Humans don’t do ‘future’ well, and that could doom us if we’re not careful

There has been some rare good news about the environment recently. One was hard to miss. On Sunday, roughly 300,000 people swelled the streets of midtown Manhattan in the People’s Climate March. It was not just the largest climate protest in history; it was the biggest U.S. political demonstration of any kind in more than a decade.

The movement to combat climate change has had a hard time getting off the ground — at least partly because of the abstract nature of the issue. Before Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the recent California mega-drought, for most Americans climate change was a theoretical threat in the indeterminate future.

That’s changing, however. Sunday’s protest presented a broad-based coalition. Far from the small number of environmentalists who might have participated just a few years ago, the New York march included 1,572 organizations — faith-based, labor, anti-poverty — health professionals and a large turnout of high school and college students from across the country.

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People march during a rally against climate change in New York, September 21, 2014.REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

But if you blinked, you might have missed the other environmental good news. The dangerous ozone hole over Antarctica stopped growing, a recent United Nations study found, and shows early signs of repairing itself.

Disaster was averted thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that banned ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, once widely used in refrigerators and spray cans.

The ozone layer protects us from dangerous ultraviolet rays. There will now be an expected 2 million fewer cases of skin cancer annually by 2030, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

The ozone-layer news is particularly encouraging, coming as it does before Tuesday’s emergency climate summit at the United Nations, which brings together President Barack Obama and other world leaders. The ozone improvements demonstrate that the world community can avert environmental disaster when it works together.

Granted, it is one thing to draft a treaty that bans a class of dangerous chemicals. It is quite another to shift a global economy based on fossil fuels to an era of renewable energy — what we’ll need to do to save the climate.

In addition, the climate-change train has long since left the station. Even if humans stopped spewing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere tomorrow, the globe would heat up for decades from what is already there.

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Children march during a rally against climate change in New York. September 21, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

But we may be able to prevent temperatures from rising higher than we can handle (the 3.7 degree Celsius to 4.8 degree Celsius rise by the end of the century that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts if we don’t act.)

Unfortunately, there appears to be little political will — either in the United States or internationally — to do for the climate what we’ve done for the ozone hole.

How do we break through this collective paralysis? I asked Elke Weber, director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, who has been studying this question.

One problem is that, as a species, we do not do “future” well. “We are very concrete people,” Weber explained, “who have been wired to live for the here and now, which was a good idea in distant evolutionary times when our ancestors had to respond to immediate threats.”

The biological instincts that we needed to survive when a raiding party attacked, for example, don’t translate well to abstract dangers that won’t fully materialize for decades. Especially if the future threat is as complex and uncertain as that posed by climate change.

But the problem is also the approach. “Everything is messaged negatively,” Weber said. “It’s always gloom-and-doom scenarios.”

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A woman holds a globe with the letters SOS while taking part in a march against climate change in New York, September 21, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Fear can be a powerful motivator, according to Weber, but only when the threat is immediate and it is clear what we need to do. For example, we see Americans being beheaded in Iraq and we call in the airstrikes. But people have a “finite pool of worry,” she said, and when the danger is far off and there is no clear path to eliminating it, we may just push it out of our minds and deal with more immediate concerns.

The increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric of some scientists and activists runs the risk of sounding defeatist if it is not balanced by a positive vision of a green and prosperous future.

Consider, “We are in a “precarious… almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless — position,” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, warned in his 2012 Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

“We’ve done a far better job of describing the problem than the solution,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz divides Americans into six groups on the issue of climate change: the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the doubtful and the dismissive. The challenge, he said, is to craft a message that speaks to all these groups, not just to climate-change true believers.

Given the current polarization, this sounds impossible. But Leiserowitz cites research into public attitudes showing that, while we Americans can’t agree if climate change is happening, there is a lot of agreement on what we need to do.

“When it comes to renewable energy research, everybody supports it,” he said. “People love the idea of providing tax rebates for those who buy energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels…. People across the board say that we need to transition to clean energy. Two- thirds of Americans support the policy of regulating C02 as a pollutant. They like the idea of ending subsidies for fossil-fuel companies.”

Even climate skeptics can get behind ideas like developing innovative new energy technologies, cutting U.S. dependence on foreign oil, creating green industries, cleaning up the air. To get moving on these on the scale we need will require a public groundswell of the order of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, or the women’s movement, to demand that reluctant politicos do the right things.

That has not yet happened. But if the unexpectedly large turnout Sunday is any barometer, that day may be closer than we think.

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