Science, Tech & Environment

Why we fight the impulse to go green


(Image: florriebassingbourn, Creative Commons)

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The world is now spending billions of dollars investigating the causes of climate change. Scientists are quickly putting together physical and biological experiments and projects, hoping for solutions and models that will show us how to slow warming and save the planet. But there's another body of work underway that's focused on the human brain. This research argues that climate change policy and solutions for global warming won't be worth much until we know how to influence the individual decisions that cause global warming.

On "The Takeaway," Jon Gertner helps us figure out why it is so hard to get our brains to choose green options. He's a contributing writer for the "New York Times Magazine." His article on this will be available in the magazine on Sunday.

Gertner explains our neurological impedements to going green: "We have two ways of ... considering risky things -- we sometimes can look at it from a very analytical way, where we balance costs against benefits and sort of think about that and how it stacks up. Another way is that we're sort of very ... hard-wired to look at risk as a feeling -- we sense something is risky and we act accordingly. When we feel risky ... we usually act quickly, we usually draw on our own experience; if something's dangerous, and we have to act.

"Unfortunately neither one of these systems for assisting risk is that helpful in climate change. We consider it something that's far away, both in time and in place. Even when we're using our analytical systems, and we're trying to balance costs and benefits ... it doesn't seem to take advantage of our cognitive abilities; we have a certain kind of bias for valuing near-term costs or assumptions over long-term benefits ..."

Gertner says considering human behavior is critical to combating climate change: "The question I think might be, if we get more studies or more information, does that persuade us or move us to action ... or ... is the key to addressing global warming, which is really ... symptoms of what we're doing -- if we look at all these things like rising temperatures and species extinction ... the cause really is us, is human behavior, and maybe the answer, at least in-part isn't just in technological solutions, but in looking at how we might change the way we act and think and decide to do things."

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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