Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Over the last two semesters, I attended four dinners on climate change and policy organised by our university, with the last one held yesterday. The speakers were quite stimulating and focused on different aspects of the issue; beginnning with the science, the psychology of inertia against climate change, the health impacts of climate change including those on mental health, the legal issues involved in climate change legislation, the thrust by (a frustratingly low number of) corporations towards sustainable technologies, and the possible uniting of people of faith and those who do not have religious faith in fighting climate change as a common cause. There was also a session on alternative technologies. The participants were all lively, articulate and intelligent and it was fun and informative to meet such a diverse group. And of course the food was delicious, in spite of being organic...

Especially thought-provoking were the speakers who focused on health effects, analysed human psychology, and the mingling of faith and lack of faith in fighting climate change. It was argued by a psychologist that our preoccupation with "more" is more a function of a desire to boost our status and one-up our neighbor than to achieve self-satisfaction. In fact self-satisfaction never comes because there is always "more" to be had. People usually acquire more not because they want more, but because they want more than their neighbor has. After discussing this point, one interesting conclusion was that if we could make being green cool and sexy and status-building, then people could automatically strive to become green as a status symbol. Arnold Schwarznegger is right when he says that the problem with the environmental movement is that it lacks sex appeal. Instead of thinking "Having a Lexus makes me look sexy and high-status", what if people start thinking "I am green. I drive a hybrid. I use low wattage fluorescent lightbulbs. My carbon footprint is lesser than my neighbors'. Isn't that really cool and sexy?". Admittedly if such a sea change in social attitude takes place, then people could indeed become greener, if still for selfish and egocentric reasons. This certainly sounds encouraging, but first of all it should not be just another fad that dies down after a few years. Secondly, we don't have too much time to ponder the implementation of such social experiments.

The speaker who talked about health effects was Dr. Howard Frumkin. He works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) which is the nation's main public health organisation and action platform. One interesting thing which I was not aware of was that the CDC now has started including climate change experts among its officials. And why not. After all, if climate change can have massive and widespread health effects, it is an urgent public health matter. In fact, the public health effects of climate change are already visible as millions are affected because of droughts (Georgia: check) and food shortages, hurricanes and uneven rainfall. Probably the effects because of heat waves will be the most pernicious. But the public health effects of climate change go farther; these events can also lead to wars and conflict, mental attrition leading to huge productivity losses, and loss of goodwill everywhere. Indeed, the current conflict in Darfur has been called by some as the first climate-change induced conflict. The ethnic cleansing in Rwanda has also been cited by Jared Diamond as being partly due to scarce resource allocation. There are no easy solutions to combat these effects. But cooperation is going to be a big part of any efforts. The speaker stressed the idea of co-benefits; how having a "buddy system" during a heat wave for example enables people to help themselves by helping others, save energy, and most importantly, build social capital, a key aspect of any collective action against climate change. In the end, the idea of co-benefits was exemplified by the simple photo of a 1950s mom walking her children to school. There are so many benefits inherent in such a simple action; getting exercise, reducing carbon footprints, preventing depression, ecnouraging greenery in your neighbourhood, and building social capital by interacting with people. The talk was very inspiring, and it's pretty obvious that public health effects of climate change are going to be tremendous, and sticking together is going to be a key part of survival and progress.

The speaker who talked about how people of faith and otherwise can merge together in this common cause was also very thought-provoking. I think it makes sense; as much as I know evolution is true, I would be quite ready to shake the hand of a young earth creationist if he or she thinks that conserving our planet is dictated by his or her faith. After all the basic point is compelling; even if we differ on how we got here, as long as we can agree that saving what we have is of overarching importance, we can leave aside our differences and work together to fight this planetary crisis. As much as I dislike religious faith, nobody can disagree that even now it is one of the most potent forces for rallying people together for a common cause. Famed biologist and humanist Edward Wilson has made this point clearly in his wonderful book "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth"; saving the planet can likely be the most powerful common theme ever for bringing every kind of faithful and those without faith together. This is a clarion call to those with faith; this issue is more urgent and important than any one of those issues on the political stage which you see as being important to your faith right now. And it can very well be the only issue that will decide your very fate, but which also can unite everyone.

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