Field of Science

The Human Dimension of Climate Change

A New York Times Magazine article raises an issue I've been thinking a lot about lately.

If you are, as I am, a scientist concerned about global climate change, you may find yourself asking, "What kind of research could I be doing to best contribute to a solution?"

According to some, it may not be to study the climate itself. We may not know enough to predict exactly what will happen when, but we do know that drastic changes are coming whose magnitude will be determined by the actions we take now. It may not even be to study technologies such as alternative energy or policies such as cap-and-trade that can help combat global warming. Because while these policies and technologies are surely necessary, global warming is a problem created by human behavior, and our behavior will need to change if we are to make the individual and group decisions necessary to mitigate it, including the implementation of these policies and technologies. It may therefore be that the most important scientific questions in the fight against global warming are questions about humans, human behavior, and what we can do to change it.

The climate change puzzle presents a number of interesting questions about human behavior. The global environment is the ultimate "commons" game: We have a shared resource, and we can individually decide how much effort to put into preserving it. Only, we don't see the fruit of our individual efforts directly; only the sum total of everyone's efforts determines how well the resource is preserved. In the case of climate change, there are further complications: the effects of our actions now may not be seen for another fifty years, and some argue that the entire problem was fabricated by misguided scientists. Combining these factors, it is not hard to understand why many people feel little incentive to take action against global warming.

The article focuses on Columbia's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, which performs experiments on people's decision-making processes. One finding jumped out at me as interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive: we tend to make better decisions as groups rather than as individuals. For example, one researcher studied decisions made by farmers in Southern Uganda as they listened to rainy-season radio broadcasts. If they listened to it in groups, they would typically discuss it afterwards and come to consensus on the best planting strategy in response to the weather. They ended up more satisfied with their yields than other farmers who listened to the broadcasts individually.

Our response to climate change will obviously involve a great variety of individual and group decisions, but it may be that if we can force more of the critical decisions to be made in group settings, where participants have not made up their minds beforehand (research shows this is crucial) we may find ourselves more able to put aside the parts of our human nature that would impede progress, and make the decisions that are in all of our best interests.


  1. Might I suggest you study space exploration and terraforming in an effort to do an end-run around the tragedy of the commons. Or perhaps the social sciences where you can develop a new political theory which manages a sustainable means that justify the ends (China's Cultural Revolution would be a good jumping off point). Otherwise, good post.

    But in all seriousness, I really don't see success in the field of changing our behavior. There are simply too many, diverse and compelling drivers to contend with. It's daunting to even think about. That leaves technology (both in changing how we do business and in potentially changing what we are [i.e. evolving beyond these crude life forms]) and Mother Nature doing her thing and reducing our numbers against our will and forcing the survivors to change so as to avoid our mistakes.

  2. I agree that changing people's basic consumer habits may be impossible (though it can't hurt to try!)

    But the article points out that even more plausible steps like passing cap-and-trade legislation (likely to happen this year) or converting to more renewable energy requires changing the way people think about this subject, and possibly also changing their group decision-making processes.


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