Why Don’t We Act on the Facts of Climate Change?

 A fallen tree near a damaged railroad track in Pakistan. Photo credit: Gerhard Jörén 2010.
A fallen tree near a damaged railroad track in Pakistan. Photo credit: Gerhard Jörén 2010.

By Susann Roth

Immediate action is needed on climate change and we must overcome skepticism.

I am not an environment or climate change expert, but I am an environmentalist out of conviction. When I was 14 years old I wrote a letter to the German Minister of Environment asking for faster policy action to reduce green house gas emissions. I did get a nice reply, which basically acknowledged my concern but they also explained that policy actions take time and need to be weighed with the economic agenda. I understood that, but today, many years later, I am afraid that we have no more time to wait for actions. We have to act now if we want the next generation to experience the world we know.

You would think that the facts on climate change in Asia and the Pacific shock the general public:

  • “The worst is yet to come. If emissions continue to increase, the annual mean temperature in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam is projected to rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 from the 1990 level on average; the global mean sea level is projected to rise by 70cm during the same period, with dire consequences for the region. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are projected to see increasingly drier weather in the next 20 to 30 years.” (Oxfamblogs.org)
  • Seven out of the 10 nations at greatest risk to climate change and natural disasters globally are in Asia and the Pacific, and 3 of these are small Pacific island states. (UNU-EHS)
  • Decrease in fresh water availability could affect more than 1 billion people by 2050. (adb.org)
  • The mean cost of climate change could be equivalent to losing 6.7% of combined gross domestic product (GDP) each year by 2100, more than twice the global average loss. (Oxfamblogs.org)

The World Bank recently published “Turn down the heat- Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided”, paints an absolutely devastating picture of the future. The reports describe the prospects of a world losing most of its gains from poverty reduction and human development, facing dramatic food and water insecurity, unpredictable increasing number of large-scale natural disasters, and irreversible biodiversity loss of marine and terrestrial life. There is no need for explanation to realize that all of the above will decrease social cohesion, peace and security.

We have to act now if we want the next generation to experience the world we know.

I was shocked to read a 2010 poll for the BBC News that showed "Climate skepticism on the rise". Of course, two years have passed but it is questionable whether the general public changes consumption patterns and acts on the seriousness of climate change. If we follow the international debate of world leaders who still don’t commit to certain climate protocols, we wonder what it is about the human nature that will motivate them to divert from the necessary while “Rome is burning”.

I feel reminded of my years as a doctor, when I preached to the diabetic to stop eating sweets, to the overweight high blood pressure patients to lose weight and to the smoker with beginning arteriosclerosis to stop smoking. It seems incredibly human to only look at instant reward and satisfaction instead of delayed gratification, maybe even more so if the delayed gratification only comes for the next generations.

But the question is, do we have to accept human’s behavior to mainly aim for   the individuals highest and fastest reward and at the same time become passive observant of a changing world? 

No we don’t!  

Studies showed that the human brain’s reaction to possible fast reward at reach, causes a reaction in the so-called limbic system in the mid brain, which is the reward center. However, reactions of the limbic system can be overridden if the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is also associated with reasoning and rational thoughts are activated. This can be conditioned and trained.

There is also emerging evidence that deferred gratification can be affected by direct experience and, taught to adults.

However, in order to trigger these effects and build also on the human desire to receive instant gratification, we need to do more than presenting climate science and facts. 

We need to create messages and develop actions which make delayed gratification -- even if it’s only for the next generation -- more desirable than instant rewarding, and take advantage of our preference for immediate gratification and human’s innate laziness to change behavior. We have to start now!