Shifting to sustainability will involve more than changing laws. Inevitably, it will involve changing behavior: the way people get around, where they live, what they eat, and so on. I was semi-obsessed with this topic for a while -- see here, here, and here, for example -- and I still think it gets far too little attention from climate wonks and activists.
At it happens, Stanford University has a whole Persuasive Tech Lab devoted to the subject of behavior change (and the ways technology changes behavior). The team there has put together a short, sweet slideshow on the "Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change." No matter what your job or purpose, on some level I bet it involves trying to get people to change their behavior. So almost everyone can learn from this. Check it out:
In particular, those involved with climate campaigning should heed Nos. 4 and 7. Information does not, in and of itself, prompt people to change their behavior. And people are much more likely to be motivated to do new things than to stop doing old things.
So how can climate hawks motivate people to adopt new behaviors?
From a behavioral perspective, the hardest thing about adapting to the slow process of climate change is creating a sense of urgency. After a close call with Hurricane Irene a couple years back, and a horrible clash with Hurricane Sandy this past fall, New York is beginning to accept the fact that when it comes to weather patterns along its coasts, there's a terrifying new normal.
Late last week, just two months after Sandy, a state commission released a massive, 200-plus page blueprint on ways to develop resilience in the face of tomorrow's environment [PDF]. The NYS 2100 Commission — one of several formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo following Sandy -- evaluated the state's critical infrastructure systems and recommended a gradient of goals, from broad to specific, to reduce their vulnerability.
"There is no doubt that building resilience will require investment, but it will also reduce the economic damage and costs of responding to future storms and events, while improving the everyday operations of our critical systems," write commission co-chairs Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation and Felix Rohatyn of Lazard in a foreword.
While the commission offered statewide suggestions, its emphasis fell naturally on the New York City metro area -- especially coastal parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island -- where Sandy hit hardest.
The difficulties in debunking blatant anti-reality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it’s wrong and how things really are.
This is coupled with how sticky bunk can be. Once uttered, it’s out there, bootstrapping its own reality, getting repeated by the usual suspects.
The good news is, Kevin C. from Skeptical Science has created a nice, short video showing just why this claim is such a whopper.
I like this: clear, to the point, and easy to understand. The bottom line is that temperatures continue to rise, and that human-caused greenhouse gas forcing of the climate has not even slowed, let alone stopped.
Watching the collapse of the effort to create a cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions in 2009-10 was profoundly depressing. Reading Theda Skocpol’s insightful history [PDF] isn't much more fun -- but it’s certainly useful, in a Santayana kind of way. Since this is a mistake we can’t afford to repeat (the planet is running out of spare presidential terms and congressional sessions), Skocpol performs a real service by helping figure out what went wrong.
The first thing to be said, I think, is that this behind-the-scenes route was worth a try. Given the stakes, you would think elite players, especially in the business community, would have been willing to make the relatively small and painless changes the cap-and-trade law envisioned. Such inside-the-Beltway lobbying is how most environmental change has come, at least since the decline of the '70s-era movement that really powered the most important legislation.
But this was too big -- there was too much money at stake. The climate issue, it turned out, didn't fundamentally resemble acid rain after all. The fossil fuel companies, which had spent a lot of money helping erect the hard-right political edifice then near its height in D.C., saw that they didn't have to give away anything. They could block even this small change for now, and continue to put away truly record profits.
I once saw a turkey carcass in a New York City garbage can. It did not look good. I said to myself, I’m never eating meat again. A few hours later, I ate meat.
If you have ever driven between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the 5, you may have seen a disgusting cattle ranch on the east side of the road. It is like an insect swarm of cows. I have driven by this ranch many times, and sworn I would never again eat meat. And a few hours later, I eat meat.
I really like meat. I like steak. I like chicken. I like pork a great deal. If I had to pick a favorite meat, I’d pick lamb.
I never thought I would bother trying to give up meat. But now that I’ve been writing for Grist for about six months, it’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that meat is not just bad for animals -- it’s bad for the planet.
In case you don’t know why, here are several reasons: Livestock use about 30 percent of the world’s arable land. Livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gases. Raising livestock uses up as much as five times the amount of water it takes to raise a similar amount, nutritionally, of plant-based food.
So I have decided to go six weeks without eating meat.
My husband and I are extremely lucky to live in a walkable neighborhood with necessities nearby -- supermarket, library, bilingual preschool, and I can bike/bus to work. My issue is that now that we have a baby, all the other moms drive their kids all over the place, shopping and taking cute little day trips. I would prefer to drive only in emergencies, but our entertainment options near home are severely limited. Is it better to leave a smaller carbon footprint and make a moral statement my son might be proud of one day, or to have additional experiences with him/relationships with kids and moms across town that I will treasure until we all go up in flames?
New Mom Austin, Texas
P.S.: My husband doesn't like me to take our baby on the bus, even to visit friends who live near the bus line. He thinks buses are dirty, that my time is too valuable, and that it makes us look poor.
A. Dear New Mom,
As you’ve no doubt learned in the last few months, new parenthood involves a dizzying series of choices. Cloth diapers or disposable? Breast or bottle? Work or stay at home? Co-sleep or crib? Now it seems we have another item to add to the checklist: moral statement or treasured memories? I’m pretty sure you can have both.
You have gotten accustomed to walking places. This is great! You and your husband are part of a generation of young families who realize that cities can be vibrant, exciting, diverse, healthy, occasionally exhausting places to live. You, New Mom, are on the cutting edge! So cut yourself a break.
I will tell you a secret about babies and small children: As long as you are with them, they do not much care where they are. They think it’s just grand watching ants in sidewalk cracks, or laughing at the funny faces you make, or building forts out of sofa cushions. Let the other mothers take their children to Sir Tots a Lot and Princess Bouncy House and private lessons on the far side of town where they teach infants signs for all the elements in the periodic table. You and your son will create plenty of treasured memories without a car. Believe me, you will see and appreciate things those other moms never do.
That said, I do want you to be careful not to get isolated.
Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heat wave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway -- this is not just within the normal variation of things."
Flannery is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his 2005 book The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; down under, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).
Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."
That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2 degrees F (39 degrees C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures has outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a 3-to-1 ratio over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
Future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), with climate change on course to turn the country into a hotter, drier, and more disaster-prone place.
The National Climate Assessment, released in draft form on Friday, provided the fullest picture to date of the real-time effects of climate change on U.S. life, and the most likely consequences for the future.
The 1,000-page report, the work of the more than 300 government scientists and outside experts, was unequivocal on the human causes of climate change, and on the links between climate change and extreme weather.
"Climate change is already affecting the American people," the draft report said. "Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense including heat waves, heavy downpours and in some regions floods and drought. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting."
The report, which is not due for adoption until 2014, was produced to guide federal, state, and city governments in America in making long-term plans.
By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.
Let's just accept it: America's current political and economic systems are incapable of responding adequately to climate change. As things stand, reducing carbon emissions -- or more broadly, shifting to sustainability -- is a kind of add-on, a second-tier consideration, bolted onto systems and institutions that were built for other purposes.
Specifically, U.S. domestic and foreign policy have long been designed around the Cold War, ramping up trade abroad, expanding up and out and into the suburban hinterlands at home, out-growing and out-sprawling the Soviet Union. That was the north star for U.S. policy for decades.
With the end of the Cold War, that north star vanished, and the U.S. has been adrift ever since. No grand strategy has replaced the Cold War strategy, only a kind of autopilot effort to keep the status quo limping along through rising debt, housing and financial bubbles, tax cuts, and deficit spending. It seemed for a while after 9/11 that taming the Middle East (hubris intended) would align U.S. strategy, but those efforts have been a spectacular failure.
Reducing the carbon emissions of our Cold War industrial system can have only marginal effects; that system is built on cheap fossil fuels. It is built to emit carbon. Attaching a carbon tax to that beast is like draining blood from your horse in hopes that a new horse will result.
Adequately responding to climate change is only possible within a larger industrial, economic, civic, and political system that is designed around sustainability. Sustainability must be the point of the system. Within such a context, efforts to build a better life and achieve prosperity would serve sustainability rather than work against it. Sustainability would be the source of its vitality, not an add-on, slowing it down and making it more expensive like a scrubber on a coal plant.
So what would a new U.S. grand strategy built around sustainability look like? That's the question tackled by "A New U.S. Grand Strategy," a piece in Foreign Policy by Patrick Doherty, director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
It's a hugely ambitious and wide-ranging piece, far too much to even summarize adequately here. Bookmark it. Instapaper it. Pinterest it to your iCloud, or whatever kids do these days. But let's take a quick look.
A few months ago, an Austin writer took to the pages of the New York Times to fret about the fate of his city. Austin, it seems, is getting too big for its famously weird britches. Not too long ago, an older gentleman fond of wearing high heels and a thong in public ran for mayor three times, Richard Parker wrote. Now, Austin has a Grand Prix racing track, restaurants teeming with celebrities, and yuppies crowding out families.
“[I]n the wake of the Armstrong debacle, it’s hard not to think that pride does, indeed, go before the fall,” Parker wrote, referring to longtime resident Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year amid growing allegations that he cheated. “Hopefully, Austin can handle success without letting it go to its head; after all, that is precisely what destroyed the hometown hero.”
Parker painted a lovely, nostalgic portrait that simultaneously made me want to preserve Willie Nelson’s old stomping grounds and move there myself, furthering the problem. And indeed, to use Parker’s analogy, Austin is growing like it’s on steroids. The city’s population increased a whopping 51.1 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Is it possible for a city to grow quickly and retain its character? Can they keep Austin Austin? Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability director, hopes so.
A Texas native, Athens grew up going to Sierra Club protests and outings with her father, who was chair of the San Antonio chapter. She learned the necessity of community organizing and why it’s important to get out in nature. “If you’re never out engaging with it, you never understand what you’re in danger of losing,” she says.
While she was well-trained in the old green tactics of protesting and planting trees in front of bulldozers, she saw a chance to effect change in a new way. “The green building movement became an opportunity to leverage something that was going to happen already in a better direction,” she says. She helped craft Austin’s first green building program in the early '90s before spending 10 years turning Seattle into a LEED case study. In 2010, she returned to Austin.
I talked to Athens several times over the phone for Knope and change, our series on the women working hard to green our cities. Here’s an edited version of our conversations:
Q.With SXSW's ongoing success and Austin’s perennial national reputation as a contender for coolest city, is Austin a victim of its own success? Is it possible to stay weird while getting big?
A. I think that’s the big conundrum. We’re experiencing very significant growth and we will be into the foreseeable future. That’s partly because we do have a very high quality of life here and a pretty good hip factor. We have a lot of young people who want to move here. We have a lot of jobs. With all that, it’s good for the economy, but we have to manage that increase in growth and population. That’s where we are going to be butting up against issues related to mobility, transportation, air quality, water. We’re trying to do a good job of balancing economic development and [population] growth with environmental protection and measures for quality of life. But there’s a long way to go. We just adopted a comprehensive plan that uses sustainability as its core principle, [and] it’s a pretty significant guiding document, [but] there are cranes all over town. We’re really trying to focus on steering that new development in the right direction and figuring out how we’re going to maintain the quality of life we have now with such a big increase in our population.
Q.How have you been able to steer development and population growth?