Optimism, obedience, and other motivations to respond to climate change

A conversation with a friend made it clear that our motivations to act on climate change differ. She acts from optimism: she changes her behavior, and talks to others about changing theirs, because she is optimistic that this will reduce greenhouse gas emissions a lot. She is looking for legislation that she and others can champion, hoping that within 5 years, the US will enact good legislation.

My joy comes not from optimism, but obedience. I believe climate change is important, so I want to live that understanding in my personal choices. I understand policy change to be more important than individual behavioral choices, so I study policy and advocate for better policies. I hear that we cannot agree even on the need for taxes for adequate road maintenance in today’s political environment, so I did the 40 days in the wilderness bit, reading social scientists for 3 years, and now focus on why we don’t listen, why the facts don’t seem to matter, eg, here. I am optimistic that there will be a tad less climate change if I am obedient, but I suppose that I would do the work even if there were little chance of this being true.

There are other motivations. Competition motivated dramatic energy reductions in some Kansas towns.

So does a desire to do what others are doing: when asked to find ways to reduce energy use because it saves money, saves the environment, is a good thing to do, or your neighbors are doing it, only the last gets good results. Six percent changed their behavior after a sign was posted in a gym asking people to turn off the shower while soaping up; this rises to half if there is an accomplice who turns off his, and 2/3 if there are two. Etc.

Actions to allay anxiety are often ineffective. Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions describes the Single Action Bias:

In response to uncertain and risky situations, humans have a tendency to focus and simplify their decision making. Individuals responding to a threat are likely to rely on one action, even when it provides only incremental protection or risk reduction and may not be the most effective option. People often take no further action, presumably because the first one succeeded in reducing their feeling of worry or vulnerability. This phenomenon is called the single action bias.

What motivates you? and others?

3 Responses to “Optimism, obedience, and other motivations to respond to climate change”

  1. Gretchen Reinhardt says:

    I’d like to think that I operate from obedience (I am sure I don’t feel especially optimistic that my actions will make much of a difference to the world my children inherit), but I’m still struggling to discern my own leading in this area. I think at this point I am attempting to better understand the nature of the discomfort that arises from living as I live, and find actions which reduce my level of discomfort. I’m looking for a way to live with integrity, to align my understanding with my actions. I’m looking for a way to avoid being part of the problem (haven’t found a way), and to instead be part of the solution (even less in reach).

  2. What motivates my actions?

    I aspire to be open to leadings and I aspire to let go of my attachment to the fruits of my labors. When I am centered, I recall that how I live each day is my responsibility, not whether my actions will make THE difference/ANY difference, concerning climate change. I would not call this optimism or pessimism. Sometimes I feel hopeful that we will create another way of being together; other times, I am not very hopeful. Then I do my small actions with fear and pain in my heart as I imagine a greatly diminished quality of living for the upcoming generations in future days.

    Greg Craven, a science teacher who has written the most helpful book I know on climate change, advocates for “Rosie-ism” after Rosie the Riveter, to roll up one’s sleeves and get busy with neither optimism or pessimism. He also suggests several potentially helpful tactics in influencing others. I highly recommend his book (as does Bill McKibben, General Anthony Zinni, and others). What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Gretchen and Bonnie, thanks for your answers. And I want to second Greg Craven’s What’s the Worst that Could Happen? He talks about the issues and how we talk about the issues.

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