law should also be passed to fine the fossil fuel industry for all of this destructive denial and use the money for R&D into renewables. The conservative talk show hosts who promote climate denial for profit should be thrown off the air, most of their ill gotten gains confiscated and thrown in jail. All of this would create, pardon the pun, a better political climate where conservative media fans wouldn't be pummeled and brainwashed by this false message any longer. As it is now, half the country believes the B.S. on climate change they get from conservative sources. We need the political will to act and get this done. this to me is one of the most important things to do in the fight to mitigate climate change.
  • Mark Goldes on August 14 2012 said:
    Revolutionary, cheap green breakthroughs in energy are in the birth canal. Most are Black Swans - Highly improbable innovations which can change the ballgame.

    They include solar cells that are twice as efficient at half the price.

    And what used to be called Cold Fusion, now often known as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.

    Also, fuel cells that run on water: fresh or salt.

    And cheaper, powerful batteries. As well as a 5 minute recharge systems being developed by Hydro Quebec.

    To get faster replacement of fossil fuels, change the conversation. Solar storms are expected to increase and can knock out power grids for months.

    That opens the door to multiple meltdowns at nuclear plants worldwide.

    The probability of such a storm is surprisingly high. Survival is now the issue.

    That is much more likely to open the door to the needed changes.
  • Jonathan on August 14 2012 said:
    Raymond - you are about as tolerant of people whose oppinion varies from yours as Hitler was of the Jews! Maybe there is global warming and maybe there isn't, but what is the basic cause is very likely not 'greenhouse gases". There were two major ice ages during the history of the world and obviously the planet warmed up inbetween and after the last one or you would be a popsicle. What fossil fuels were being burned at those times to cause the warming? Or,was it dinosauer flatulance as one "astute" observer has postulated. The "climate" of this planet has been evolving since its' formation and will until it becomes a supernova and dies. You have the audacity to stand there and remonstrate that we should just "act and get it done," as if humans were the mightiest force in the galaxy. What audacity!!! One solar flare of the right magnatude and we would all be toasted marshmellows. Lighten up, if the globe is warming (which I doubt knowing the hanky-panky they did with eliminating data from the sites that didn't agree with their theory) humans didn't cause it and we certainly cannot stop it. Besides, if you wait long enough, there probably will be another ice age. If memory serves, before all this "global warming" business we were supposed to be cooling anyway. Whatever you do, keep me out of your fantasy or suffer me giggling at you while you jump on your steed and gallop off in six different directions all at one time. Don Quixote rides again!!!
  • Mel Tisdale on August 15 2012 said:
    @ Jonathon

    Please, go to sks.com and do some research. Your views just do not follow the science. In fact there is little in your comment that cannot be dismissed by simple reference to the facts. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones, not to mention your country.

    Let me deal with just one, greenhouse gases and the end of ice ages. We know that the earth's orbit and axial tilt follow cycles first calculated by a Serbian mathmatician by the name of Milutin Milankowi?.

    Milankowi? showed that as the axis tilted more, the more sunlight shone on the north pole, which caused the temperature to rise slightly. As a result the edge of the permafrost melted slightly and released trapped methane from decaying vegetation. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (which decays to CO2, another greenhouse gas). This caused more warming due to the greenhouse effect, which then released more greenhouse gases.

    We then had a positive feedback mechanism, which slowly gathered pace until the iceage came to an end and the earth was in an interglacial. This process, which happens at the end of iceages, of which there have been several, by the way, takes thousands of years. (You will notice that I have also shown how temperature leads greenhouse gas emmissions when the warming is led by the Milankowi? cycles.)

    The problem is that we are short-circuiting the process by pumping greenhouse gases directly into the atomosphere and are doing it in the blink of an eye, so to speak, in comparison to the thousands of years that it normally takes for major climate changes to take place.

    This has serious implications for the flora and fauna, which will find it diffcult to adapt to such sudden changes. Over thousands of years a plant can slowly move as its prefered habitat moves, unless it is higher up a mountain and the mountain is high enough.

    Current predictions are that we are in for a temperature rise of between 4 and 6 C. Six is unthinkable and even four is dire. Just look at this summer and that is after only 0.8 C rise (with another 0.8 C guaranteed due t CO2s longevity). O.K. it might not be specifically due to climate change, but it fits exactly with what is predicted.

    The prediction is that as the earth warms, the poles will warm more than the rest of the planet, which is happening now. That reduces the temperature differential between them and the temperate/tropical zones. This leads to the jet stream following more of a meanandering track with the risk that it will settle in some unusual places.

    That is exactly what happened this summer and you will have seen the consequences, especially on food production. We currently have 'only' 7 billion population. What happens when we have to feed 9 to 10 billion?

    Unless you are well past middle age Jonathan, you will have to live with that situation. Stop listening to the Fox News lot and all the other buffoons and start thinking about yourself, your family and your future.

    This article is far too pessimistic. If it weren't for the denial brigade and the greens, all of whom are so short-sighted they should have white sticks to help them get around, the whole of the earth's population could go on a war footing and convert as much energy generation to nuclear as possible, developing LFNR and LENR technologies with some urgency in the process. (I reckon a year or two bankers' bonuses should just about cover the costs.)

    The setting up of the IPCC was an extremely positive global act, but then the fossil fuel industry realised the threat and have been fighting a very successful rearguard action in order to promote the status quo ever since. And so we stopped the global effort at the IPCC stage without going on to a global Manhattan type project to save our species.

    I really don't think that people generally realise just how dangerous the situation is. Positive feedbacks are not only found in relation to Milankowi? cycles, they are poised now and we don't know when it will be too late. We will only know that when they have passed and we are all clinging on for dear life.

    And I haven't even touched on ocean acidification, which is another very worrying side-effect of CO2 pollution.
  • Mel Tisdale on August 15 2012 said:
    Sorry, for sks.com, read skepticalscience.com
  • Saleenia B. on September 14 2012 said:
    The 2 ton elephant in the room is that most of the public do not buy into the global warming nonsense. They have correctly determined that global warming is not caused by human activity and that there are simply warming and cooling cycles.

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