Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change

"We are hurtling toward the day when climate change could be irreversible." "Rising sea levels already altering this nation’s coast." "China’s capital is choking in its worst pollution of the year." "5% of species will become extinct." "Sea levels rising, glaciers melting." Okay. Enough. I get it. It’s not like I don’t care about polar bears and melting ice caps. I’m a conservation scientist, so of course I care. I’ve dedicated my entire career to this. But over the years, one thing has become clear to me: We need to change the way we talk about climate change. This doom-and-gloom messaging just isn’t working; we seem to want to tune it out. And this fear, this guilt, we know from psychology is not conducive to engagement. It's rather the opposite. It makes people passive, because when I feel fearful or guilt-full, I will withdraw from the issue and try to think about something else that makes me feel better. And with a problem this overwhelming, it’s pretty easy to just turn away and kick the can down the road. Somebody else can deal with it.

So it’s no wonder that scientists and policymakers have been struggling with this issue too. So I like to say that climate change is the policy problem from hell. You almost couldn't design a worse problem as a fit with our underlying psychology or the way our institutions make decisions. Many Americans continue to think of climate change as a distant problem: distant in time, that the impacts won't be felt for a generation or more; and distant in space, that this is about polar bears or maybe some developing countries. Again, it’s not like we don’t care about these things — it’s just such a complicated problem. But the thing is, we’ve faced enormous, scary climate issues before. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? As insurmountable as that seemed in the 1970s and ’80s, we were able to wrap our heads around that and take action.

People got this very simple, easy to understand, concrete image of this protective layer around the Earth, kind of like a roof, protecting us, in this case, from ultraviolet light, which by the way has the direct health consequence of potentially giving you skin cancer. Okay, so now you've got my attention. And so then they came up with this fabulous term, the “ozone hole.” Terrible problem, great term. People also got a concrete image of how we even ended up with this problem. For decades, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were the main ingredient in a lot of products, like aerosol spray cans. Then scientists discovered that CFCs were actually destroying the atmospheric ozone. People could look at their own hairspray and say, “Do I want to destroy the planet because of my hairspray? I mean, god no.” And so what's interesting is that sales of hairspray and those kinds of products and underarm aerosols started dropping quite dramatically.

People listened to scientists and took action. Now scientists predict that the hole in the ozone layer will be healed around 2050. That’s actually pretty amazing. And while stopping the use of one product is actually pretty easy, climate change caused by greenhouse gases … that’s much trickier. Because the sources are more complicated, and for the most part, they’re totally invisible. Right now, there is CO2 pouring out of tailpipes, there is CO2 pouring out of buildings, there is CO2 pouring out of smokestacks, but you can't see it. The fundamental cause of this problem is largely invisible to most of us. I mean, if CO2 was black, we would have dealt with this issue a long time ago. So CO2 touches every part of our lives — our cars, the places we work, the food we eat.

For now, let’s just focus on one thing: our energy use. How do we make that visible? That was the initial goal of UCLA’s Engage project, one of the nation’s largest behavioral experiments in energy conservation. What we're trying to do is to figure out how to frame information about electricity usage so that people save energy and conserve electricity. The idea is that electricity is relatively invisible to people. The research team outfitted part of a student housing complex with meters that tracked real-time usage of appliances and then sent them weekly reports. So you can see how much energy the stove used versus the dishwasher or the fridge. We realized, because of this project, the fridge was like the monster. So lucky for them, their landlord upgraded their fridge to an energy-efficient one. They also learned other energy-saving tips, like unplugging their dishwasher when not in use and air-drying their clothes during the summer months. And researchers, in turn, discovered where people were willing to cut back. The Engage project wanted to know what types of messaging could motivate people to change their behavior. We wanted to see over time over a year and with repeated messages, how do people, behave? How does that impact the consumer behavior? And what we found is that it's very different.

Some households were sent personalized emails with their energy bill about how they could save money; others learned how their energy usage impacted the environment and children’s health. Those who received messages about saving money did nothing. It was totally ineffective because electricity is relatively cheap. But emails sent that linked the amount of pollutants produced to rates of childhood asthma and cancer — well, those led to an 8% drop in energy use, and 19% in households with kids. Now, in a separate study, researchers brought social competition into the mix. First, they hung posters around a dorm building to publicly showcase how students were really doing: red dots for energy wasters, green for those doing a good job, and a shiny gold star for those going above and beyond. This social pressure approach led to a 20% reduction in energy use. This strategy was also used at Paulina’s complex, and it definitely brought out her competitive streak. For me, the competition was what motivated me, because seeing your apartment number and telling you that you are doing at the average, but you are not the best, was like, Why? I’m doing everything you are telling me to do.

I always wanted the gold star, because it was like, “Oh, my god, I want to be like the less consumption of energy in the whole building.” And psychology studies have proved this. We are social creatures, and as individualistic as we can be, turns out we do care about how we compare to others. And yes, we do like to be the best. Some people don’t want to say, Oh, I'm like the average. No, my usage is different and I want to be able to act on it. And people can act on it because with these meters, they can now see their exact impact. A company called Opower is playing with this idea of social competition. They work with over 100 utility companies to provide personalized energy reports to millions of customers around the world. Now consumers can not only see their energy use but how it compares to their neighbors’. Like the UCLA study found, this subtle social pressure encourages consumers to save energy.

It’s been so effective that in 2016, Opower was able to generate the equivalent of two terawatt-hours of electricity savings. That’s enough to power every home in Miami for more than a year. And they’re not alone. Even large companies are tapping into behavioral science to move the dial. Virgin Atlantic Airways gave a select group of pilots feedback on their fuel use. Over the course of a year, they collectively saved over 6,800 tons of fuel by making some simple changes: Adjusting their altitudes, routes, and speed reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by over 21,000 tons. These behavioral “nudges” do seem to be advancing how we as a society deal with some pretty complicated climate change issues, but it turns out we’re just getting started. There is no “quick fix.” We need people changing their companies, changing their business models, changing the products and services they provide. This is about broader-scale change. And part of this change includes embracing what makes us human.

That it can’t just be a guilt trip about dying polar bears or driving around in gas guzzlers. We need to talk about our wins, as well — like how we’re making progress, really being aware of our energy use, and taking advantage of that competitive spirit we all have in order to really move us from a state of apathy to action. Global warming is by far the biggest issue of our time. Climate Lab is a new series from Vox and the University of California, and we’ll be exploring some surprising ways we can tackle this problem. If you want to learn more, head to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu..

Kansas: Conservation, the “5th Fuel” (ENERGY QUEST USA)

Narrator: Kansas, a land of wheat, and corn, and cattle. In the heart of the country, it's number 48 out of all 50 states in energy efficiency. So this is a place where energy conservation can really make a difference. Come on, girls. Our region is a region of farmers. We are famously conservative and we have talked from the beginning about putting the conserve back in conservative. Narrator: According to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver more than $700 billion in cost savings in the U.S. alone. But, they say motivating consumers to take action is the key to unlocking this potential and that was the aim of Nancy Jackson's Climate and Energy project, with its Take Charge! Challenge. Kansans are patriotic, Kansans are hardworking, Kansans are humble.

Narrator: And Kansans are competitive. You all are competing against Ottawa, Baldwin City, and Paola, so really, you gotta beat those guys, yes? Do you want to help us beat Manhattan? Narrator: 2011 was the second year for the Take Charge! Challenge, a friendly competition among 16 communities arranged in four regional groups aiming to reduce their local energy use. Some of the lowest cost, most effective ways that you can take ownership of your energy future is taking ownership of the efficiency and the conservation of your house or your business. Narrator: Ray Hammarlund's office used federal stimulus dollars to fund four prizes of $100,000 for each of the four regions in the competition. Just as important as the grand prize, $25,000 went to each community to fund local coordinators who took the lead in galvanizing grassroots efforts.

Here's how the challenge worked in Iola. The challenge started in January of this year and ends October 1st. You're required to have three community events. We're going to have a lot more than that. Today, we are at the Fight The Energy Hog Festival. Becky Nilges: I love the hog. He was just so ugly that he is cute. He represents energy hogs in your home. You would probably let him in but you don't know the damage he's going to do. Narrator: Competing towns scored points by counting how many cfl bulbs and programmable thermostats were installed and how many professional home energy audits were done. Our job as energy auditors, both for commercial buildings as well as residential buildings is, we're essentially detectives.

What's happening here? Is there a great deal of air leakage? And we're finding that the majority of the houses that we're dealing with actually use a lot more energy than they need to. Narrator: In Lawrence, a house of worship did an energy audit, made changes, and got a pretty nice donation in its collection plate. David Owen: One part of the audit was to contact the power company. Well, during that process we discovered they had been overcharging us. And so we got a check, a rebate check from them for $4,456. Narrator: Other changes start small, but add up. We were a little bit worried at one point that the congregation would not accept the very bright, white type lights. So as an experiment, we took one of these chandeliers and changed all the bulbs in it to the cfls. And then we took the priest over here and we said, "which one did we do?" and he could not tell us.

So that told us it was ok to do them all. Narrator: Changing lights, adding insulation, and upgrading windows paid off. Even though it's an old building, we saved 64% on the consumption of energy in this room. Narrator: Lighting makes up about 15% of a typical home's electricity bill, and lighting all of our residential and commercial buildings uses about 13% of the nation's total electricity. But changing out old bulbs is a lot easier than paying for audits and the energy enhancements they recommend. Here's where the 2011 Take Charge! Challenge promised material assistance using stimulus funds. Ken Wagner: It's a $500 audit that costs you $100. The rest of that $500 is covered under the Take Charge Challenge program through the Kansas Energy Office. We really love the competitive spirit of the program and I think it's really raised a whole awareness of energy efficiency and the importance of energy efficiency to a lot of segments in our community here.

Narrator: Even Baldwin City bankers were grateful for financial assistance from state and federal governments. Dave Hill: Nine months ago, we installed a 14 KW solar power system. I believe the initial cost of the system was basically $65,000 and then we got a substantial grant from USDA, I believe it was $20,000. We have about $18,000 of our own money invested in the system, after all the deductions. We think it will pay out in about 7-8 years. Narrator: David Crane of NRG Energy thinks that kind of approach makes good business sense. Crane: What I say to every businessman who has a customer-facing business, think of a solar panel not only as a source of electricity, think of it as a billboard. You don't even have to write your name on it. Just put it on the top of your store and it will be sending a message to your customers that you're doing the right thing when it comes to sustainable energy. Narrator: Surveys of why conservation is hard to achieve have found that people want one-stop shopping, a place where they can find out what to do and get practical recommendations about who to hire and what it all might cost, just what this new facility was to offer.

Now it's mid-October, time for the results of the 2011 Take Charge! Challenge. MC: Fort Scott. MC: And the winner is Baldwin City. Nancy Jackson: Over 100 billion BTUs were saved as a result of this Challenge, and millions and millions of dollars in each community. Those savings come from measures that have been installed that will guarantee those savings for years to come. So the savings are enormous over time. $100,000 has a nice ring to it and it's a nice cash award for a community of our size. Our challenge now is to continue on with energy efficiency and encourage our community to save. Nancy: One of our real goals was to help people to stop thinking about energy efficiency as the things they shouldn't do, as what not to do, and think about it instead as a tremendous opportunity to both save money in the near term, and to make our electric system more resilient in the long term.

So it's about what we can do, both individually and together, and for us that feels like the real win. The United States today is twice as energy efficient as it was in the 1970s. And I think we have the capability in the decades ahead to become twice as energy efficient again. We believe this is something that can be done really anywhere with great success..

I’m a Tea Party conservative. Here’s how to win over Republicans on renewable energy.

This is my cell phone, okay? Does that look like that is the cell phone case of a liberal? My dad is a retired baptist minister. He told me that in order to get people to hear your message, you have to get them in the church. That is a mistake that a lot of environmentalists make when talking to Republicans and conservatives about solar, about clean energy. They lead off with climate change. That is the wrong message. If you deliver the message of energy freedom, energy choice, competition, national security, innovation — all of the sudden you have a receptive audience and they will listen to you. If you lead off with climate change, they're not going to pay a bit of attention to anything else you say. They've been brainwashed for decades into believing we're not damaging the environment. Unfortunately, a lot of these fossil fuel interests and giant monopolies have been telling activists for decades that we're not damaging the environment… Everyone agrees that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, and that such concentrations in the atmosphere are rising.

But it’s a long and dangerous leap to conclude that we should therefore cut fossil fuel use. You have industries that have a lot of money in deep pockets and they're willing to use that money to put out negative facts and bogus studies to convince us that renewables are bad. Get the facts about these out-of-state solar companies at AZSolarFacts.com And by God, they are not going to get away with it. You have to understand one thing: The Republican party has always been, in the past, a party of conservation. Richard Nixon, a Republican president, actually created the EPA to make sure we had clean air and clean water. Each of us all across this great land has a stake in maintaining and improving environmental quality. Ronald Reagan is not actually known as an environmental president. But he was a conservationist. He actually believed man was damaging the environment and he advocated very strongly for and signed the Montreal Protocol that banned fluorocarbons. If Ronald Reagan were alive today and he wanted to ban aerosols, fluorocarbons, because he saw scientific evidence that they were damaging the environment, some of these same groups that are attacking renewables would be attacking the conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

One of the reasons I’m fighting very hard to bring conservatives on board and to educate conservatives to advance renewables: Failure is not an option. This earth is not a Republican earth. It’s not a Democrat earth. This earth belongs to all of us. If you think fossil fuel is not damaging the environment, pull your car in a garage, start up your engine and inhale the exhaust fumes for a few minutes and see what happens..

Ocean Seeding – A New Technology that can Save Marine Life

People have relied on the abundance of the ocean since the beginning of human history. But things are rapidly changing. Scientists project that by 2048 the ocean will be depleted and fisheries will cease to exist. Billions of people rely on fish as their primary source of food and income – a number that will continue to grow over the next few decades as the world population increases. A collapse of ocean fisheries will be a massive threat to the food security and well-being of life on this planet. Nations around the world are pursuing better management practices and sustainable fishing in an attempt to curb this loss… but it is not enough. Despite our efforts, the health of the ocean is decaying even faster than initially predicted. Moreover, we have discovered that overfishing is only part of the problem. To see the bigger picture, we have to go much, much smaller. The whole oceanic ecosystem obtains its energy, food, and nutrients from tiny green phytoplankton – microscopic organisms that play a critical role as the base of the marine food chain. They grow and multiply through the absorption of sunlight – alongside water, carbon dioxide, and micronutrients such as iron.

Phytoplankton are the food of zooplankton, which in turn are consumed by small fish, which are themselves consumed by larger ones and so on. For their health, phytoplankton depend on the natural fertilization of iron-rich winds and upwelling currents, which have been ongoing for millions of years. However, as a result of climate change, winds and currents are changing, and the oceans are getting warmer. This hinders the mixing of surface layers, separating phytoplankton from the nutrients they need to grow. A NASA study has shown a constant decrease of phytoplankton in the ocean… 1% per year since 1950. That means plankton has declined more than 40% in just 60 years. When phytoplankton are in danger, the whole ocean is in danger. Less plankton means less food for fish and other organisms. With the continual decline of plankton, we are facing the collapse of the marine food chain as we know it due to climate change.

The question is: WHAT CAN BE DONE? Over the last several decades, scientists have observed that the iron-rich dust of volcanic eruptions can create massive plankton blooms over deserted areas of the ocean. On several occasions, scientists saw the volume of wild fish in these areas increase significantly – far beyond expectations. Given these observations, experts began to consider what might happen if humans could mimic natural volcanic iron fertilization to boost ocean life. This process is known as OCEAN SEEDING. In a recent Ocean Seeding project, researchers added iron dust to an area of the ocean that was part of the migratory route of juvenile salmon. Only a year later, mainland rivers experienced one of the largest salmon returns in history. Ocean Seeding offers an opportunity to begin repairing the damage to our ocean, rebuild wild fish stock, and improve food security for the growing populations of the world. This vital shift cannot be made without further research in Ocean Seeding and your support. Support us by sharing this video with your friends on social media.

And join the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #OceanSeeding.