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How to Change the World

Changing the Climate Debate Focus

Michael Maxey


Evolutionary psychologists posit that man's short-term perspective developed in order to focus the greatest attention on solving immediate survival problems. The impact of this evolutionary mindset was described by New Yorker columnist, Elizabeth Kolter: “So whatever is going on at that particular moment that is really affecting people’s lives, that’s what ranks high … and climate change has often been described as a slow-moving catastrophe, and it’s precisely the kind of issue that once you actually really feel the dire effects in your own life, then it’s way too late.”[i] The purpose of this narrative is to describe some of the techniques that have proven effective in changing this natural predisposition to focus on short-term, negative aspects of taking action to address greenhouse gas emissions (increased cost of energy, inconvenience in personal lifestyle, etc.), and instead better understand and act to reduce these emissions and the long-term impact this will have on the future of mankind.


Explain the Science (What do we know?) – As carbon levels rise in the atmosphere we can expect to see rising sea levels, more intense rainfall, less snow and ice cover, longer and more intense heat waves, less food production, and increased ocean acidification. If actions are not taken immediately to limit atmospheric carbon to between 450 and 550 ppm, we can expect an acceleration of these conditions. [ii] Once carbon reaches 600 ppm there will be an acceleration of change that could be truly catastrophic.


Model the Risks (What does it mean?) – The most important way to press home the impact of these changes is through economic modeling that focuses on risk (likelihood times potential consequences). The work by Gary Yohe, Wesleyan University Bloomberg professor of Climate Change, points to the enormous costs of adaptation to changing climate conditions and highlights the potential savings through preventive action. The development and dissemination on the impact at a personal and national level is needed to help individuals understand what is at stake.


Connect on a Personal Level – (What can we do about it?) – There is a consensus that a lack of advocacy for change is the most limiting factor in changing global carbon emissions. Economic and political pressure create inertia; only through a grassroots level can we create the social pressure needed for change. Peer to peer interaction is proving successful in making these changes. One example is which measures carbon consumption at an individual level and allows peers to exchange information and compete to low their carbon foot print. Another example is artistic initiatives such as “water box” art that shows the amount of water needed by individuals in different parts of the world and brings home the need to conserve.


Climate change associated with carbon emissions is already a fact of life. Catastrophic events will happen if carbon emissions continue yet there seems to be a “tragedy of the commons” mentality in the use of carbon based fuels where each country, each person sees a personal benefit in using these fuels but fails to see or to consider the long-term impact in destroying the world as we know it. The only way to address this problem is to promote a worldwide social campaign started at the local level that creates the advocacy needed to demand the political, economic and financial changes needed to significantly reduce carbon emissions. As Ghandi said -- we have to – “Be the change.”


[i] Elizabeth Kolbert, "A Reporter's Field Notes on Coverage of Climate Change”


[ii] Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, National Academies Press.

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