Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Why are we rushing over the climate cliff? -- by Hugh Robertson

Published with his permission, this is the 18th in a series that Hugh Robertson, of Ottawa Monthly Meeting (Quakers), has written for a community paper. They are online at his site Ecology Economics Ethics.
My daughter and her generation have been given a life sentence for a crime they did not commit. – Mark Hertsgaard 

During the three US presidential debates there was just one fleeting reference to climate change. Clearly, the state of the planet was not a major issue with voters. One month later with Washington gripped and gridlocked and alarm bells sounding all over the country, the US inched towards the “fiscal cliff.” Inexplicably, nobody seems to care as the country sleepwalks over the “climate cliff.” At least, lemmings go over a cliff with their eyes wide open.

photomontage by
Likewise in Canada, the environment is a political non-issue. Prior to the last election, a well known political advisor remarked in the National Post that the major parties had all concluded that “the environment is quite possibly a dangerous issue.” It must have been “dangerous” because the environment hardly came up for air in the election campaign. In the same article, a senior polling executive stated that “you can’t run an election nowadays on the environment.”

There is no perceptible difference between Canada – its moral monopoly long gone – and the US regarding environmental values, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ecofootprints: just indifference. The inertia is overwhelming and the lethargy is pervasive continent-wide, punctuated only by lame lamentations about the impact of global warming on our privileged lifestyles.
Climate change from historical mean, March 2012 -- NASA
George Monbiot describes the public paralysis in his inimitable way: “We sit back and view the deteriorating climate scene with the impotent fascination with which we might watch a good disaster movie.” [Heat, 2006. See our summary. -- Ed.]

The silence and the somnambulism is not only surreal, it is stupefying.

Peer Pressure: The Paralyzing Impact of Social and Current Norms

 Both climate scientists and social scientists are baffled by this nonchalant, even defiant, public response to the threat of global warming in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Psychologists are now suggesting that changing contemporary cultural conditions in the form of social media, saturation advertising, rampant consumption, peer pressure, income disparities and polarized politics are transforming our world views.

Our individual subjective world views have to a great extent been shaped by our personal life experiences. Family, friends, education, religion and careers have all left their imprint that, in turn, influences our beliefs and values. This process of socialization or cultural conditioning tints the spectacles we all wear which then filter our perceptions of reality. We are, to a certain extent, captives of our upbringing.

Sociologists contend that as we grow up, we are increasingly gravitating to groups with similar world views. This is especially true of our smaller social circles which are usually representative of larger socio-cultural groupings, based primarily on income and bound together by implicit common values. Because social status and approval is such a powerful driver of behavior, we are defining ourselves by our socio-cultural group. As we conform to the lifestyle values of our group, we silently absorb the prevailing beliefs and consumption patterns.

An unspoken group solidarity discourages individuals from breaking ranks and risking social isolation. Even fewer will speak out publically on pressing environmental issues because messengers of bad news have traditionally met a messy end. Such is the power of social networks and peer pressure in shaping our ideological views and, ultimately, even our thinking processes. 
While we may be predisposed to developing certain attitudes because of our life experiences, we are not predestined to pursue any particular course. Nor is our behaviour predetermined or our choices constrained. Because our world views are not immutable, we can break the bonds that bind us to our upbringing. For the future of the planet, we dare not allow ourselves to be socialized into submission.

Widespread disapproval of smoking and drinking and driving and the subsequent public pressure forced the government to legislate changes. It is socially unacceptable to smoke today, but oddly, it is still socially acceptable to practise an extravagant lifestyle that is endangering the health of the planet. The consumer culture of our age – characterized by high-end cars, homes, cottages, travel, clothing and entertainment – has shaped a web of values that has neutered the popular pressure so essential to initiating political action. 
Increasing income disparity in North America is reinforcing social stratification and further entrenching divergent values and beliefs. The top twenty percent [in red] contribute a disproportionate share of GHGs and virtually every other form of pollution. Major decision makers, such as corporate and media executives, senior bureaucrats and politicians are all part of this influential segment of society, further militating against the enactment of environmental legislation.

A complex interlocking of sociology, psychology and ideology is helping social scientists understand the complexity of our task of mitigating climate change. Mitigation is not simply a matter of publishing detailed “menus” of environmental tips. Mitigation is mired in the mind and the responses are wired in our brains.

Political Polarization: The Impact of Ideological Solitudes

Jonathan Haidt - courtesy Wikipedia
Jonathan Haidt in his recent book, The Righteous Mind, suggests that there are six basic impulses or intuitions, shaped by our socio-cultural backgrounds, that drive the political behavior of liberals and conservatives. The six intuitions or traits are: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity and Liberty.

Haidt’s analysis, although focused on the moral foundations of political behavior, is useful for understanding the competing ideologies behind the climate confrontation. The gulf between the progressive left and the conservative right is so wide and so deep and the environmental positions so unyielding that one wonders how the political process can ever reconcile the differences.

Haidt’s six basic traits are given different weight and interpretation by the ideological right and left. In applying his theory to the environment, it is “Sanctity” that especially divides liberals and conservatives. For the latter group, “Sanctity” represents the flag, the constitution and “God and country,” whereas the liberal left regards nature as the supreme symbol of sanctity.

Increasingly in North America, we are living in a world of social silos and ideological echo chambers where our world views and personal identities are bound up with our socio-cultural group and our values are defined by our political party affiliations.

Our “ideological solitudes” have major environmental policy implications. For example, progressive groups argue that free market capitalism promotes ecological destruction and that only decisive government intervention can stem the downward spiral. On the other hand, conservatives whose ideology is rooted in individualism, oppose any regulation of the economy. Some extreme conservatives even believe that global warming is a socialist plot. There is no common ground for discussion and if one group’s value stance clashes with the opposing group, there is no chance of resolution. Mother Nature must weep at the shenanigans in the sandbox.

Equally disturbing is Haidt’s contention that our deeply embedded socio-cultural intuitions can derail our cognitive processes and direct our reasoning. Not only can we be held captive by our upbringing, we may also be trapped by our thoughts. He suggests that we jump to conclusions on the basis of our intuitions and sentiments and we then use our cognitive skills to rationalize our decisions. 

Consequently, we are often selective in our listening and reading; we cherry pick what we need to support our arguments and then conveniently tune out the rest. We believe what we are conditioned to believe.

Prejudging is prejudice. Consciously selecting information, even though guided by subconscious forces, to support a preconceived position is bias. This disturbing process is often referred to in the media today as biased assimilation or confirmation bias. Sadly, it is intensifying the increasingly rigid mindsets around climate change.

We are faced then with the irony that information and knowledge, such as solid scientific data, is actually a barrier to mitigating global warming. Dispiriting indeed: our belief systems contort the evidence, facts fail to motivate us, and logical arguments backfire. No wonder efforts at mitigation hit a dead end.

What has happened to the role of education? The same discipline, the social sciences, that is helping us unravel the mysteries of the mind regarding our behavior and thought processes, claims as its objectives: critical thinking, problem solving, informed decision making and logical argumentation. These attributes are crucial weapons in the battle against climate demagoguery but how effectively are they taught in our schools and universities? 
Chris Mooney - courtesy Wikipedia
ChrisMooney, author of The Republican Brain, quotes a startling statistic: better educated Republicans are more in denial regarding the science behind climate change than their less educated colleagues. We are in deep trouble if the institution tasked with opening our minds, encounters minds that have already shut down. 
Perhaps education itself is a major barrier in resolving our ecological problems. Education is hardly living up to its universal claim that it overcomes ignorance. North America, possibly the most educated continent, is home to a range of antediluvian environmental views despite the impact of extreme weather conditions of recent years.

The pedagogical problems might not just be in the area of knowledge and skills but, of more concern, in the area of attitudes and values. Are our schools and universities focusing on beliefs and notions that conform to the dominant socio-cultural values, such as consumerism, entitlement and competitive self-interest rather than on community, co-operation and empathy?

We may be entering an anti-science age characterized by a contempt for evidence, rational discourse and experimentation and stoked by the climate denial industry. More ominously, we may be entering an age of anti-intellectualism characterized by a fear and distrust of education and learning. What a tragic paradox: the most educated generation in history leading the charge into a new Dark Age.

The Gender Divide: Man’s Inhumanity to Nature

According to the World Meteorological Organization and virtually every other major scientific body, global warming is primarily manmade. It is doubly manmade, however. Not only are GHGs largely anthropogenic in nature, but global warming is largely a function of gender. Generally, women are greener than men. 
The research of Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, demonstrates how education can reinforce the gender divide on environmental issues. He suggests that boys learn that masculinity emphasizes detachment, control, mastery and competence while the feminine identity stresses attachment, empathy, care and cooperation. These qualities play a major role in shaping our environmental behaviour. 
It is not just qualities and behaviour patterns that are different between men and women but also levels of knowledge. Men, certainly those of a more conservative bent, will often read the science explaining global warming and then cherry pick the information that will reinforce their denial stance. Many men, according to polls, rate their knowledge of climate science above women’s. But Professor McCright shows that although women underestimate their scientific comprehension, “their beliefs align much more closely with scientific consensus.”

Studies and surveys done recently in the UK and the EU, and probably would not differ greatly in Canada and the US, indicate a greater environmental concern and awareness among women than men. Women:
  • Support environmental initiatives and increased spending
  • Prepared to pay higher taxes to protect the environment
  • Volunteer more for environmental projects
  • Less likely to support geo-engineering projects
  • Purchase more green products
  • More concerned about environmental risks to health
  • Recycle more and use energy more efficiently
  • Buy smaller, more energy efficient vehicles
  • More concerned about the long term risks of climate change
  • More likely to make lifestyle changes
A study with a different focus from the University of Oregon demonstrates that in countries where women have a more prominent political status and a greater participation in public affairs, the carbon emissions are lower and these countries also ratify more environmental treaties.

Both the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament are male dominated. The upper echelons of the North American corporate world are also largely male and the various groups appearing at Congressional hearings are overwhelmingly male in composition. We should ask ourselves how many women are lobbyists in the Canadian fossil fuel industry and how many women work in the gas fracking business in the US.

Women are generally more in touch with their feelings and emotions than men and they are also more protective of Mother Earth, as the research shows. Although science can explain climate change, the environmental crisis itself can only be solved at the emotional and not at the intellectual level. Behavioural change flows from the heart, not from the head. 
Studies, polls and surveys are never conclusive but all the results show a disturbing pattern in the way men and women confront the dangers of climate change and the many other ecological problems facing the planet at the beginning of the 21st century.

Among the major barriers to mitigating climate change are ideology, wealth, gender and possibly education. These factors are all outgrowths of our cultural conditioning and they are both interconnected and self-reinforcing, thereby giving them added force and influence. 
As a sentient species, we can shed and shred the shackles that bind us to our past. We have to confront our consciences and challenge our beliefs – we must never allow conditioning to conquer conscience. Nor can we be held captive by outdated values that are inimical to the very foundations of life. Breaking through our behavioural barriers is a barometer of our moral maturity.

Government is not a barrier to combating climate change in a democratic society. To blame government for inaction on the climate file and for anti-environmental legislation is to absolve ourselves, both individually and collectively, of the ethical responsibility for initiating and promoting ecological change. 

Governments are not deaf. They are extremely sensitive to all signals and they will become proactive overnight when we, the electorate, send them a clear message – at present our environmental message is barely audible.

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