The perfect storm part III: Climate change


Last week’s blog focused on the second of the three big problems of our time, the threat of Global Pandemic. This week we are looking at Climate Change.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, the three major problems of our time are:

1. Peak Oil
2. Pandemic
3. Climate Change


When we discussed the problem of climate change in my Sustainable Living class, some of the students in were surprised to find that I had learned about \”global warming\” when I was in college 40 years ago!   One student told me after class that I must have been wrong because he heard (in another class) that scientists became aware that climate change was a problem only recently.  So I took a look at the history of global climate change and found:

  • In 1896 a Swedish scientist published the idea that as humanity burned fossil fuels, carbon dioxide gas released to the Earth\’s atmosphere would raise the planet\’s average temperature.
  • In the 1930s, people realized that the United States had warmed significantly during the previous half-century.
  • In the 1950s, a few scientists began to look into the question with improved technology.
  • In the early 1970s, the rise of environmentalism raised awareness about climate change and more scientists took it seriously.

We have known about this treat for a long time.  One of the questions I get regularly from students is; \”if you knew this might be a problem, why didn\’t your generation do something about it?\”

Good question!

\"\"So, once again I turn to the \”iceberg\” to try to understand the root cause of seemingly \”crazy\” and self-destructive human behavior.

If an intelligent human living in 1970 learned that their behavior might be causing harm to the planet, why would this person not change their behavior?

If we apply the iceberg tool, an event might be a one human choosing to ignore the evidence.

A pattern would be lots of individuals choosing to ignore the evidence (which is indeed what happened).

But what are the systemic tructures that supported this particular pattern of behavior?  What organizations and policies specifically contributed to an entire society not paying heed to the warning?

Well, how about:

  • The U.S. Government under the Reagan administration
  • Automobile manufacturers that claimed they could not improve fuel efficiency
  • The U.S. Government under the Bush administration
  • Energy company sponsored advertisements that cast doubt upon the science of global climate change
  • The U.S. Government under the Clinton administration
  • Mass media that made \”the good life\” seem like the only life worth living
  • The U.S. Government under the second Bush administration
  • An entertainment industry that provides distractions that are much more pleasurable than worrying about the future
  • The U.S. Government under the Obama administration

The only problem in making a list of the social structures that support millions of people living in denial is that EVERYTHING about our culture supports this self-destructive behavior.

But lets continue.  The next question is \”what mental models support these structures\”?

A recent article in The Economist speculates on the belief systems (mental models) that explain why Americans seem unwilling to change our behavior.  They write:

  • \”Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we\’re denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket.
  • \”Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we\’re trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn\’t exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.
  • \”Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren\’t suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarizing? Because it\’s so polarizing, it must be slightly suspicious.
  • \”Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where\’s the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong.
  • \”Metaphysical: God isn\’t going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.\”

In addition to these mental models, I will add my own:

  • the belief that the \”world was made for us to use\”
  • the worldview that \”humans are not part of Mother Nature\”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • the \”joke\” that whomever dies with the most stuff wins

\"\"To change the patterns of behavior, we must change the structures; the policies and organizations that allow millions of humans to continue to avoid or deny the truth.   But to change the structures, we must change the way we think (mental models) because thoughts create actions and actions create thoughts.  This reinforcing feedback loop is very powerful and has allowed us to live in denial for a long time.

So the next logical question must be \”what would cause us to wake up?\”  The Academy Award winning 2006 documentary \”An Inconvenient Truth\” didn\’t do it.  A highly respected report from Britain\’s Government Economic Service (the Stern Report) which found that it would be less expensive to take action now than try to deal with the crisis later, didn\’t do it.

My students often ask \”where will we find the necessary political will and leadership to take action?\”

Good question!

There are many interesting theories about why we seem to find it so hard to change our behavior, but my response is usually, \”why are we so worried about everyone else – what are you willing to do?

The response from many students is to look for leadership from politicians and business leaders.  But we know that anyone in government is caught  in a systemic social structure that requires them to run for election every 2, 4, or 6 years.  They cannot afford to think about the long term.  And for business leaders it is much worse.  They must show profitability to shareholders every quarter (3 months) or their job may be in jeopardy.

\"\"So who can think about the 7th generation?   Well, perhaps a mature young adult taking my class?  Perhaps you?

I believe that individuals who are not afraid to act  must \”join the sustainability parade\” and the politicians and corporate leaders will \”jump up front\” when they see which way the parade is headed.

Are you willing to join the sustainability parade?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.