Featured in the Garrison Institute Newsletter Autumn 2010
In March 2010 the Garrison Institute held a meeting that without hyperbole can be said to have broken new ground and opened a new channel in the fight against climate change. The inaugural “Climate, Mind and Behavior” (CMB) symposium convened environmental thought and organizational leaders, together with behavioral and social scientists, and asked them to view climate change and the science surrounding it in a new way — as a function of human behaviors and mindsets which are susceptible to positive shifts. Behavioral approaches are an enormously exciting and productive new vein of thought and action on climate change, and the CMB project is unique in gathering climate leaders and behavioral experts to mine it together in a concerted way. Generously supported by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, Deutsche Bank Climate Change Research Foundation, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Shell International and the Surdna Foundation, CMB has struck a nerve with climate leaders and the media, and could have far-reaching implications for the climate movement.
Paul Hawken, activist and author of such books as Blessed Unrest, is a steering committee member for the CMB project and participated in the symposium, of which he said, “I do believe it may have been an historic meeting. Not in real time necessarily, but in the way it will cascade out into the world over the coming months and years. And then one can look back to the source,and it will [have been] this meeting.”
The goal of the CMB project is to integrate recent findings from the behavioral and social sciences, evolutionary theory and psychology about what drives human behavior, with new thinking about climate solutions. To fight climate change, we know we need to make some important decisions as a society. We must find ways to mobilize big, collective strategies for regulation, legislation and large-scale investment. That will take time and resources. But meanwhile, we also need to make important decisions as individuals. We can make crucial progress on reducing our own carbon footprints voluntarily, by making personal behavioral changes that require no legislation and little or no investment, just some conscious personal choices adopted by large numbers of people, which add up and make a big difference in aggregate.
How big a difference? In the run-up to the CMB symposium, Garrison Institute’s CMB project and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) worked together to quantify it. CMB proposed the concept of a behavioral “wedge,” or a gigaton (one billion tons) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction derived from simple, voluntary, no-cost, low-cost or cost-saving behavioral shifts adopted on a large scale. Examples include turning off lights when leaving a room, keeping tires properly inflated, eating more chicken and less red meat, etc. NRDC conducted quantitative research on how much atmospheric carbon such choices could eliminate, and CMB steering committee members conducted peer review. We found that a gigaton of GHG savings through such small behavioral shifts was indeed possible if a large enough number of people embraced them, and the findings were released at the CMB symposium. But the operative question remains: what are the best strategies for getting large numbers of people to embrace proclimate behavioral changes?
This is the question the Climate, Mind and Behavior project has set out to answer. The stakes are higher even than a gigaton of GHG savings from
the behavioral “wedge,” because getting large numbers of us personally committed to small pro-climate choices in our own lives is likely to help achieve and optimize the bigger collective choices we have to make. To hold global warming to acceptable levels, we will need at least fifteen more gigatons of savings by mid-century, which will come from such large-scale interventions as new climate and energy legislation, new building codes and massive new investment in renewable power and technological innovation. These interventions will be significantly more effective if they are designed to work in alignment with our behavioral wiring. We’re also more likely to demand and implement these actions as a society if more of us choose to make analogous pro-climate shifts in our own lives.
To that end, the Climate, Mind and Behavior project began work in 2008 by surveying current behavioral and social sciences and climate change and how they interrelate. Dr. John Gowdy, behavioral economist and Rittenhouse Teaching Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences in the economics department of Rensselaer PolytechnicInstitute, conducted a baseline study on the subject entitled “BehavioralEconomics, Neuroeconomics, and Climate Change Policy” (posted at www. garrisoninstitute.org/ecology-reports). CMB recruited a steering committee of distinguished researchers and climate change leaders (also listed on our website) chaired by Dr. Gowdy and facilitated by Dr. Rebecca Henderson of the Harvard Business School. The committee spent over a year planning and organizing the symposium.
March 10-12, 72 participants converged on the Institute for the inaugural CMB meeting. All are prominent in their respective fields — environmental leaders, activists, prominent neuro-,behavioral and complexity economists, social scientists, investment leaders, communications experts and others. They came to us from academia (for example the Yale Climate Center, the New York Academy of Sciences, Columbia University’s Climate Center and Columbia’s Center for Research in Environmental Decisions), civil society (such as the Urban Land Institute, the US Green Building Council, NRDC and the New Economy Network), industry (such as Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors) and government (such as ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability, the
White House Office of Science and Technology and the White House Council on Environmental Quality).
Their exchanges were intense, wide ranging, fascinating and productive, bringing widely diverse perspectives to bear on the problem of creating proclimate behavioral shifts. Here is a short description of a few of the threads cutting across the symposium’s discussions:
Some participants gave authoritative assessments of the inexorability of the climate dilemma we face. For example, Dr. George Woodwell, founder of the Woods Hole Research Center, presented the current state of the climate as a kind of first-hand account, drawn from his own lifetime of work on the greenhouse effect, population growth and other crucial fields in ecology and biology. He conveyed the imperative to change our trajectory, and also his personal conviction that changing it remains possible.
Jack Jacometti, outgoing Vice President of Future Fuels & CO² at Shell International Petroleum Company, expressed similar views from his vantage point in the energy industry. Resource constraints, climate change and other dangerous factors conspiring to form what UK Chief Scientist John Beddington calls “a perfect storm” are clearly showing us that “business as usual” can’t continue. Even the most aggressive scenarios for economic and regulatory retooling can’t hold CO² emissions even to 450ppm, unless they are combined with fundamental lifestyle changes embraced on a wide scale.
This points to a need not only for more effective technological innovation and policy development and implementation — though these are crucial — but also for a new game-changing narrative, a breakthrough in leadership and organizational effectiveness, a social networking/multi-media revolution that can usher in a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, which depends on a shift in mindset.
Recent research in economics is pointing in the same direction — away from the outmoded models that don’t fully reflect what we’ve learned about human nature but nonetheless inform our economic choices and have steered us into runaway climate change, and toward new, fundamentally different, even revolutionary, models of economics and decision making that can help us mitigate climate change.
Economist Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origin of Wealth and a senior consultant to McKinsey & Co., pointed out the pitfalls of the old neoclassical model of economics. It posits that narrowly defined and homogenous “rational actors” minimize costs and maximize consumption, seeking supply/demand equilibrium within a closed system, and excluding environmental effects as mere “externalities.” But that model is static and linear, and there is more to human behavior than the mechanistic suppositions of the “rational actor.” New economic thinking, such as behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, takes into account complexity, dynamism and heterogeneity and envisions the possibility of systems change. It aptly models how our assumptions and behavior might shift, and how the economy could evolve to mitigate and adapt to climate change and support technological and market innovation, and new employment and growth, with climate protections built in rather than defined out.
Behavioral economist and CMB project chairman Dr. John Gowdy discussed new economics research and possible applications to policy. Neoclassical “rational actors” respond primarily to price signals, but new economic models suggest other social signals and policy levers that might succeed in catalyzing large-scale behavioral and societal changes. Like Jacometti and Beinhocker, Gowdy’s perspective looks away from the current economic paradigm to transformative, systemic change based on new models and mindsets. Just as the industrial revolution raised production by an order of magnitude, he said, keeping climate change at acceptable levels will require a new revolution capable of shifting environmental impacts by an order of magnitude.
Other experts in brain science and social sciences offered some insight into where that sort of transformative change comes from: our own minds. Dr. Dan Siegel, noted UCLA psychologist and author of the recent book Mindsight, gave a masterfully compressed overview (excerpted on page 9) of brain physiology as it relates to human behavior. He described our neural “me maps,” which evolved for self-preservation and our “we maps,” which reside in a different part of the brain and are equally important to our evolution, and which define how we relate to others. How we respond to climate change depends in part on which part of the brain gets stimulated and in which “map” the stimulus is situated. The threat of climate change as typically presented triggers a self-preserving cortical fight/flight/fear response, resulting in anxious denial and inaction. But appealing to “we-maps” of relatedness to our communities, and ultimately to the environment at large, involves a different physiological part of the brain, and triggers the opposite response — engagement and action.
Dr. Sabine Marx of Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Decisions (CRED) is a social scientist who studies decision making about resource use and the environment, including what it would mean in practical terms to appeal to “we maps” with respect to climate change. Our environmental decisions aren’t always rational, especially when we make them as atomized individuals; for example most people buy flood insurance only after a flood occurs. But research shows the more deeply people feel group affiliation and the more strongly they identify with their community, the harder they will work for social goals and the more likely they are to take concerted, effective action on big issues like climate change.
Messaging and narrative are critically important: overuse of the self-protective affective response (e.g., red and orange security alerts in the wake of 9/11) can lead to numbing and “apocalypse fatigue.” But a balance of rational information, effective narrative and an affective appeal to affiliation (e.g. “we aren’t alone and our contributions add up; we can help the people we know in our community and be part of an effective global response to climate change”) can empower people to act individually and collectively.
So can contemplation, said Paul Hawken, who gave a daunting assessment of the planet’s 16 terawatt energy consumption patterns, and Americans’ especially voracious consumption, vs. the hard-to-imagine transformative change that will have to come in the next 25 years as fossil fuel production declines from peak and global population increases by 2 billion. In the face of this, Hawken invokes the contemplative work of creating deep intention and articulating a positive vision of what is possible. In contemplation, we open ourselves to reality and work with subjective perception and intention, accepting that intention and not reality is what we can control.
But for social change activists, this is not limiting, but liberating. Contemplative practice also shows us the ways in which the mind creates its own reality. It focuses us on relatedness and “we maps” as opposed to self-preservation and isolation. It offers a powerful methodology for forming deep intentions and new visions of possibility which are the necessary precursors of transformative social change.
It is significant that as a group, the symposium embraced the relevance of contemplation to climate work. Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation led the plenary group through several contemplative exercises. Many participants — business leaders and research scientists, environmental leaders and media experts — expressed their appreciation for these sessions and asked for more.
At the same time, they also grappled with the wide gap between the transformative changes they are contemplating vs. current realities and mindsets. For example, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change and Dr. Jon Krosnick of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment presented and critiqued recent mainstream opinion polls on climate change, which seem to indicate growing public disengagement and denial. Dr. Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed, offered a historically informed critique of our current politics and consumerism, and made a plaintive appeal for reclaiming America’s “wemap” tradition of “civic virtue,” a tradition from which we have migrated far.
But at the same time, the symposium heard substantial evidence of emerging models and attitudes that are already beginning to have a significant impact on climate change, and may be harbingers of bigger changes to come. David Gershon of the Empowerment Institute, author of Social Change 2.0, presented his work using behavioral principles to create successful neighborhood-level social networks to reduce climate impacts. Veteran environmental advocate Dr. Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and founder of the New Economy Network, described an emerging movement to reorganize our current unsustainable economics around social and environmental needs.
In addition to exchanging ideas and presenting current work, the mission of the CMB symposium was to conceive new ideas and initiate new work on climate change informed by behavioral science. Plenary discussions were punctuated by breakout working groups on Public Policy, Collaborative Public Engagement, Buildings and Communities, Investment, Communications, New Economics and Indicators of Well-Being. Each was tasked with applying the insights discussed at the symposium in practical ways, coming up with new, concrete action steps and recruiting partners from among the participants to carry them forward.
As a result, exciting new collaborations were conceived and launched at the symposium, and continue to evolve today. For example, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and the Empowerment Institute conceived a new project using social networking to green cities. Investors and foundations formed a working group on raising capital for promoting clean energy and transforming climate change. Several groups are drawing on behavioral and social science research to articulate detailed visions for the future economy and “inner/outer climate change.”
In the weeks after the symposium, two important follow-on events were held at the Institute, both of which sparked further active collaborations, and served to expand CMB’s reach and deepen its focus.
On May 8-10 climate activists met here for a retreat on Catalyzing the Clean Energy Economy (CCEE), conceived at the symposium and led by Billy Parish, co-founder of Clean Energy Action, and facilitated by Van Jones, cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change and Green For All. Participants addressed the underutilization of energy efficiency programs, and explored behavioral strategies for accelerating the growth of the green economy. Parish, whose leadership of CCEE is ongoing, describes the program as “optimiz[ing] our work on a local level through new research on neuroscience, behavioral economics, community-wide change and best practices from leading local practitioners.”
Two weeks later, Climate, Buildings and Behavior (CBB), a program of the CMB project, held its second annual retreat for real estate professionals working to reduce the building sector’s climate impacts (buildings account for 42% of US GHG emissions). Led by Urban Land Institute Senior Fellow John McIlwaine, it brought together 60 leaders from the for-profit and not-for-profit real estate sectors to explore ways of encouraging pro-climate behavior among building managers and occupants On that front, CMB has provided some insight, namely that encouraging pro-climate behavior in buildings is most likely to succeed using a social vs. a “rational actor” approach, appealing to the “we map” rather than the “me map.”
The CMB project also has a public education mission. Media and communications experts were among the participants at the CMB symposium and its ideas were widely covered by traditional and new media, including Time magazine, Scientific American, Mother Jones, USA Today, The New York Times’ DotEarth blog, GreenBiz.com, theenergycollective. com, thedailygreen.com and others. Traffic to our website spiked as a result (current CMB and related coverage is posted on the news page of www.garrisoninstitute.org). Productive dialogue with journalists and bloggers on behavior and climate change continues, and there is reason to believe we’re breaking through. In June a New York Magazine story on how the Gulf oil spill impacts the environmental movement interviewed many of our CMB symposium participants, cited the “behavioral wedge” and told readers that “neuroscience and behavioral-economics research suggest that changing people’s individual behavior may be the best way to grow a movement.”
Indeed, CMB is seeding a movement as its network and collaborative activities grow, and the Institute continues to nurture that growth. We have launched a CMB online information hub to help network members find and share relevant research and connect it to practical applications. We also generate a monthly CMB email blast, which has become a widely read source of current information on behavioral approaches to reducing climate change, with links to relevant research and press articles (anyone can sign up for these CMB updates on www.garrisoninstitute.org/email). We are planning new CMB activities, including the second annual Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium for April 2011, the third annual Climate, Buildings and Behavior retreat for May 2011 and a Climate, Cities and Behavior program, a new CMB initiative to apply the insights of behavioral sciences to urban climate reduction strategies. We are also working to connect network members’ ideas and projects to institutional partners in the US and abroad that can help implement them on a larger scale.
The Climate, Mind and Behavior project continues to deepen the Garrison Institute’s work with the environmental community, academics, policy experts, funders and new and traditional media. It is opening new pathways to greater visibility and more effective thought leadership for us, even while it explores new pathways to large-scale GHG reductions and systems level, transformative change.