Climate Crisis Mindset Change

The climate crisis is a symptom of a far larger problem: only a mindset shift will engender long-term, positive change

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This essay was originally written for my professors at the University of Amsterdam, as the final assignment for the interdisciplinary ‘Climate Crisis’ course that I took voluntarily after completing my master’s in business. There’s a heavy undertone of academia throughout my writing, but it still captures the spirit of Grounding Green.

Climate change is the most urgent global challenge humanity faces today (United Nations, 2019). Although the public debate about it continues, the evidence seems rock solid – something which is underlined by a 97% consensus amongst climate change scientists (Cook et al., 2016). For this reason, the United Nations has grouped climate change alongside other defining issues of our time that mostly relate to inequality, both among and within countries, e.g. decolonization, poverty, basic food and water supply, gender inequality, refugees and ageing populations (United Nations, 2020). These were consequently transformed into 17 actionable targets for all member states in 2015: the Sustainable Development Goals, thereby providing “a blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world – a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives on a healthy planet” (United Nations, 2019, p.2). International consultation also led to agreements to combat climate change in a.o. Rio de Janeiro (1992), Kyoto (1998), Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015) (Stavins et al., 2014). However, actual implementations of these treaties have been largely ineffective (Gupta, 2020), and CO2 emissions only continued to rise with a 4% overall increase since the Paris agreement was signed (Harvey & Rankin, 2019). In other words, while the scientific groundworks are there, and authorities decided to take action many years ago, we are hardly a step further today.

The required mindset change

Arguably the most impeding factor to resolving climate change lies in the way that is gone about it. While prioritizing the above issues certainly helps in gaining an initial overview, treating them as being separate altogether represents a severe thinking flaw. Only a holistic approach to sustainability will create a global crisis agenda that is truly sustainable in the long run. Solving climate change requires a fundamental mindset change of the majority of people in the industrialized world instead. A more mindful way of life will not only allow for tackling all highlighted issues combined, but presents a much stronger solution to the climate challenge we face likewise. Anything else is essentially like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound; it may block the bleed temporarily, but fails to address the underlying problem and is certainly insufficient when the bleeding, i.e. greenhouse gas emissions, intensifies.

In building the case for this view, first I delve into the status quo: the actual issue, present state of solutions, as well as reasons for inaction. Hereafter, a new outlook is sketched on the basis of research into a.o. historical thinking, human evolution and motivations for sustainable behavior that should pave the way forward. Finally, opposing views are countered and concrete steps are visualized prior to bringing the argument full circle.

THE STATUS QUO OF (IN)ACTION

THE CLIMATE CRISIS IN A NUTSHELL

The history of man-made climate change science is not particularly brief. The first reference was already made in 1896, when a Swedish chemist discovered that coal burning could enhance the natural greenhouse effect (Arrhenius, 1896). In the early years of the current century, Al Gore took it upon himself to warn us for ‘an inconvenient truth’ (Gore, 2006). However, it was not until 2018 that the evidence became indisputable, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that consolidates and assesses global scientific information on the topic, concluded that human activities have indeed caused a 1.0°C temperature rise since pre-industrial levels because of an accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which likely increases further to reach 1.5°C between 2030-2052 if it continues at its current rate. This warming will hereafter persist for centuries to millennia, and cause a.o. rising of sea levels, impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems including species loss and extinction, extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy precipitation, risks to health, livelihoods, food and water supply as well as harm to economic growth (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018). Ergo, in such a scenario, the world as we know it would disappear.

CLIMATE CHANGE SOLUTIONS

Lucky for us, proposed solutions are plentiful. They fall into three categories: (1) mitigation, i.e. avoiding the problem, (2) adaptation, i.e. living with the problem, and (2) geo-engineering, i.e. fixing the problem. The latter encompasses either removing carbon dioxide from the sky (e.g. through reforestation, or storing a surplus underground), or redirecting sunlight before it reaches Earth’s surface (e.g. through mimicking volcanic eruptions) (Davidson, 2020). Yet, unless we want to lose two millennia of cultural heritage as it evaporates into our oceans, adaptation is out of the game. That leaves mitigation and geo-engineering, two frequently debated routes to take.

COGNITIVE BIAS IN DECISION-MAKING

The opposing teams’ arguments are fueled by political color, with climate change quickly becoming a new means to distinguish left from right when issues such as migration and economic equality have lost their original appeal (Waldholz, 2019). As people look at the world through tinted glasses, they categorize themselves into political camps on the basis of heuristics. Most people are unaware of these cognitive biases; decisions are intuitive, rather than deliberate (Kahneman, Lovallo & Sibony, 2011). The group that one belongs to signal one’s (desired) identity towards others (Keizer, Bolderijk, & Steg, 2014). Since environmental sustainability is increasingly addressed in public, the relevance of expressing identity this way will likely also increase (Devine-Wright & Clayton, 2010). This becomes particularly problematic when it blurs facts with opinions. For instance, those holding liberal views are found to be more sceptic of the scientific evidence underlying climate change than those who align themselves with more conservative political parties (Fielding & Hornsey, 2016). As a result, the right-winged liberal who seeks personal freedom, i.e. endorses strong self-enhancing values, proposes solutions in geo-engineering whilst having reduced motivations to make changes in their own behavior (Corner & Pidgeon, 2014).

While both autonomy and caring for others have their value in society, they are not part of a zero-sum game. The societal debate has been rendered black-and-white by the politicians proclaiming them, whereas the benefits and implications of each should be carefully weighed per instance instead. Moreover, as long as people keep making key decisions on the basis of heuristics – voting for a political party that denies climate change should ideally not be on the basis of what the neighbor chooses – the urgency of climate change remains to be ignored. Hence, there will only be a flawed attempt to fix the issue. Geo-engineering certainly aids in buying us more time to adapt, yet will not provide a long-term solution when the economy only continues to grow – taking CO2 emissions upward with it.

GREEN ATTITUDE-BEHAVIOR GAP

In general, factors contributing to environmental ‘Impact’ are disentangled through the I=PAT formula, where a larger and more ‘Affluent’ ‘Population’ increases impact, and the efficiency of existing ‘Technologies’ may in turn somewhat diminish it (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2008). Some scholars make the plea that this formula should be modified to write I=PBAT, to accommodate for the role of ‘Behavior’ (Roca, 2002). They might not be wrong.

The ineffectiveness of current policies and human irrationality becomes especially visible in the ‘green attitude-behavior gap’ that has been frequently recognized by researchers over the past decade. It entails that whilst people’s attitude towards environmental protection is generally positive, translation into actual sustainable consumption is often lacking (e.g. Eckhardt, Belk & Devinney, 2010; Bray, Johns & Kilburn, 2011; Gleim, Andrews & Cronin, 2013; Joshi & Rahman, 2015). Consumers mostly look towards businesses and governments to solve the issues (Kanne, Van Hofweegen, Kooiman & Van Engeland, 2019), all the while household consumption constitutes more than 60% of global emissions, and 50-80% of land, material and water usage (Ivanova, 2016). On Earth Overshoot Day – which took place on July 29th last year but keeps moving forward – we are reminded of the point at which yearly consumption exceeds nature’s capacity to regenerate (Global Footprint Network, 2020).

In a world of information overload (Roetzel, 2019), and with such a seeming variety of high-priority topics placed on the global urgency agenda (United Nations, 2020), it is perhaps no wonder that the general public is unsure where to start, and as a result, remains stationary. Add to this a structural attempt of eroding ‘unfavorable’ academic knowledge – a.o. relating to smoking, global warming, acid rain and the Ozon layer hole  – by influential Americans (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and we have a recipe for inaction.

THE QUEST FOR POWER, PLEASURE & PROFIT

According to David Wootton, this modern day and age has been sequentially crafted by three influential thinkers – Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith consecutively – that made power, pleasure and profit into all-encompassing goals of human life that know no end. This as opposed to virtue and salvation that were sought during the preceding Christian and Greek-Roman times. He sees the rise of science that started during the Enlightenment period as having realized a paradigm shift in our view of the world that simultaneously led to the infinite pursuit of man’s own desires – all on the basis of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis (Wootton, 2018). The good news: this then also implies that it is possible to reverse human thinking back to its original, virtuous state.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

RETHINKING OUR SOCIETY

Although still in its infancy, a counter-sound to such endless consumerism can be heard in the form of Kate Raworth’s ‘donut economy’. While our world of plenty may paradoxically be symbolized by a greasy, sugared donut – it is its mirror-image that the inventor had in mind. Raworth argues that the world only prospers within the confines of the donut itself; the hole in the middle is where many people fall short on life’s essentials (e.g. food, healthcare, and indeed: equality), and overshooting towards the outer ring puts so much pressure on the planet that it is being kicked out of balance, as illustrated by the climate crisis. As a result, she urges to reconsider our relentless obsession with growth, that knows no end and only brings wealth to some. Inspired by the American architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller, her proposition is to build something new that renders the existing model obsolete, rather than fighting an existing reality (Raworth, 2018). Extending this view, this something new then also requires a different perspective on prosperity and happiness.

THE MINDFULNESS APPROACH

Chasing after relentless growth brings a worrisome addiction on a personal level too. Satisfying basic needs through material things, and the eternal pursuit of ‘more’ and ‘better’ leaves one to never be content with what has already been accomplished. In my own research – in which 15 respondents were probed about their personal motivations to behave sustainably – many indicated that whilst they knew they were doing right by the planet (e.g. by being vegan, or refusing to fly), they had also uncovered enhanced peace of mind for themselves (IJsselmuiden, 2020). Thereby they broke the superficial gratification loop.

This finding ties in directly with scholars suggesting that the practice of mindful attentiveness leads people to develop new, sustainable habits and can potentially close the green attitude-behavior gap (Amel, Manning & Scott, 2009). In a similar vein, scholars conclude that “a wealth of research indicates that mindfulness contributes to subjective well-being by focusing the mind on the here and now, giving rise to stronger empathy and compassion, facilitating clarification of goals and values, and enabling people to avoid the hedonic treadmill” (Ericson, Gunaketu Kjønstad & Barstad, 2014, p.73). These non-materialistic values are in turn associated with more sustainable behaviors (Ericson et al., 2014). It is thus the careful consideration of different virtues in life that could lead us out of the woods.

EVOLUTIONARY BASE

Some would argue that this approach was doomed to fail, as throughout history of mankind, a propensity for self-interest is omnipresent. In the ‘Golden Age’, slaves were oppressed merely to provide for hedonistic pleasures such as sugar, coffee and cocoa for a wealthy minority (Elliott, 2019), and going even further back in time, serfdom in the Middle Ages meant that a tenant farmer was bound to a plot of land and the will of his landlord (McKenna, 2020). Researchers concluded that people cannot help themselves; we are simply hard-wired to look for the best possible outcome for ourselves – tending to be shortsighted when doing so (Griskevicius, Cantú & Van Vugt, 2012).

However, when studying our closest relatives, it was found that chimpanzees are five times more likely to cooperate rather than compete with one another (Suchak et al., 2016). Other researchers came to similar conclusions, positing that cooperative and affiliative behaviors in primate species are considerably more common (i.e. occurs >90% of the time) than made out to believe by scholars who emphasize competition and aggression instead (Sussman, Garber & Cheverud, 2005). As celebrated primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall writes: “it is easy to get the impression that chimpanzees are more aggressive than they really are. In actuality, peaceful interactions are far more frequent than aggressive ones; mild threatening gestures are more common than vigorous ones; threats per se occur much more often than fights; and serious, wounding fights are very rare compared to brief, relatively mild ones” (Goodall, 1986, p.357).

SUPERSEDING INDIVIDUALISM

This angle suggests that humans are not only kind and caring for others at heart rather than purely selfish, but have an innate ability to cooperate when facing mutual problems such as climate change too. When the endless hunt for power, pleasure and profit is indeed taught to be the ‘appropriate’ way of life over time, then this brings an opportunity to rewild our hearts – going back to connect with nature, quite literally so. Moreover, by tuning into that basic underlying foundation, we could solve multiple of the global challenges relating to inequality at once.

As validation of this train of thought, researchers found that persons with an individualistic outlook are less likely to take climate action than those with a more collectivist orientation (Xiang, Zhang, Geng, Zhou & Wu, 2019). Unsurprisingly, the U.S.A. – a country built on the notion of individual freedom – has long been the rising star amongst the world’s largest polluters (Global Carbon Atlas, 2020), and announced withdrawal from the Paris agreement recently (Holden, 2019).

A CONCRETE ACTION AGENDA

So where do we take it from here? How all past change has been established: by challenging the status quo. Without Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in favor of a white man (Augustyn, 2020), and without Mahatma Ghandi advocating for the Indian people (Nanda, 2020), social change movements could not have started. A diffusion of novelties takes root through the innovators and early adopters, and at a certain tipping point, the majority of society follows (Rogers, 2010). Experimental studies have confirmed that minority groups are able to overturn established behaviors at tipping points as low as 25% of the population (Centola, Becker, Brackbil & Baronchelli, 2018). Spillover also occurs on a within-person level; if people adopt a single green behavior, they are not only likely to do so again in the future, but extend their green arsenal with additional behaviors too (e.g. from buying LED lights towards more meaningful actions such as insulating one’s house) (White, Hardisty & Habib, 2019). Since human behavior is strongly habitual (Verplanken & Roy, 2015), the initial feedback loop needs to be broken. One such way is by utilizing the momentum of a person’s major life changes, e.g. a recent relocation (Verplanken & Roy, 2016).

Admittingly, a tremendous challenge lies ahead. Nonetheless, that does not imply it cannot be done. Coming back to my own research, I found that when people were presented with additional facts on e.g. climate change or animal agriculture practices, they felt like such hypocrites, they had no choice but to abandon their original unsustainable behaviors in favor of a more conscious and virtuous way of life (IJsselmuiden, 2020). This implies that others can do the same.

CONCLUSION

Concluding, we cannot solve climate change without recognizing that it is a symptom of an underlying problem – something that is heavily intertwined with the majority of global challenges faced today. We have created a system in which matters are black-and-white, and solutions can be bought. Yet, our ancestral brains cannot cope. Some of the proposed solutions to climate change may provide quick fixes, but without taking a step back and drastically rethinking what provides us happiness and prosperity, there will be no end to it. Western societies need to reconsider the emphasis placed on individual freedom, and start entering into the equation at what collective cost it comes. It is the only way to provide a breakthrough in the impasse reached in the negotiations.

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