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NY Times Op-Ed: Public opinion on climate warming stronger than expected

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

A new poll by Stanford communication researchers helps dispel recent notions that most Americans don’t believe climate warming is human caused or a serious problem.  Indeed, as the title of the article suggests, there seems to be a climate majority in terms of values and policy recommendations.

This is an interesting and important piece that’s worth reading in full. Here are a few snippets:

On Thursday, the Senate will vote on a resolution proposed by Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, that would scuttle the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by American businesses.

Passing the resolution might seem to be exactly what Americans want. After all, national surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people.

But a closer look at these polls and a new survey by my Political Psychology Research Group show just the opposite: huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.

….Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power.

And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).

Thus, there is plenty of agreement about what people do and do not want government to do.

Posted in behavior, energy, environmentalism, nature and culture, solutions | No Comments »

Herbert: The bitter reality of the American present

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Bob Herbert’s column in today’s Times forces us to look in the mirror not only with regards to the Gulf oil spill but to the political-economic foundation of social and environmental problems in general:

The response of the Obama administration and the general public to this latest outrage at the hands of a giant, politically connected corporation has been embarrassingly tepid. We take our whippings in stride in this country. We behave as though there is nothing we can do about it.

The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP’s oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in.

This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.

No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families. What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach.

It permeates and undermines the ecosystem in much the same way that big corporations have permeated and undermined our political system, with similarly devastating results.


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Posted in behavior, energy, environmentalism, nature and culture, pollutants, toxics | No Comments »

Earth Day at 40: A new Gallup poll on the state of environmentalism

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Riley Dunlap has an interesting article, At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus, with new Gallup poll results that’s worth reading.

April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, an event widely considered to be the birth of the modern environmental movement. Few social movements survive 40 years, so in this sense alone, environmentalism might be considered successful. On the other hand, the movement has had limited success in policy arenas in recent years, leading to allegations of the “death of environmentalism.”  In addition, this year’s Gallup Environment poll finds historically low levels of public worry about environmental problems (particularly global warming) and support for environmental protection. Are we witnessing the end of environmentalism as a significant social movement and, in the eyes of many, a major progressive force in the United States?

Read more to find out…


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Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmental ethics, environmental history, environmentalism, nature and culture | No Comments »

Small green behaviors: Encouraging or distracting?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009


There’s been some debate over the past month as to whether small green behaviors, such as changing out compact fluorescent lightbulbs, spur people to take bigger steps—say, buying a hybrid car, weatherizing a home, or commuting to work.

One camp says no.  In a blog post, We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits, George Monbiot argued (links his)

I’ve never been convinced by this argument. In my experience, people use the soft stuff to justify their failure to engage with the hard stuff. Challenge someone about taking holiday flights six times a year and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll say something along these lines:

I recycle everything and I re-use my plastic bags, so I’m really quite green.

I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments (pdf). First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.

The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.

Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.

The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.

More recently, Mike Tidwell had a column in the Washington Post, To really save the planet, stop going green, in which he argued

December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change.

….So what’s the problem? There’s lots of blame to go around, but the distraction of the “go green” movement has played a significant role. Taking their cues from the popular media and cautious politicians, many Americans have come to believe that they are personally to blame for global warming and that they must fix it, one by one, at home. And so they either do as they’re told — a little of this, a little of that — or they feel overwhelmed and do nothing.

However, a few days ago, Margaret Southern posted a column, Stop ‘Going Green’ to Save the Planet?, on TNC’s website in which she argued that there are data to back up the notion that small changes do spur us to make bigger ones (emphasis and links hers):

According to Professor Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University, co-author of “Household Actions Can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions” (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), there is no research to support the assumption that if someone does one good thing (say, bike to work) they would be less likely to do another good thing (support climate change legislation).

In fact, Professor Vandenbergh told NPR that behavior change is contagious:

There are a number of psychological phenomena that suggest that we might actually induce more support for behavior change. When someone becomes committed to a certain behavior, they’re more likely to follow through in other areas as well.

So, those already concerned about conservation might become even more concerned about it as time goes on.

So, while I agree with Tidwell that the conservation-concerned should turn up the heat on Congress and other decision-makers on creating real climate change policies, we don’t have to set aside our green habits even temporarily to do so. I don’t think that setting a good example for personal changes that people can make (that collectively would make a huge difference) is confusing people that either don’t know how to change or don’t care to change.


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Posted in behavior, environmentalism, nature and culture, sustainability | No Comments »

Progress and the good life

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

3461159301_8445e9b2f0The cover story of this week’s The Economist, The idea of progress—Onwards and upwards: Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?, examines an issue central to this blog:  What does/should the good life look like?


In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. Through complacency and bitter experience, the scope of progress has narrowed. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism.

….The Economist puts more faith in business than most. Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good.

Nor does economic progress broadly defined correspond to human progress any more precisely than does scientific progress. GDP does not measure welfare; and wealth does not equal happiness. Rich countries are, by and large, happier than poor ones; but among developed-world countries, there is only a weak correlation between happiness and GDP. And, although wealth has been soaring over the past half a century, happiness, measured by national surveys, has hardly budged.

….And it is not just that material progress does not seem to be delivering the emotional goods. People also fear that mankind is failing to manage it properly—with the result that, in important ways, their children may not be better off than they are. The forests are disappearing; the ice is melting; social bonds are crumbling; privacy is eroding; life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world.

….Such values are the institutional face of the fundamental engine of progress—“moral sensibility”. The very idea probably sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but it is the subject of a powerful recent book by Susan Neiman, an American philosopher living in Germany. People often shy away from a moral view of the world, if only because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. As one sociologist has said “don’t be judgmental” has become the 11th commandment.

But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behaviour should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.

People can distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Torture was once common in Europe’s market squares. It is now unacceptable even when the world’s most powerful nation wears the interrogator’s mask. Race was once a bar to the clubs and drawing-rooms of respectable society. Now a black man is in the White House.

There are no guarantees that the gap between is and ought can be closed. Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals. Ms Neiman acknowledges that your ideals will never be met completely. But sometimes, however imperfectly, you can make progress. It is as if you are moving towards an unattainable horizon. “Human dignity”, she writes, “requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited.”


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Posted in environmental ethics, environmentalism, nature and culture, solutions, sustainability | No Comments »

David Orr ends his column at Conservation Biology with some final thoughts about nature and culture

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

After 21 years of writing a column for the journal Conservation Biology, here are a few excerpts from Orr’s final piece—a retrospective1:

  • I believe that all of us working for a habitable planet should have focused more clearly on politics and on the question of how good ideas move across the chasm from being right to being effective in the conduct of our public and international business.
  • I think we should have learned to be more adept, personable, and creative in talking to the public and the guys down at the truck stop and the women working two jobs to make ends meet. I think we might have gone to fewer scientific conferences in exotic places and to more Rotary meetings and  tedious city council sessions. We should have talked less often to ourselves in a scientific jargon and more often to the public and in the common tongue. And we should have mastered the art of persuasion on radio and television the way some others have. We in the “environmental movement” are sometimes accused of being effete, overly intellectual snobs more concerned about nature than people, and there is some truth to that.
  • [W]e know enough right now to make far better decisions than we typically do about wildlife, ecosystems, and landscapes….What ails us, rather, is  fundamentally political and is the result of the yawning chasm between the  world of science (and intellect generally) and that of public affairs.
  • [T]he worldwide conversation about sustainability and the human future is  larger than just the issues of biodiversity, pollution, climate change, land use,  and resource scarcity.
  • [W]e are rapidly becoming an indoor species with fewer people spending time  outdoors and with fewer experiential connections with nonhuman nature.
  • Finally, 21 years ago it would have been difficult to plausibly imagine the scope, scale, and rising intensity of the global movement to build a decent, fair, and sustainable world. The resilience of the human spirit in difficult times is the news of our age.

1Orr, D. (2009) retrospect and prospect: The unbearable lightness of conservation. Conservation Biology23, No. 6, 1349–1351

Posted in communication and framing, environmental studies, environmentalism, nature and culture, race and class | 1 Comment »

Environmental literacy in higher education—Overview

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

In the next series of posts, I’d like to continue the conversation about environmental literacy initiated in the context of why people don’t engage climate warming.  In that discussion, EL was mostly framed as a matter of knowledge about climate warming and the earth system:

  • People don’t know enough about how human and environmental systems work and interact.
  • Personal actions don’t match required solutions.
  • Bad mental models facilitate underestimation of the problem and the time scale to deal with it.
  • Environmental literacy is affected by how we structure disciplines in higher education

Let’s build on this last point and broaden the focus to higher education and environmentalism.

Many thanks in advance to friends and colleagues, most notably Matt Klingle (Bowdoin), Joe Bandy (Bowdoin), David Hecht (Bowdoin), Kim Smith (Carleton), Jen Everett (DePauw), and David Orr (Oberlin), who helped shape my thinking about this issue.

Related post: Why don’t people engage climate warming? Problem 1: Environmental literacy

Posted in environmental literacy, environmental studies, environmentalism, higher education | 4 Comments »

Good Guide—Learn what product labels don’t always tell you about the things you buy

Friday, November 20th, 2009

goodguide (Small)

There’s a new guide to shopping that looks interesting.  It’s called Good Guide, and it helps people learn more about what’s in their products that might not be healthy–to you, the environment, or society.

It’s easy to click on many different product types—from food to personal products to air fresheners to toys.   For example, ever wonder about different kinds of mac and cheese?

Here’s more information about them:

What chemicals are in your baby shampoo?
Was sweatshop labor used to make your t-shirt?
What products are the best, and what products should you avoid?

Increasingly, you want to know about the impacts of the products you buy. On your health. On the environment. On society. But unless you’ve got a Ph.D, it is almost impossible to find out the impacts of the products you buy. Until now…

GoodGuide provides the world’s largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of the products in your home.

With GoodGuide, you can:

  • Find safe, healthy and green products that protect you and your family
  • Search or browse over 70,000 food, toys, personal care, & household products to see what’s really beneath the label
  • Use expert advice and recommendations on products to quickly learn the impacts of what you buy
  • Find better products and make purchasing decisions based on what’s important to you
  • Create a personalized favorites list with the products that are right for you and your family

Related post:  Do our daily routines put our health at risk?

Posted in behavior, environmentalism, food and agriculture, organic, shopping guides, solutions | No Comments »

American environmentalism: Distinct flavors, porous borders, and effective action

Thursday, November 12th, 2009


Earth First.  Greenpeace.  Sierra Club.  Apollo Alliance.  The Nature Conservancy.  The Wilderness Society.  National Resources Defense Council.  Sustainable South Bronx.— Organizations that share a common interest in the environment but with fundamental philosophical differences.

In an earlier post, Can’t we all just get along?, we looked at a paper by Clare Saunders, who suggested that social movements like environmentalism are comprised of many different organizations, each fostering a collective identity that is often incompatible with other organizations in the same movement.  Ordinarily, we think of the overall movement goals as having a binding effect among these subgroups.  Apparently not.  Her work suggested that people form identities with other individuals cut from the same ideological cloth rather than the identity of the social movement itself.

In a recent issue1,2 of Organization and Environment, Debra Salazar designed a study that lets us look at this problem in more detail.  Specifically, to what extent are environmentalists identifying with different flavors of environmentalism, and to what extent are beliefs shared across individuals?   Where disputes arise, what’s driving them? How can coalitions be built, and why might certain groups be better positioned to lead, given the circumstances of particular environmental problems?

Here’s how she approached this challenge and what she found…


Posted in environmentalism, nature and culture, race and class, social movements | 1 Comment »

Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 3: Personal perception, values, and behavior

Friday, November 6th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

In earlier posts, we examined climate change engagement as problems of environmental literacy and communication.  There is no doubt we can do better with both of these.  But as we will see, proponents of environmental literacy and communication make a mistake if they believe engagement is simply a matter of getting more information to people.  Science, it is believed, will speak for itself.

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t.

A political scientist recently told me that before the age of 25, people use information to shape their value system and perceptions of the world.  After 25, they start cherry picking information that simply reinforces these beliefs (hence the world of cable news).

Although this is is a rough generalization, it suggests that a person’s values development may have a shelf life.  It also reveals why issues like climate change may not resonate with people cut from certain ideological cloths—no matter how much information they encounter.

The psychology, sociology, and ethics literature has a lot to say about this problem.  For simplicity, I want to pull out four challenges I think are among the most common and important with respect to climate change…


Posted in behavior, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, environmentalism, gender, nature and culture, race and class, religion, social science, sustainability | 10 Comments »

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