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Why we don’t stop global warming

I’m not saying that we’re doomed, mind you. Just that there’s a reason why “we” (the residents of planet Earth) don’t voluntarily act to reduce the negative impact of our increasingly voluminous presence.

I’m going to assume from this point that you, the reader, agree there is sufficient evidence to conclude that first, the Earth’s climate is changing; second, that this is evidenced by rising average surface temperatures; and third, humans have a material (and likely determinant) relationship with these changes. If these premises conflict with your view, you can save yourself wasted time reading the rest.

Still with me? OK.

To explain why we collectively do close to nothing effective about our species’ global contributions to climate change, we have to take our focus away from behavioral dynamics of herds (nations, states, economic partners, etc.) and take a look at the behavior of a single human being.

For our exploration today, I asked my friend “Bob” to join me in a field study of one organism in order to extrapolate to an entire nation, and then to the world’s people everywhere. Bob felt a little intimidated, being asked to stand in for the whole 7 billion plus of us. I assured him that he would not be castigated for his views or hounded by the media for interviews. We proceeded.

“Bob, do you think that people can have a material impact on reducing our contributions toward global warming trends and climate change?” I asked

“Well, of course,” Bob replied. “It’s getting harder to find holdouts who think that the current warming trend across the planet is due to some cycle of climate that predates human proliferation. The correlation between growth of human industriousness and use of fossil fuels for large-scale activities with warming of the Earth’s climate is just too strong to ignore.

“Sure, volcanic activity might contribute some. Orbital wobbles over the millennia could be another. But the facts and logic all indicate that because humans engage in converting carbon-based molecules from one form to another, in order to extract energy for work, we are building a canopy of translucent plastic over our earthly gardens. We’re creating a chemical greenhouse.”

“Well, my next question, Bob, is…” I paused. “If most of us feel that is true, why don’t we immediately change our behavior collectively to have an instant and corrective impact on the negative climate trends? If we all reduced our energy uses, our travel, our waste and our need for polluting products, wouldn’t that go a long way to reverse the trend?”

Bob sighed and took a drag on his cigarette. He looked at me wearily, as if sorry for my naiveté.

“People don’t do anything until they have to,” he said. “Humans are subjectively very efficient; they don’t expend energy until it affects them in the time scale of their own lives. They put out less effort today, even if tomorrow will be worse because of it.

“And they hate to go first. It’s been safer for humans to allow someone else to take the risk of new behavior, watch to see if they got eaten or killed, and then decide whether or not to follow. It usually takes a significant portion, perhaps 30 per cent of a group to adopt a new behavior before the rest will come along.”

“I can see that’s good for the individual, perhaps,” I said, “if you take the evolutionary view of hundreds of thousands of years ago.”

“That’s the brain pan we have,” Bob replied. “People will sacrifice tomorrow’s comfort for today’s pleasure — as a norm, you understand. Some individuals can sacrifice today for tomorrow, but they are not the most frequent of the distributed character types. And even less likely is sacrificing today’s comfort for somebody else’s benefit tomorrow.”

“So that means they won’t change their wasteful behaviors in their own lifetime, unless it affects the quality of life for themselves or their offspring,” I said.

“Pretty much,” Bob said. “If there’s no familial or tribal affiliation motivating the person, there’s no reason to make the habit change. Even if the logic is irrefutable. Even if others may suffer, whom the head-hiding human ostrich chooses to ignore.

“So because we’re largely an individually self-centered species, we threaten our own genetic survival by ignoring the long-term destructive effects of satisfying our short-term desires.”

Turning Bob’s lens on myself, I am chagrined to find he is right. I think I’m a conscientious world citizen who wants to preserve the beauty and future stability of the spaceship I was born on.

But if to save this beautiful rock in the void, I am asked to quit turning on the mood lights for a date night at home with Cheri, my answer would be instantly “no.” Dimmed indirect lighting is part of the recipe for a passionate, eternal marriage, in my humble view. Being able to drive or fly to a vacation spot is something I’m not likely to forego either.

So weather is going to get wilder before it calms down. We’ll see if humans make the cut on this particular self-selection process.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net

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4 UserComments
Stan Sewitch 5:51pm May 30, 2014

Ah, the graph battle. Well in 650000 years this is the highest ave temp the globe has experienced. Not sure where Harold got his data. 97% of climate scientists support a significant contribution from human activities. But I told you not to waste time reading the article if you held opposing views. I did not expect to change anyone's mind.

Mike Coll 10:22am May 20, 2014

Dear Stan Sewitch: Once again you have written a great, insightful, and very human commentary. My associates and I always look forward to reading your work! Keep it up! Mike Coll

Dan Groszkruger 1:05pm May 19, 2014

Isn't it a little silly, not to mention arrogant, to assume that we can "cure" whatever is causing climate change? Explain to me how multiple ice ages occurred, well before and without any help from human activity, and you may get my attention. But, until you can explain how the climate "normally" operates, and support your theory about "abnormal" factors with verifiable scientific evidence, please don't presume to lecture us about what "ought to be done" about climate change.

Harold Faulkner 7:49am May 19, 2014

WHY THERE IS GLOBAL WARMING People in the USA, are being told by the U.S. government and media that global warming is man-made. If that is true, how can the government and media explain the high temperatures the earth has experienced in past years when there were far fewer people? Let us look back in the world's history: for example, between roughly 900AD and 1350AD the temperatures were much higher than now. And, back then there were fewer people, no cars, no electric utilities, and no factories, etc. So what caused the earth's heat? Could it be a natural occurrence? The temperature graph at the bottom of this article You should be ashamed of yourself. There is not enough space for me to write my article. Shame on you. Harold