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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2009

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Editorial - Why Carbon-Reducing Behavior Is Proving So Frictional

In a challenging New York Times article published 2 July 2009, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof muses on why humans seem to be hard-wired for immediate danger but soft-wired for long-term threats. He cites the research of a variety of scholars, who appear to agree that our brains are still programmed for an age of hunting, herding, and hiding. The threats that seem to count are personal, imminent, wildly immoral, and instantaneous. Meanwhile, highly complex dangers that are couched in uncertainty, lurking in some unknown future, and requiring sacrifices now are dismissed, denied, or distorted.

Politicians hate acting as nannies. They avoid telling us how we should behave and shun the temptation to forbid even the most damaging activities, such a smoking or sunbedding. Such distaste is magnified when the pleasure of sinning is real, daily, and social. It is no wonder politicians avoid discussion of “tipping points,” the possible abrupt changes to the functioning of Earth systems that could set off a catastrophic sequence of uncontrollable events with huge calamity for generations being born today. There is no appetite for confronting the unimaginable, even if it may happen in our lifetime. To use the rhetoric of environmental threat is to lose an election.

Max Bazerman continues this theme in his fascinating article in this issue (“U.S. Energy Policy: Overcoming Barriers to Action,” page 22). He suggests that we have many devious ways to avoid saving energy and to overconsume carbon. We like to ignore the obvious if it is discomforting or locked into policies and interest-group commitments that are difficult to disentangle. We like to blame clearly defined enemies and single causes, and we avoid muddying policy waters with too many interconnections. Above all, we love to opt for the graspable benefit rather than wait for a surer outcome in even the near future. We do not trust the intermediate term if the false bauble is in hand. Yet ironically, in this day of huge publicly financed debt, we seem to rely on some fiction of “growth” and “innovation” in the nebulous future to have the (borrowed) money to spend right now.

None of this is new. What is scary is that the collective political class cannot face up to the reality that increasing numbers of the public see all too clearly. This is evident in the credit crunch, where the long-term repayment of the debt burdens cannot be financed by sustainable development. No way: not even the advocates of sustainable development know just what sustainable investment for sustainable growth would look like.

And it will be evident at the end of the year in Copenhagen, which hosts the much-heralded session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The demand from the concerned and informed will be muted by the sound of politicians rushing for cover. Politicians have not yet proved they know how to cut greenhouse gas emissions, work in genuine cooperation, and, above all, distribute fairly to those whose lives are shattered by the scourge of climate change already in action. Their ingenuity will be clever but not disguised.

In his review of the U.S. National Intelligence report Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (“Future Vision: What Lies Ahead?” page 35), Mohan Munasinghe offers a better vision for the future. If we are to find long-term safety, he emphasizes, we need to pursue with politicians, business leaders, and civil society, what he and Bazerman suggest as ways out: to offer better incentives, show how low-carbon sustainable living can be fun, emphasize the joy of being responsible for others, and prove that our long term is their short term.

—Timothy O’Riordan

1. N. D. Kristof, “When Our Brains Short-Circuit,” New York Times, 2 July 2009, (accessed 30 July 2009).

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