Big Climate-Change Challenge Is Altering Human Behavior

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Big Climate-Change Challenge Is Altering Human Behavior


Byline: Bob Doppelt For The Register-Guard

Based on the number of e-mails and letters, my Sept. 21 column touched a nerve.

I wrote about the George Mason/Yale University study describing how Americans view global warming. A main theme of many of the responses was how best to motivate people to alter their behavior. Thatmay be the most important question facing humanity today.

Never in history has the need been more urgent for broad-scale change in human thinking and practices. Numerous new science assessments have determined that global warming is speeding up, particularly in the Arctic. Without fundamental shifts in our assumptions, beliefs and practices, it is clear we are on a collision course with the planet.

Some prominent natural and social scientists recently came to the same conclusion. The group - led by Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University - launched the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior. Ehrlich said that the most central need today is not more natural science. What is urgently needed is a "better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct humanity toward a sustainable society before it is too late."

Study after study points to something many people don't want to acknowledge: We can't continue our present path, and new technologies alone cannot prevent uncontrollable global warming. New thinking and behaviors are essential.

Just one recent example: A study by the Urban Land Institute on the travel patterns of Americans concluded that more fuel-efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels by themselves cannot reduce carbon emissions to safe levels. Major shifts in travel patterns and behaviors are needed, such as driving fewer miles at slower speeds, avoiding gas-burning traffic jams and reducing the number of times American's drive their vehicles.

Numerous structural and economic barriers stand in the way of this change. Commercial outlets in Eugene are widely dispersed, for example, and many are not easily reached using public transportation. The way we plan our infrastructure, design our technologies and form our policies, however, is a reflection of our core assumptions and beliefs. And big policy changes won't happen until a sufficient number of people alter their thinking.

So, how can shifts behavior come about? Many theories of change exist. Underlying the different approaches are some common principles.

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