The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence

by Ellen Broaddus

In Ross et al. (2016), experts from various academic fields assess some of the barriers that aid today’s denial and inaction combating climate change, even with overwhelming evidence from the scientific community. This hesitancy is traced back to a combination of cognitive shortcomings and the difficulty to work collectively on an issue so complex and seemingly indirect. However, the authors provide examples of strategies used to combat said inaction and their efficacy.   

In addition to the sheer magnitude of climate change and its indistinct effects, mankind’s natural self interest creates barriers for action. Because the destructive effects of climate change are long-term, it’s difficult to motivate people to change when they are not directly impacted. The authors draw a distinction between intrinsic human traits and the role of society in influencing goals, noting that societal traditions such as those of Native American tribes can counter our evolutionary resistance to needed permanent changes. Meaningful action is further deterred by the “absence of payoffs”, when people refuse to make personal changes without participation from those around them. This is a self fulfilling prophecy and leads to a gridlock, despite evidence that “communities of cooperation fare better than communities of noncooperation”. Inaction is also justified by humanity’s ability to deny and rationalize both the extent of the issue and its ability to make an impact. Ross emphasizes that the doubt is not fostered independently, but rather by “interest groups with powerful motivations” and resources, showing how economics and politics play a large role in the discussion.

Despite these barriers, Ross et al. present some “small but nontrivial” psychological tactics, especially playing with norms and default options. By promoting the idea of a collective effort, via information distribution, opt-out rather than opt-in options regarding eco-friendly practices, and stigmatizing waste through negative branding, collective change can be established.

The media’s portrayal of different subjects is also vital; such as shows with characters seeking family-planning information increasing the family-planning-clinic enrollment by 33% in Mexico. This “do what your neighbors do” approach engages agencies, business and religious communities, clubs, blogs, and schools and has proven successful (“building sea walls, widespread insurance plans offering protection”), putting a positive narrative on the issue.

The article also addresses some key necessary changes; not only obvious steps like limiting air conditioning, but redefining our current form of consumerism. The tactics above need to shape societal “norms” and foster grass-root support before effective policy changes are possible. The authors cite other social movements like car safety standards and gay rights where the shift in norms was much more effective in creating momentum than mandating steps that may have been counterproductive and created resistance.

Ross, L; Arrow, K; Cialdini, R; Diamond-Smith, N; Diamond, J; Dunne, J; Feldman, M; Horn, R; Kennedy, D; Murphy, C; Pirages, D; Smith, K; York, R; Ehrlich, P. 2016. The Climate Change Challenge and Barriers to the Exercise of Foresight Intelligence. BioScience, 66, 363-370.







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