Social Scientists Vs. Climate Change

Apr 24, 2014 | 

Rachelle DeJong

Font Size  


Social Scientists Vs. Climate Change

Apr 24, 2014 | 

Rachelle DeJong

This is a live blog of presentations at The New School's conference, "Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren't We?"

6:45 PM

The fifty-minute discussion was moderated by the architect, Daniel Tishman, who designs green skyscrapers and built the Tishman auditorium in which the conference took place.  Tishman asked Beinecke what “low-hanging fruit” of green opportunities the audience could take advantage of, to which Beinecke recommended energy efficient appliances, TVs, and cars. The audience was not keen on personal change, though. Their individual behaviors, and their neighbors’ individual behaviors, wouldn’t do enough fast enough. We needed a complete revolution. One gentleman railed against the profit-based system, and how the only way to get out of this mess was to overthrow the whole thing, and build a socialist system (small round of applause here). Another complained that President Obama’s goal to get 20% of American energy from renewable sources by 2030 was too small; to stir people to action, we need an ambitious goal of 100% renewable energy. Another man wanted to know what would be the “Tea Party of the sustainability movement” that could energize the green people to action. (Beinecke suggested the Keystone Pipeline.) A woman noted that Ronald Reagan is responsible for most of our problems, because he “dismissively undid” all of Jimmy Carter’s environmental regulations. Beinecke acknowledged that individual behavioral change was insufficient and that a national revolution was needed. “But I’m an incrementalist,” she reminded the audience. “I see success in the small steps.”

6:00 PM

The third session brought the conference’s keynote speaker, Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her lecture, “How to Unleash Climate Action: Values, Politics, and the Inevitability of the Clean Energy Future,” encouraged the audience to keep hope alive. “It’s a matter of will, not magic,” she warned us. Together, we could take on the “well-heeled oil executives,” who were top on her list of barriers to a clean energy future.

She’s encouraged by a number of developments, including President Obama having tackled vehicle fuel efficiency regulations during his first term—cars will be required to meet 54  miles per gallon regulations. She’s also glad that the President announced a climate action plan for his second term, the details of which will come out on June 2nd.

The way to encourage the unconverted, she encouraged, to a round of applause from the audience, is to connect sustainability to issues that matter to them. She learned this when campaigning in California against Proposition 23, a voter ballot initiative that would have overturned California’s strict—that is, commendable, to her—environmental regulations. Telling people about the environment did nothing to motivate them to act. But getting doctors to discuss health risks of pollution, and green energy companies to discuss how many jobs they provided did work. The proposition was defeated 2-1 with the highest voter turn-out of any ballot item, including the gubernatorial race. Voters opposed the proposition even in Republican districts. (Here, there was another round of applause, and a few fist-shakings of triumph.)

Beinecke took comfort, too, in the example of an evangelical Christian who converted much of Lubbock, Texas, to her green ways, and got herself named to the one hundred most influential people by Time magazine. The fight for clean energy will be hard, Beinecke, noted, but we should take heart. Women have the right to vote, children are protected from working, African Americans have greater civil rights, and gay marriage is legal in an increasing number of states. Green energy will be next on the list of impossibilities that became inevitabilities. 

5:00 PM

Brian McGrath, the dean of the School of Constructed Environment at Parsons, The New School for Design, moderated the discussion and asked the panelists why it is that society isn’t changing in the wake of climate change. Cohen cited pet solutions (international treaties favored by political scientists, or carbon taxes favored by economists) that are politically infeasible. Oppenheimer suggested that we get too caught up in concocting plans when there are viable options for reform already developing. Through the questions from the audience, though, it became clear that the panelists thought the main concern was the free market. In response to a question about confusing, contradictory state regulations, Oppenheimer conceded that national regulation isn’t feasible right now—“Look at the debate over the Common Core!”—and that local solutions are more likely to garner favor with republicans. “Now, I’m all for strong government,” he warned, defending himself against the audience. “I’m not a libertarian.” Cohen took a question about a gradual carbon tax, which might be more palatable to a Congress that’s “in love with the free market,” as the questioner put it. Cohen listed three reasons that a carbon tax won’t work: the Tea Party, which hates taxes on principle, and India and China, which love carbon for economic reasons. Another gentleman, who introduced himself as “a recovering fossil fuel manager” who left the oil industry to work in green energy, spouted his anger that the Koch brothers had more power than any of us in this room, and that in this capitalistic oligarchy the environment is bound to be ruined. None of the panelists endorsed his opinions outright, but none of them objected, either. In response to the final question about green energy, Cohen noted that the free market can disseminate green energy quickly once it’s able to compete on price: “That’s one area where capitalism works,” he conceded. “I don’t know if we want to end a New School panel on capitalism working,” McGrath, the moderator moaned, “but we are at the end of our time.” 

4:30 PM

Steven Cohen asked the rhetorical question, “What’s Stopping the Transformation Around Energy?” and answered, in a word, selfishness. Or, as he describes it, short-term profit motive, which he takes to be the essence of capitalism. Cohen is the executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, where is he is also a professor of public affairs. As a political scientist, he sees the energy crisis as a global phenomenon that requires international cooperation, though that’s hindered by corporate interests (especially, he says, in the United States by the Koch brothers) who launch propaganda campaigns. “Climate change is a fact,” Cohen declared. “There is no question when you look at the data. It’s beyond absurd. It’s like questioning the existence of gravity. The fact that they (corporate lobbyists) are able to make that part of a serious political dialogue shows you something about their political capital.” In order to skirt the capitalists’ objections and attract the attention of non-activist consumers, we’ve got to make green energy so much cheaper and better that everyone willingly trades their fossil fuels for renewable, just as they traded landlines for cell phones. The only way to pour enough money into energy research and development, though, is for the government to substantially increase its funding contributions. 

4:00 PM

Jerold Kayden led us on a tour of the hard policy decisions awaiting in the near future. As flood levels rise, should the government force individuals to evacuate flood zones? Should it compensate them for their losses when their homes are destroyed? Should it let these citizens rebuild in these flood zones? The law provides strong protection for private property, and the Supreme Court in Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastl  has read the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition of taking private property without just compensation as prohibiting governments from rezoning land in a way that drains all economic value from landowners—unless, however, principles of pre-existing private property and nuisance laws can be applied to same effect. 

3:30 PM

Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, is a partner with Nordenson in his research on infrastructure on the North Atlantic Coast. Oppenheimer has a long history of working on climate change. He was a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment report, and a coordinating lead author in the fifth report, which just came out recently. His presentation, “Presenting the Worst, Managing the Rest,” gave a dire outlook for the planet: a global mean temperature rising for 150 years, a predicted warming of about 2.6 to 8.5 degrees, and a mean sea level rise increase of about 0.5 meters. This means, he says, that major storms that once came every century will now come every year, and storms, like Sandy, when the New York City was flooded with fourteen feet of water, that came every thousand years will come every decade.  

Session 2 3:00 PM

The second session investigates “The Physical City” and what can be done to make our infrastructure, architecture, and zoning regulations more conducive to protecting the environment. Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and a professor of architecture and engineering at Princeton, told us about “Structures of Coastal Resilience.” Coastal region are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, he reminded us, because melting ice fills the seas, and thus more easily flood. But fortunately the Army Corps of Engineers is developing a plan for the North Atlantic region that examines particularly dangerous places and ways to protect them. Nordenson works on one of four series of designs (his project, in collaboration with several others, looks at Atlantic City) that recommend features such as elevated houses, levees, storm surge protectors, and other ways to protect against the effects of climate change. 

1:30 PM

For about 40 minutes, the panelists queried each other and took questions from the audience. Jennifer Jacquet wanted to know from John Jost whether we should attempt to frame climate issues in words attractive to conservatives in order to change their behaviors (i.e., referring to carbon “offsets” rather than “taxes,” or framing sustainability issues as matters of patriotism and the preservation of America) or just work to change their ideologies in the first place. Jost (as well as Elke Weber, who chimed in) agreed that we need both; for the short-term, they want the conservatives to join in saving the environment, but they need to be converted, too.

Conference attendees wanted to know if we could tap into parents’ natural desire to protect their children, and by extension, future generations, and if we can find a good way to combat man’s “sinister side” that enjoys the fruits of destroying nature. One attendee was particularly concerned about women’s rights, and wanted to know how to get more women involved in the green movement. (The panelists didn’t really have an answer, except electing more women to public office—so long, Jacquet emphasized, those women aren’t forced to act in the manner of aggressive men in order to get elected.) Perhaps the most interesting question was the last one—a mini-lecture from an attendee who accused the presenters and the conference attendees of hypocrisy for being among the richest few of the world and wasting time speculating about psychology experiments when we could go live in the boonies and chop our own wood and live in tents and leave a much smaller footprint on the atmosphere. The presenters defended themselves on grounds of utility: somebody has got to be leading the charge to change people’s minds and get them to move out to the boonies, and it may as well be psychologists and social scientists. After all, they have the best knowledge of how to get people to change. 

1:00 PM

Jennifer Jacquet offered “Experimental Insights: Testing Climate Change Decisions in the Lab.” As a clinical assistant professor in environmental studies at NYU, she offered a psychologist’s insight into what makes people act. She is about to publish a book on the function of shame and how it can affect our choices. Today, though, she offered an articulate look into psychology experiments that test what kinds of sacrifices people are willing to make for the sake of the climate. She argues that humans aren’t fundamentally rational, and touts Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as examples of excellent behavioral economics. Her experiments offer some examples of how irrational we humans can be, and how cooperation can be difficult. If you put six individuals in a psychologist’s lab and give them 45 euros to donate towards advertisements that warn people about climate change, and tell them that if they collectively donate 120 euros, each will receive another 45 euros to keep, one would think that everyone would donate. To reach 120 euros, each person would need to donate 20 euros; donating 20 euros in exchange for 45 euros is a clear, rational choice that benefits each individual, but often people didn’t cooperate to reach that goal. Having the individuals in the experiments read scientific information about climate change did spur them to give more, but more effective was making their choice visible to the other participants, as reputation pressured them to join in. Even still, getting people to prioritize long-term benefits over short-term gains is hard. Participants were more likely to coordinate with each other when they received their reward immediately, or one day later. If they had to wait seven weeks to receive their 45 euro reward, they sometimes, but not always met the challenge. But if the reward was that the 45 euros would go towards buying and planning trees that would benefit future generations, none of the groups donated enough to collaboratively meet the goal. 

12:40 PM

John Jost, a professor of psychology and politics at NYU, and the co-director of NYU’s Center for Social and Political Behavior presented on why people resist change, and why they value the status quo—even when that status quo involves emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases and bringing climate disaster upon our descendents. The main reason, he finds, is that we have other ideological assumptions that bias us in favor or against believing in the reality of climate change. The foremost of these ideologies are our political persuasions. Republicans have a strong tendency towards “system justification”: they think our current system of society and the economy are generally pretty good, and pretty fair towards everyone. This leads them to prefer the status quo over any change, whereas Democrats, being more progressive, are dissatisfied with the status quo and are less likely to resist new strategies to reshape society. Jost has run some experiments that declare how far these biases run: if you ask people who are outdoors to estimate the temperature, apparently people with strong systems justifications will estimate a lower temperature than the true temperature, in order to justify to themselves that it is not hot outside and the climate is not warming. Ask them the same question indoors with the air conditioning on—when the heat has no implications for whether the natural world is warming or not—and they’ll estimate. 

12:00 PM

The second speaker of the panel, Paul Stern, a scholar on the Board on Environmental Change and Society at the National Research Council, confronted the fact that climate change is complicated, not well understood, and dicey. The evidence comes piecemeal. There are weather patterns and seasonal shifts that we have to account for. The causes for climate change are, it is thought, varied and widespread. (Some might take all of these very contingent factors to be a lack of evidence for climate change, but Stern sees this as just a complication of that change.) Because it’s complicated, people don’t understand how climate change works, and thus they’re less likely to fully internalize the behavioral changes that are needed to prevent its consequences. Another thing makes climate change tough to communicate: “There is a climate change denial social movement out there that is engaged in campaigns of disinformation.” Climate sociologists (yes, those exist, evidently) have demonstrated that these campaigns of disinformation have been “very successful” in polarizing the debate into Republicans vs. Democrats, without much actual rational weighing of evidence. To simplify the story for a lay audience, we should think of scientists as doctors, the earth as a sick patient, and ourselves as the guardians of the patient. The doctors are pretty sure that they've diagnosed the problem accurately, and the prognosis is not good, unless we take a radical course of treatment. We should trust the doctor, the expert. 

Session 1 11:30

The first session of the day is on “Psychological Factors and Social Change”—the reasons people don’t believe in climate change, or if they do believe in climate change, don’t change their lifestyles to avert its predicted consequences. The real impetus, though, is to figure out what we can do to get everyone to believe and live the green lifestyle.

The first panelist, Dr. Elke Weber, who is the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business and the Earth Institute Professor at Columbia Business School, says that humans often make poor choices when there is risk involved and the outcomes are uncertain—both of which are, of course, true in the case of climate change. We’re especially inactive, paradoxically, when the situation is particularly dire. The magnitude of the challenge overwhelms us. Just as it took the sinking of Lusitania or the attack on Pearl Harbor to prod the United States to action in World Wars I and II, we need something big to jolt us to action right now. Other problems are that homo sapiens is not primarily a creature of rational deliberation. We’re creatures of habit who learn best from experience (which is, she notes, how evolution works). But if we can see a bad experience coming, we should try to ward it off. The way to motivate people is not by scaring them, but by painting a vision of what a green future could be like. 

Introduction 11:20 AM

I’m at The New School’s University Center with several hundred others (split rather evenly between young urban professionals and seasoned tweed-clad scholars) for the 31st Social Research conference. This year’s topic is “Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren’t We?” Nearly twenty psychologists, social science researchers, scientists, public officials, and heads of environmental research and advocacy organizations will deliver papers over the course of two days on why the danger of climate change fails to motivate some people to change their behaviors, and what we can do to prod them to action. “There is no more urgent issue than climate change,” the conference description declares, “yet government, corporations, and the public are reluctant to change.” The problem is that “very little attention has been paid to the ways psychological factors, money and politics, and infrastructures impede change.” This conference remedies that lack of attention.

The New School is an appropriate venue for this conference. The New School is launching at this conference a “Coalition to confront Climate Change Challenges in Cities,” or “C6,” which will team New School faculty and students to bring awareness to environmentalism in urban areas. The New School itself, as an institution, has made great efforts to go green.

NAS supports reasoned debate about matters that affect public life. Climate change is one of those areas. But sometimes climate change becomes a premise, not a conclusion, and motivates radical social shifts that ignore economic efficiency. But I’ll keep an open mind and listen to what’s presented.

I’ll be blogging short summaries of the papers and ideas presented as we go. Stay tuned for updates.