Social Scientists Vs. Climate Change

Rachelle Peterson

This is a live blog of presentations at The New School's two-day conference, "Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren't We?" Read from the bottom up for a chronological account. 

3:30 PM

The discussion between the audience and the speakers centered on ways to break down “silos” between branches of government. Both were all for government regulation—but they realized, too, that having myriad regulations in different localities, often contradictory, made the red tape hard to navigate.  Audience members also wanted to know how to get more minorities involved, and to connect women’s and minorities’ issues to climate change. “They’re all social justice issues,” Bautista told one young woman who was trying to rally various constituencies to support a divestment campaign. 

3:00 PM

Claire Weisz is a designer, among other things, as well as an adjunct associate professor of planning at NYU. She argues that the economy and the environment are interconnected, and that public losses and private losses are the same. “Whether you rent, or you own,” she says, “you’re affected by climate change the same way, and even if your business is the only one to reopen after a storm, if there are no people there to buy your goods, you’ll go under, too.” Weisz works to plan ways to replenish sand that is being lost from shores, and to develop ways to rebuild after storms such as Sandy wipe out buildings, subways, and other infrastructure. 


Eddie Bautista directs the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. “Justice” in this case doesn’t refer to justice served for the environment, but for “environmentally burdened people” who bear the brunt of pollution and climate change. Bautista’s organization focuses specifically on New York City, where industrial and manufacturing workers and communities are disproportionately faced with flooding, storm surges, and other supposed effects of climate change. Bautista is all for industrialization, by the way, because it provides decent wages to working class people who don’t have college degrees. Nobody on the environmental panel asked him about the environmental effects of those industries.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” Bautista says, so the Environmental Justice Alliance tries to work proactively in order to shape government policy before it’s been conceived. After hurricane Sandy, for instance, the Alliance wrote reports on what infrastructure the local communities wanted and how to protect working class people from getting flooded again. Afterwards, they ranked the government’s behavior in an attempt to hold it accountable. On the whole, they were relatively pleased. In September they’re planning the largest climate change march in history, joining forces with students, Bill McKibben of, labor unions, and anti-fracking groups to demonstrate in the streets of New York in support of the environment. 

2:00 PM

Russell Hardin, the Helen Gould Shepard Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at NYU, presented on “M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) for our Time?” M.A.D. was of course an issue in the 1950s and 1960s, but he thinks it’s an issue for our time as well. There are multiple problems. One is that our theory of justice doesn’t let us easily extrapolate the consequences of our behavior over the next generations. Another is that collective action is hard to generate, especially when the benefits are diffused. 

1:40 PM

Dale Jamieson, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, affiliated Professor of Law, Director of Environmental Studies at NYU, is the author of several books on environmental justice. Unfortunately, our inherited, traditional ideas of justice don’t fit the climate change situation. Jamieson instructed his audience to think of intentional crimes against humanity: “Hitler, Saddam Hussein, any of your favorite American invasions…” But emitters of carbon aren’t like any of these examples. The emitters often claim ignorance (that we don’t know whether CO2 causes that much climate change or not), whereas the aggressor in a war, invading his neighbor, definitely knows when he’s invading. And some emitters, such as the Scandinavian countries, do recognize the harms of their emissions, but they try to compensate the Third World countries that are being affected. “It’s like we’re bombing the city and trying to rebuild it at the same time,” Jamieson extended the analogy. Finally, in the case of climate change, the harms aren’t intentionally inflicted; we’d be happy to emit carbon so long as there was no harm attached. But when you invade a nation or bomb a city, the entire goal is to cause harm.

Jamieson offered another example: If Jack steals Jill’s bike, we know it’s wrong. But if he participates in a large social network that makes it impossible at some time in the future for a large number of people—including Jill—in a different part of the world to never have access to bikes, we wouldn’t instinctively hold Jack guilty. That’s because we haven’t been hardwired over the course of evolution to consider invisible, long-term, intergenerational harms as matters of ethics. But that just means we have to change our ideas of justice.

Session 5 "Difficult Choices" 1:30 PM

We’re about to start the last session of The New School’s conference. This session, “Difficult Choices” covers theories of environmental justice (and how to implement them) and a provocative question: “Mutually Assured Destruction for Our Time?” We’ll hear from professors of philosophy, politics, and planning from New York University, and the executive director of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.  

12:00 PM

During the Q&A, the audience took serious alarm at Mendelsohn’s suggestion that 4 degrees warming might be economically efficient. Two degrees, they thought, really is the maximum. A Ph.D. student pointed out that already with 1 degree warming, the deaths from heat outweigh any lives saved from the warmth. An activist asserted that 4 degrees warming will bring “catastrophic” events, and that Mendelsohn, an economist, clearly wasn’t placing enough value on things like coral reefs and old growth forests that don’t carry market prices. (Valuing these kinds of things, though, is what Mendelsohn has spent his entire career doing.) The dean of the Parsons at The New School accused Mendelsohn of leaving out various valuable goods from his calculations and focusing only on economically productive resources. (This met with hearty applause from the audience.) An ecologist from Rutgers complained that never in any ecological research has she seen anything so optimistic, and that Mendelsohn must be getting his numbers from non-expert sources.

Mendelsohn defended himself valiantly. The IPCC is wrong to hold the limit at 2 degrees, he said. In fact, the IPCC is “ridiculous” and has “no justification whatsoever” for its predictions. As for the ecological studies that the Rutgers professor cites, those are the very studies he relies on, too. But the ecologists ignore the very evidence they generate: “There is a disconnect between the science and the rhetoric that the scientists use,” so that they generate modest predictions and blow them out of proportion. “Ecologists need to learn more about what their own colleagues are saying,” Mendelsohn claims.

The audience took great interest in the environmentalist conservative Inglis, too. Some applauded him, and wondered how they could build more bridges to the conservatives. But some were angry with him. Building bridges to conservatives was “a waste of time,” because the “white conservative male” is dying out, and we really should build a coalition with minorities and labor unions. Inglis carried himself with decorum and answered judiciously: “Don’t count us out yet. I’m still breathing!” Plus, he noted, the votes in the Senate and House to pass a carbon tax don’t exist right now, without Republican support. It’ll take another 20 years before those labor and minority partnerships gain enough traction to get the votes for a carbon tax. 

11:30 AM

Christina Leijonhufvud is a former director of social finance at J.P. Morgan—a “recovering banker.” Now she is a co-founder and managing partner at Tideline, a consulting firm that specializes in impact investing and strategic philanthropy. We’re in a carbon bubble, she says, in which carbon is vastly overvalued and we’d be wise to divest now. Why is that? The IPCC recommended a carbon budget that shows how much carbon we can burn and still remain under 2 degrees warming. Once everyone switches from fossil fuels to renewable in order to stay within the budget, the fossil fuel industry will collapse. This is coming soon, she hopes, because an analysis from CitiBank shows that solar and wind energy will soon compete on price with fossil fuels.

 Some studies indicate that divestment will hurt the portfolio, but she discounts these: analysts predict future performance based on the past; they don’t take into account the coming collapse of the carbon bubble. And the investment analysts are biased. They get paid based on how well their portfolios perform relative to the market rate, which for now outpaces the rate of return on clean energy. But clean energy investments do generate some returns, in an absolute sense, and we should content ourselves with those. 

11:00 AM

Charlotte Kaiser directs finance at The Nature Conservancy, which directs philanthropy and strategic investments into climate-friendly solutions. She encourages philanthropists and investors to look at high-impact investments that replenish themselves and return money for more work in the future. These investments rarely generate an average market rate of return, but they perform better than regular philanthropic donations. This is crucial, she says, because we need to invest $300 billion each year in order to conserve nature, but right now we invest only about 20% of this figure. The Nature Conservancy has divested its endowment from tar sands and from coal, and encourages others to do the same. Surprisingly, the Conservancy believes that natural gas developed through fracking can provide an excellent alternative to fossil fuels and serve as a bridge to renewable energy in the future. 

10:30 AM

Robert Mendelsohn, the Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis Professor Forest Policy, Professor of Economics, and Professor in the School of Management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, presented on the economic costs of climate change and benefits of emissions reductions. He took seriously an economic analysis and argued persuasively—to the great anger of the audience—that we should cut emissions only when it’s beneficial to do so.

Mendelsohn offered a series of charts showing that we’re already at a 1 degree Centigrade warming, and that the IPCC says 2 degrees Centigrade by 2200 is the hottest we should let the climate get. But Mendelsohn holds that slight warming is actually good for the economy and for agriculture, and that we should let the climate warm up to 4 degrees Centigrade. Cutting enough emissions to keep warming to 2 degrees will cost $95 trillion. But the damages caused by 2 degrees warming are only $50 billion. 

Session 4 "Money and Politics" 10:00 AM

The fourth session examined “Money and Politics”—the economic side of the green movement and climate change. The panel featured quite an anomaly: a conservative Republican former Congressman, Robert Inglis, who began his first stint in the house as a supporter of fossil fuel, and after leaving the house to keep a term limit pledge, returned once more as an environmentalist after his most important constituents (his children and wife) promised to vote for him only if he “cleaned up his act” on climate change. Inglis 2.0 introduced a proposed carbon tax in 2009 (it failed), and now, as the executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, he advocates for environmental approaches that involve free market economics and limited government.

Inglis’s conservative credentials are pristine. “You might think I’m a moderate,” Inglis began, but he’s got a 100% conservative rating from the NRA, the National Right to Life, and the Christian Coalition. He speaks fluently and honestly in the language of conservative Christians and encouraged his liberal audience at The New School to take conservatives seriously as the necessary partners to get House and Senate votes for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. “You’ve got to speak their language,” he said. Show the libertarian that the free market should incorporate all external costs. (He’s not a libertarian, he says, just a Republican: “There used to be a difference.”) Show the Christian that stewardship requires environmental advocacy. And most of all, stop offending the right: “There is an insistence in the environmental left that if you are a creationist, you are not welcome. If you believe in intelligent design, you are not welcome. If you believe in anything other than godless evolution, you are not acceptable.”

Inglis also called out the environmental left for hypocrisy. He says environmentalists have their own “theological rigidity” that declares, in the words of Carl Sagan, that “the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Environmentalists also wield their money in ways that are just as biased as the Koch brothers; they commission studies that conjure up exaggerated accounts of apocalypse. And they do just as much screaming as the Heritage Foundation, because screaming keeps the donations coming up—and keeps the conservative right out. He also thinks environmentalists are less than genuine in trying to pass a carbon tax. “When president Obama says ‘climate change is a fact’ in the State of the Union, he wasn’t really working on climate change.” If he was serious about a carbon tax, he’d “have gestured to the left and proposed a carbon tax, gestured to the right and offered a corporate tax cut, and turned around to John Boehner and said, ‘Deal, John?’”

Day Two 9:30 AM

I’m back at The New School for day two of the 31st annual Social Research conference, this year on the topic “Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren’t We?” Yesterday’s presenters discussed how psychological and behavioral traits can keep people from believing in climate change and how, even after they believe it, they’re paralyzed by the enormity of the danger. Other factors that keep people from changing their behavior are a lack of understanding (climate change is complicated), political ideologies (conservatives love the status quo), and vested corporate interests in fossil fuels (namely, the Koch brothers) that have evidently bought themselves political power.

Today’s we’re set to hear more about how money and politics stymie social action against climate change (session 4) and how we face difficult choices and trade-offs in fields such as environmental justice. I’ll be blogging quick updates throughout the day, so watch here for more. 

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.”

Session 3 "How to Unleash Climate Action; Values, Politics, and the Inevitability of the Clean Energy Future" 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 their everyday lives. 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 getting 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 far-fetched 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 how to manage 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 renewables, just as they traded landlines for cell phones. The only way to make this happen, though, is to pour enough money into energy research and development, though, which requires 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 Coastal Council 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 along 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 the past 150 years, a predicted warming of about 2.6 to 8.5 degrees in the near future, 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 that came every thousand years will come every decade. For New York, that means that hurricanes like Sandy, when the subway was flooded with fourteen feet of water, will plague the city every ten years

Session 2 "The Physical City" 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 regions are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, he reminded us, because melting ice fills the seas, and thus the seas flood more easily. But fortunately the Army Corps of Engineers is developing a plan for the North Atlantic region that examines particularly dangerous places and finds 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 coming 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 accurately. 

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 "Psychological Factors and Social Change" 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. 


Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, cropped.

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