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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

November-December 2017

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Editorial - To Shift or Not To Shift Emissions-Generating Behavior: This Is the Dilemma

As I compose this editorial, former hurricane Harvey has completed its 3-foot (approximately 1,000-mm) rainfall discharge over the greater Houston metropolitan area. This extraordinary event is characterized as occurring once every 1,000 years based on historical pluvial patterns. Nowadays we are not tied to weather history; all that historical data can do is alert us to how much prevailing weather patterns have changed. Meanwhile, hurricanes Irma and Maria have laid waste to Florida and Puerto Rico. As might be expected, there are plenty of climate scientists and journalists connecting these “super hurricanes” to climate-change pathways. There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in such assertions. Storm pattern modeling is improving by leaps and bounds, but any given event cannot yet be conclusively attributed to human-induced climate change.

We have to be careful but not silent. The climate breakdown writing is on the wall. While Harvey was forming, Bangladesh experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. In a very poor and very flood-prone country, this is a hugely disruptive occurrence. Much of northern India and Nepal is also catastrophically flooded as unusually powerful monsoon rains overwhelm colossal swathes of field and street. Already 1,200 people have died in the flooding, and 40 million are rendered homeless. The United States, with its abundant resources, will commit many billions of dollars to flood recovery in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Puerto Rico, together with damaged properties elsewhere. But in the northern Indian Subcontinent, relief and repair funding will be in desperately short supply. Meanwhile, repairing the effects of Irma on the Leeward Islands will require international altruism on a grand scale over decades of rehabilitation.

What might emerge as these devastating floods reluctantly lose their grip is greater focus over how Americans, and indeed the human world more generally, should respond to calls for moral engagement over shiftable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions arising from personal “carbon footprints.”

This is the central message from Seth Heald's account of the writings of Albert Bandura in this issue. We have encouraged the publication of this account as it raises an important moral dimension, which we noted in our special issue on the papal encyclical. but which has not seemed to have attracted much political or theological attention since.

Bandura connects two powerful reasons as to why this aspect of personal behavior is so difficult to explore, let alone alter. One is the pervasive sense of ineffectiveness of any set of individual actions in the face of overwhelming greenhouse gas (GHG) exhalation. The other is the troubling sense of guilt over moral disengagement from the pain of personal transgression, which is equally socially universal.

Bandura explores the reasons as to why this form of moral abstention takes place. This is helpfully illustrated in Heald's analysis. The Paris Agreement seemingly depends on technological breakthroughs in renewable energy, smart metering, long-life batteries, geoengineering, and even planetary colonization, as ways of avoiding political interference over behavioral shift. Indeed, a detailed search of the emerging national assessments for the first Paris “stocktake” next year shows how preciously little reliance is given to voluntary behavioral shifts. The Paris goals cannot be met by technology alone.

So we turn to the question of this editorial: to shift or not to shift carbon-creating behavior? Heald offers some valuable insights here. Be positive about the ways to reduce the shudders of climate change. Focus on the scope for small GHG-saving steps, many of which can be a feature of technology and consumption (metering and efficient energy-using machines, changing diet in micro stages). Link such steps to social networks in the street, the neighborhood, and the social reference communities. Show how numbers of small but measurable shifts will lead to a degree of salvation for the next generations. Make moral relief a cause for personal celebration and satisfaction. Encourage legislators and teachers and faith leaders to bring up the moral gains for small initiatives. Do the same for business and political leaders. Luminous business practices joining employees and customers in a common moral cause enables creation of the social space for more frank conversations to take place. Active moral sentiment and moral behavior can begin to be recognized and exalted.

This vital shift is underpinned by being revelatory for the participant, through generating personal self-confidence and reassuring social identity. But such actions must also be scientifically supported. Here is where causal attribution is so very important, in the form of a clearer signal that the influence of human-induced climate breakdown is unambiguous. Removing the safe haven of evidentiary doubt is a cardinal element of sustainability science.

Then it just might be possible to begin a tortuous social and political journey toward charging for avoidable contributions to personal carbon footprints. This will not be an easy process, but in the context of the suggestions offered in the article, it might become socially accepted. The outcome would be the aggregation of “carbon-sharing” funds into forms of non-political charities, which are disbursed to the victims of future disasters and to assist them and their neighbors to be better prepared for sustainable resilience.

We at Environment offer this perspective as part of our continuing commitment to sustainability science. Here surely is one of the epitomes of the genre: a humanity that returns to its roots of reciprocity and sharing, based on reliable knowledge that offers the scope for moral exposure and renewal.

—Tim O'Riordan

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