The Solution to Climate Change May Lie in Behavioral Psychology.

I spent the morning listening to Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost researchers on climate change, discuss his latest paper. After years of research and collaboration with other leading experts, Hansen has concluded that it is now too late to mitigate the most harmful impacts of global warming, even with significant reductions in carbon emissions. Not really a pessimist, but a realist, Dr. Hansen’s latest paper is solution-oriented. Instead of lamentations, he offers practical methods for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

In Hansen’s mind, if we can’t achieve the desired results by reducing emissions, then we must also actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Various technological solutions are being devised to this end. These technologies fall under a category called geo-engineering.

Geo-engineering solutions, Hansen calculates, are currently too expensive to work effectively and nobody has yet managed to effectively scale them. The Swiss company Climeworks, for example, hopes to install carbon vacuums in shipping containers, so that as they move freight around the world they clean up, somewhat, after themselves.

This company’s self-proclaimed vision is to be able to remove annually, 1% of all carbon emissions in the world, by 2025. To do this, they calculate that they will have to install 750,000 “carbon vacuums” in 750,000 shipping containers.

Hansen calculates that the cost required to save humanity from climate change is five hundred trillion US dollars. To put that ridiculous number in perspective, the total economic output of all seven billion plus humans on the planet amounts to just over sixty-five trillion dollars per annum. In other words, eight years of global GDP needs to be spent exclusively on climate change mitigation. Its roughly the equivalent of 300 years of global military spending. This cost includes emission reduction technologies, geo-engineering solutions, and what Hansen calls quasi-natural technologies like reforestation, ecosystem recovery, and carbon-capturing agricultural methods.

Clearly, saving the planet will require all hands on deck. Not the sole province of scientists and engineers, start-ups, and innovative venture capitalists, agriculturalists and biologists, the heroism we need, we are told, must come from every individual. But herein lies a problem for behavioral psychology. I’m no expert in the field, but I have noticed one thing in life: people will go to extreme lengths to avoid modifying their behavior.

Tell someone their behavior is a problem. There will be denial, avoidance, projection, excuses, blame-casting, gaslighting and all manner of actions to avoid the simple and most obvious solution of changing their behavior. People burn relationships they’ve invested their lives in, change careers or jobs, relocate, and spend years avoiding core issues in order NOT to have to change problematic and damaging behavior. That is what humanity is now being asked to do, collectively. It is no wonder we are failing.

The parallel to climate change is striking. First, the fossil fuel industry discovered that climate change was a problem it was creating. Instead of changing their behavior, they avoided the problem. Then government began to hear calls that it needed to regulate industry, but it abdicated its responsibility in this arena, using blame-casting, projection, and excuses. So, now, it is people at the individual level who are being asked to change.

As soon as this became an emergent phenomena, there arose the climate deniers, a whole group of people who believe that climate science is a grand conspiracy manufactured by the state and the scientific establishment. The degree of rationalization needed to deny climate change would be stunning, if it weren’t the common starting point of every addict that has ever been told they have a problem with substance abuse. The climate deniers aren’t the dumbest among us, they are just the most recent to be asked to change.

Put this way, climate change is a problem for behavioral scientists to crack. Specifically, is it easier to change the behavior of billions of individual humans, or to do something else? What say you scientists?

We are told to change our lightbulbs, but we wouldn’t have to if the developers who built our houses, the landlords that rented them to us, or the real estate companies we bought them from had taken responsibility and installed energy-efficient ones in the first place. Or, if the utility company was providing fossil-fuel free energy to begin with.

We are told to live in smaller and smaller apartments, higher and higher above the ground and to replace our appliances. We are told to turn the heat down in the winter, change our bathing and dishwashing habits, to reconstruct our diets, spend hours researching our purchasing decisions, and become more conscious consumers. This is all well and good, but my friends and I have been doing these things for years, to no avail.

Credit: “As the World Burns” by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. Seven Stories Press, 2007.

Of course, we wouldn’t have to, if the food-processing industry and retailers were themselves acting conscious and taking responsibility. We wouldn’t have to choose between cheap and sustainable protein if problematic production chains were regulated out-of-business to begin with, or if grocers chose not to (or weren’t allowed to) offer products in the same way that woke shoppers leave them to rot on the shelves.

The one hopeful part of this is that some individuals have gone through the stages quickly enough and begun to modify their behavior. At the individual level, interventions sometimes work. Conversely, they don’t always work and we are running out of time. Neoliberal, consumer-choice oriented solutions can only go so far.

The main question should be: how do we get industry and government to take responsibility? Where is the behavioral science for institutions? After all, they’ve been the longest on the road to recovery. The United States, particularly, is historically the biggest carbon addict and the worst serial recidivist. The recent Trump-inspired relapse on the Paris Accord is a case in point.