Fall 2020

Seeing Is Believing: Understanding & Aiding Human Responses to Global Climate Change

Author
Elke U. Weber
Abstract

This essay traces my academic voyage from studying human perceptions of financial risk to the realization that the human response to climate change is a more fundamental and profound challenge. Along the way, I came to realize that different academic disciplines need to be recruited for two purposes: 1) to tell an accurate story about the motivations and processes by which environmental (and other) decisions get made by stakeholders that range from policy-makers in the public and private sector to the general public; and 2) to determine and implement effective and feasible ways of changing the physical, institutional, and social environment to help myopic decision-makers achieve long(er)-term objectives. I see my voyage as an exercise in applied hope, resisting the constraints that disciplines and academia try to place on scholars and helping others to do so as well, by both example and institution-building.

Elke U. Weber, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2016, is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She has served on advisory committees of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences related to human dimensions in global change and has been a lead author in Working Group III for the Fifth and Sixth Assessment Reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Be neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Both are different forms of fatalism. Instead, practice what I call applied hope: believe our world and the causes you care about can get better, and work to make them so.

—Amory Lovins

This is the intellectual puzzle of our time: what lies at the root of pervasive inaction, wishful thinking, and denial in the face of global climate change, a hazard with potentially catastrophic consequences for the continued habitation of the human species on planet Earth? In this essay, I trace my academic voyage from studying human perceptions of financial risk to the realization that the human response to climate change is a more fundamental and profound challenge. Climate change shares all the characteristics that make wise responding hard in other individual and societal problem settings, from insufficient retirement savings to the opioid epidemic and obesity, but more so. On this personal trajectory, I came to realize that different academic disciplines need to be recruited for two purposes: 1) to tell an accurate story about the motivations and processes by which environmental (and other) decisions get made by stakeholders that range from policy-makers in the public and private sector to the general public; and 2) to determine and implement effective and feasible ways of changing the physical, institutional, and social environment to help myopic decision-makers achieve long(er)-term objectives. Stops along this voyage will revisit the establishment of an interdisciplinary center that created a new area of research and will describe the rewards and challenges of leaving the comfort zone of one’s academic discipline and of actively translating and exporting academic insights for use in the proverbial “real world.”

Academic writing typically does not happen in the first person singular, but the invitation to bear witness on climate change as an academic and societal challenge suggests a personal as well as a professional account. I take this opportunity to reflect back on the journey that has brought me to this juncture of addressing the intellectual puzzle of our time described above: Why is it that the well-documented threats of global and potentially catastrophic climate change do not move national governments, corporations, or large segments of civil society to more fully consider mitigative or even protective action? Why is it or how is it that so many of us prefer to engage in the wishful thinking and denial of inconvenient facts that may well imperil the comfortable existence of future generations of the human species on planet Earth?

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