Personal and Public Barriers in Responding to Climate Change

By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 1:28 AM GMT on March 14, 2013

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Personal and Public Barriers in Responding to Climate Change

I want to continue on the subject of barriers to the use of information about climate change. In last week’s entry, I wrote about barriers like engineering standards and permitting processes that have not evolved to the point that they are flexible enough to take a changing climate into account. I ended with language barriers and how the political and emotional responses to climate-change knowledge influence language. For example, perhaps it is impossible to talk to city politicians about adaptation to climate change but possible to talk about vulnerability of their seashore to the increasing storm surges of the past 20 years. There is an aspect to the language barriers that is purely political. This charging of language with political purpose happens in any contentious process where there are advocates of different points of view.

I want to leave those political barriers in the realm of hopeless irrationality and explore more general barriers. There has been an enormous amount of effort to communicate about the science of climate change and global warming. I have argued before that polling data suggest that as a community we have actually done quite well in this communication path. A large majority of Americans think that global warming is real and concerning. Recent polling data suggest that a growing number of people are alarmed about climate change (Six Americas in September 2012). Yet there remains the general perception that, as a whole, we are not doing anything. One response to this is to communicate more, to educate more, with the idea that in a participatory democracy such as ours, the ultimate solution comes from the public’s demanding a policy response.

This experience suggests that there must be barriers to the public response of this knowledge of climate change. Often in environmental problems, people identify cost and inconvenience as barriers – think about recycling. In some instances, we try to reduce these barriers through policy to offset the cost or to improve convenience. A couple of years ago, for example, there were many programs of reduced cost or free distribution of compact fluorescent light bulbs. These bulbs use less energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and helping slow climate change (EPA on compact fluorescents). This is a typical approach that focuses on personal behavior, using essentially marketing techniques. Such approaches can be effective, but generally in a piecemeal way (Meeting Environmental Challenges).

In 2009, a group of my students looked into more systematic ways to instill the use of climate-change knowledge in day-to-day life. Their particular focus was on sustainable communities. They did a lot of analysis of energy and water use, house design, and transportation and then developed guidelines. But one of the ideas that they had in that document was the use of community associations and civic organizations to both promote and provide incentives to take behavior normally associated with individuals and to extend that behavior to communities. There were also ideas to extend across communities through, for example, competitive marketing techniques. One goal of such a strategy is to help reduce the reluctance that individuals might have to taking action in the absence of their neighbors, their social network.

An important finding from this work on building sustainable communities is that knowledge, even in combination with a receptive attitude towards sustainability, is not a strong predictor of whether or not individuals will alter their behavior to take action. Perhaps one could conclude that there is just too much anchoring in our old behavior to change. I know that I will drive by the ATM that takes deposits 10 times, thinking that the branch office has to be open to make a deposit. Perhaps reluctance to act is a matter of cost and convenience; yet in polls of those people with the positive sustainability attitude, they’re willing to pay more and be inconvenienced. These real barriers, small and large, in total retard our response to climate change.

Returning to the beginning and to the idea that communicating and educating more completely will motivate action. Though necessary, this is not sufficient. What is obvious is that there is a convergence of items that motivate any individual to take action. This is formalized in a paper by Hines and others in 1987 entitled Analysis and Synthesis of Research on Responsible Environmental Behavior. In this work, they pose that, in addition to knowledge, there is a need for information about what to do with that knowledge and training on the skills of how to use that knowledge. They state specifically, “The erroneous assumption is often made that skills evolve naturally from knowledge.” These knowledge and skill bases then need to come together with personality factors, including attitude and perhaps situational factors that become motivators for action.

Though this work does not suggest that there is an easy formula for breaking down these barriers, it does suggest training on what to do with the knowledge and the skills on how to do it are as important as the knowledge itself. With an accompanying structure of practice, there is an increased probability that people will take action, which should then beget more action.

Figure 1: Model of Responsible Environmental Behavior – Adapted from Hines and others in 1987 entitled Analysis and Synthesis of Research on Responsible Environmental Behavior. An individual who expresses an intention to take action will be more likely to engage in the action than will an individual who expresses no such intention. However, it appears that intention to act is merely an artifact of a number of other factors acting in combination. Before an individual can intentionally act on a particular environmental problem, that individual must be cognizant of the existence of the problem; this is prerequisite to action. However, an individual must also possess knowledge of those courses of action that are available and will be most effective in a given situation.

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The link in post #13 contains out of date and/or erroneous information. Websites that use official, verifiable data and list their sources are generally more accurate.
Basic info on sea/land ice with sited sources can be found here.
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Another record ice day for the Antarctic. Wonder why they NSIDC doesn't show Antarctic ice levels. Hmmm.

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Koch promises to Do More to 'Persuade Politicians'

(last three paragraphs of the article are below)

Since the late eighties, Koch has been the premiere financier of groups dedicated to suppressing environmental science. Citizens for a Sound Economy (now known as Americans for Prosperity) unsuccessfully attempted to mobilize populist anger at regulations aimed at curbing acid rain and smog pollution. The company lobbied aggressively to cut environmental regulations around the time it was caught causing more than 300 oil spills in six states. More recently, Koch money has flowed to over fifty conservative nonprofits and media figures that have worked to suppress and discredit the science underpinning global warming. The tactics aren't pretty. Last year, one Koch-backed think tank ran a billboard comparing belief in global warming to support for Ted Kacynski, the Unabomber. Koch-backed groups have harassed climate scientists, financed a small army of climate denying politicians, and even sponsored a "moon bounce in the shape of a SWAT car for children",which symbolized the boogeyman of Environmental Protection Agency "Carbon Cops."

Why the obsession with global warming? The "freedom" Koch discusses seems to relate to the freedom to pollute. Koch's business empire, according to an estimate by Brad Johnson, emits several hundred million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The political suppression of climate science, and any reasonable response to the climate crisis, clearly benefits Koch Industries' bottom line - and such selfish lobbying at the expense of the common good is the very worst example of crony capitalism.

The company may soon gain an even larger audience. Earlier today, news reports revealed that Koch may purchase at least the newspaper division of the Tribune Co., which includes the Los Angeles Times.
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removed because I think I quoted the wrong comment, at any event I couldn't justify my comments later.
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Quoting airmet3:
As for the denialists on this blog, perhaps folks should try to be a bit less "in your face" in the hopes of scaring them off. Just have your facts handy and those truly on the fence will be converted. You can always report the user and let the mods take care of it.
Those of us who actively take on the denialists always give newbies a chance to demonstrate their intentions and are very helpful to those who come here to learn - and attentive to those who come here to contribute.

The big problem is that, as has been documented by investigative journalists, there are paid anti-AGW/CC commenters who are very skilled at disruption, planting uncertainty and doubt, linking to bad science, disproved science, pseudoscience, and outright lies. The quote and re-quote long posts with graphics to clutter up the forum and make it more difficult to navigate. There are also some obstinate posters who apparently do this on their own. Then they sometimes suck in sympathizers and further muddy the situation.

Some of us feel that, because of the large number of lurkers and readers here, it is important to not let the deniers win. Hopefully the mods, especially Skyepony and KeeperOfTheGate, will become more skilled at identifying disruptors and be able to control them a bit in the future. Another issue is the difficulty of "policing" the blog forum without quashing the spirited discussions that makes these forums a bit more enjoyable - a difficult task considering the seriousness of the subject.
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Upon reading your blog post a bit more carefully, Dr. Rood, it reminds me of my days as a 34-year-old "back to finish college" undergrad at U.C. Berkeley. My major was Conservation of Natural Resources, and it was the mid-1970's. These were the early days of the environmental movement, and many educated people we were expecting global food and natural resource problems to appear soon. I remember being in a discussion group where I insisted that nothing would be done about the problems we faced until we students left the cocoon of the city of Berkeley and it's progressive U.C. campus and went out into the real world to face comfortable middle-class citizens. I said that we would have to convince them that their comfortable lives would have to change if anything was to be done to avert the crisis.

Then, those fears of a near-term crises were squashed. The green revolution provided a new surge of food - particularly gains, and new sources of crude oil - that not under the control of OPEC - came on-line. The North Sea oil fields began major production in 1975 and first oil flowing through Alaska's pipeline from the huge North Slope Oil fields in 1977.

At this point, I began to believe that I would not see an energy or food crisis before the end of my life.

In 1998 I served as the dedicated local area network and desktop computing IT support person for the executives of Chevron's Corporate Planning and Quality groups at the Chevron Tower - the corporate headquarters in San Francisco. How I ended up there is another whole story.) A year later, in 1999, I discovered Jay Hanson's website,, which was active until 2003. There I learned about the dangers of of over-population and the approach of the peak of oil production on a global scale.

I began to worry again, but a few years ago discovered that AGW/CC was becoming an even greater immediate threat - and very much related to fossil fuel production and use. And here I am, living as an expatriate in the mountains of western Panama, and continuing to learn about AGW/CC and the very ominous near-term threat or Arctic warming, sea-ice melt and the possible disastrous tipping point of the release of methane from arctic clathrates and permafrost.

I could go on and on with this subject, but I will close by stating that Dr. Rood and his students are going through the same steps as we did in the 1970's to try to get the word out and spur people into action. However, this time I don't see any sign of salvation waiting in the wings. Unfortunately, the things that bailed us out - temporarily - in the 1970's lulled people into a false sense of security that capitalism-backed science and technology will save us again, but I don't see how that will happen.

My generation, although our motives were genuine, and our motivation was based on the best information and science available at the time, ended up like the boy who cried wolf. And now it even more difficult to convince many people of the crises we face.

And that's one of the reasons I feel so strongly about being aggressive in the fighting denialists and disruptors here at the WU/CC blog and discussion forum.

Good luck, Dr. Rood. I admire you and your students, and wish there was more I could do to support and assist you all in your fight against the corporate, political and societal barriers you face.

David van Harn
Boquete, Chiriqui, Panama
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Quoting bappit:
This discussion [referring to Dr. Rood's blog post] seems kind of academic.

China has rapidly passed the U.S. as the largest CO2 producing country.

The jobs being shipped overseas from the U.S. will continue to limit U.S. CO2 production. The aging of the U.S. population will act to reduce U.S. per capita CO2 production as well.

Unfortunately, the factors causing climate change are not just a U.S. problem, but a worldwide problem.

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Quoting bappit:
This discussion [referring to Dr. Rood's blog post] seems kind of academic.

China has rapidly passed the U.S. as the largest CO2 producing country.

The jobs being shipped overseas from the U.S. will continue to limit U.S. CO2 production. The aging of the U.S. population will act to reduce U.S. per capita CO2 production as well.

I'm not sure the aging population will reduce emission rates per capita. Our birth rate is still higher than our mortality rate. More people = more energy demand. Even with the sharp increases in mortality rates coming, it is entirely possible the effects will be lessened by advances in medical technology and urbanization as well. So I wouldn't say it's a given. :)
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Dr. Rood. Thanks. Very thought provoking post, as always.

I would guess that we in the U.S. are not that far from the next step towards a more in depth "Intention to Act". As you have mentioned in previous posts, you are seeing more younger folks take in interest in environmental studies. Those are the ones that will build a career out of action.

As for us a generation or two ahead, I do see more of the traits leading up to the action phase. Here in Houston, we have recycling opportunities everywhere and they are very convenient. I am noticing more folks taking their own reusable bags to the grocery store. I do see more, though nowhere near enough, electric and hybrid cars on the road. At this generation, folks are doing what they can but career and family occupy their thoughts, their time and their energy. Heck, I bet even the folks at Fox News recycle. I hope these traits become habits which get passed down to that next generation.

I don't know what happens beyond my area, but I look at places like China, India and Russia and shake my head and wonder if our efforts are worth it. Perhaps I am in that phase of adaption to the change and trust the generation behind will take that next big step.

As for the denialists on this blog, perhaps folks should try to be a bit less "in your face" in the hopes of scaring them off. Just have your facts handy and those truly on the fence will be converted. You can always report the user and let the mods take care of it.

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This discussion [referring to Dr. Rood's blog post] seems kind of academic.

China has rapidly passed the U.S. as the largest CO2 producing country.

The jobs being shipped overseas from the U.S. will continue to limit U.S. CO2 production. The aging of the U.S. population will act to reduce U.S. per capita CO2 production as well.
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Thanks Dr. Rood.

Also carried over from the previous blog:

Quoting pcola57:

Very interesting read etxwx,
Making CEO's think about lost and stagnant assests in the ground is quite a novel idea.
All this is to go hand in hand with a carbon reduction world..
Now we need gov. regulations with teeth and a backbone to enforce it..

Yup, it will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the financial sector - especially with the insurance companies reevaluating their business models. I've often thought real movement in policy won't happen until climate change starts costing the "important" people serious money.

But then I run across stories like this and I wonder if the profit motive will enhance or impede action.

Investors Embrace Climate Change, Chase Hotter Profits
By Matthew Campbell & Chris V. Nicholson - Mar 7, 2013

Excerpt: (Bloomberg) Investing in climate change used to mean financing the fight against global warming. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other firms took stakes in wind farms and tidal-energy projects, and set up carbon-trading desks.

Then, as efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions faltered, the appeal of clean tech dimmed: Venture capital and private- equity investments fell 34 percent last year, to $5.8 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Now the smart money is taking another approach: Working under the assumption that climate change is inevitable, Wall Street firms are investing in businesses that will profit as the planet gets hotter.

Continues here.

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Re-posted from tail-end of last blog discussion:

Is this what drove iceagecoming from our midst??

Quoting Environmental Research Letters, Vol 8, Number 1: [12 March 2013]
Authors: Jennifer A Francis and 3 Chinese researchers
(Link - you can download entire paper)
Cold winter extremes in northern continents linked to Arctic sea ice loss:

The satellite record since 1979 shows downward trends in Arctic sea ice extent in all months, which are smallest in winter and largest in September. Previous studies have linked changes in winter atmospheric circulation, anomalously cold extremes and large snowfalls in mid-latitudes to rapid decline of Arctic sea ice in the preceding autumn. Using observational analyses, we show that the winter atmospheric circulation change and cold extremes are also associated with winter sea ice reduction through an apparently distinct mechanism from those related to autumn sea ice loss. Associated with winter sea ice reduction, a high-pressure anomaly prevails over the subarctic, which in part results from fewer cyclones owing to a weakened gradient in sea surface temperature and lower baroclinicity over sparse sea ice. The results suggest that the winter atmospheric circulation at high northern latitudes associated with Arctic sea ice loss, especially in the winter, favors the occurrence of cold winter extremes at middle latitudes of the northern continents.

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Thanks, Dr. Rood. I will read your post more carefully at my leisure and see if it can help deal us formulate a plan to reduce the disruptions here perpetrated by climate denialists and their allies.

I feel that this could be a better and more productive place if we could reduce the chaos and distractions that seem to dominate it on so many days. As you know, some of us feel that it is important to take on the deniers and disruptors so that lurkers and readers are not swayed by their anti-AGW/CC, anti-science agenda.

This is a science blog and AGW/CC discussion forum, and quite frankly, I feel that those who are obviously here to distract, deny and disrupt rather than participate in the discussion should be banned - there would still be lively and cogent discussions without their presence.

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Dr. Rood, the model proposed by Hines, et al, is a very structural functionalist approach to Responsible Environmental Behavior. Unfortunately, I think we have stepped beyond that rationale for responsible behavior. The false debate that has erupted over whether we are even living in a warming world or not has changed that ideological basis. We are now in more of a conflict theory based method of social change. The proletariat is those who are backing the ideas of environmental responsibility, while the bourgeosie are the massive energy companies and their political powers that own the means of production.

Even the simple fact that the green movement has been demonized by not only the neoconservative movement but also by labeling and misinformation tactics makes the ability to act environmentally responsibly an even harder action. I don't know exactly how social change will be enacted in this case, and it may be too late for that change. I'm not sure. I do know that Hine's approach seems rather idealistic or at the very least only relevant to individual choice, and at this point, we need more than that.
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About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.