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..

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..

Flying over the melting arctic made climate change feel much more urgent

So I just landed in Tokyo. the one place where getting off the Metro, you can get lost in an underground mall. The flight from DC to here goes over Alaska and it flies over the Bering Sea which is just south of the Arctic Circle and I was going to the bathroom or something and I peeked out the window and I saw this vast amazing sight of a frozen ocean that was basically kind of breaking up and melting. And it made me so curious about ice! By every measure, what I was looking at out that window is a record. It's a record low of ice pack for the Arctic Ocean. We're talking like over the past past like several thousand years. Ok fine I'll go to unique love this Uniqlo This Uniqlo has row has 11 stories..

.12 stories So it turns out that ice is actually more important than you think. At least it was way more important than I thought. One of the more interesting functions that ice plays that it acts as a giant reflector basically bouncing a bunch of sunlight back up into space so that the earth doesn't have to absorb it. And this is actually super vital for keeping the earth systems regulated. The ice also keeps ocean currents running smoothly which a lot of species depend on including humans. Ice is more than just important for polar bears. It actually has huge ramifications for like our entire global ecosystem and all of the many systems that support I came to Tokyo for a totally different story. It has nothing to do with climate change I'm pretty sure jaywalking in Japan is like a total faux pax. Definitely. Everyone's laughing at me . The view I had while flying over Alaska was beautiful. But the story it tells is one of potential disaster for our globe. I'm actually in Japan working on a couple of really interesting videos.

I won't give any spoilers away but I'll give you a hint. It has to do with North Korea and with racist people..

Scientists really aren’t the best champions of climate science

But Bill, isn’t it a problem when science guys attempt to bully other people. It’s not working with the public. … That’s the same with tornados….   This is how conversations about climate change often go down. Scientists say climate change is real, but people still doubt them. So, why isn’t the science enough?   It’s not like there’s a shortage of scientific facts out there spelling it all out for us.   But let’s be honest — not many people can relate to scientists sharing their data, no matter how compelling it is.   When I give talks as a scientist versus when I’m talking to a friend, I don’t think I’m any more persuasive. In fact, I think as a scientist, I may be actually less trusted. The problem is you have people who are very, very smart when it comes to reading data, but they’re dumb when it comes to dealing with people. So people's relationship to smarty-pants people, I think you have to take into account. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  But this guy? He cares.   Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan — known by many as “Ram” — is an atmospheric scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And for decades, he’s been a leading and prescient voice on climate change, long before the term was widely known.   Ram also designs instruments to measure climate data on satellites, aircraft, and ships, but he feels like he’s really just writing obituaries for the planet.   Every time I come back from one of my expeditions, it’s always I bring back bad news   His scientific findings were simply not inspiring public action. So, Ram got creative. He’s been a science adviser for the Vatican since 2004. In 2014, Ram was chosen to speak directly to Pope Francis.   Now, he only had three minutes, literally a “parking lot pitch,” outside the pope’s apartment at the Vatican. Ram had memorized a few sentences in Spanish, but when he saw the pope emerge from his Fiat, he just blanked out.

I completely panicked, a panic attack! Then I said the heck with it, I’m going to tell him in English. With a translator between them, Ram told the pope that climate change was a moral and ethical issue.   Most of the pollution comes from the wealthiest 1 billion. And the worst consequences of that is going to be for the poorest 3 billion who had almost nothing to do with this pollution. At this moment, I had finished my two sentences. In English, hopefully. In English. Yeah… And he asked me in Spanish, what can he do about this? And you’re looking quite confused, trying to get your brain around what to say. Yes. I had not planned that. I told him, look, you are now the moral leader of the world. So in your speeches, if you can ask people to be better stewards of the planet that will have a huge impact.   Not only did Pope Francis include this message in an address several days later, but he even took his message to Twitter.   This caused a sensation because it was the first time that the Catholic Church came out and talked about climate change to a global audience of over 1.

2 billion Catholics. This chat with Ram and the pope actually led to what’s since been called the “Francis Effect.”35% of Catholics said that the pope’s message changed their personal views on climate change. I know if I had planned the whole thing, it would have been totally different. I would have gone into carbon dioxide, this, all the pollution, scientific details. Since I was not prepared, I went to my heart. I could have blown this! Instead, Ram jokes that those three minutes were the best scientific moments of his life. They were certainly one his most influential. Just by switching the messenger from a scientist to a religious figure, people listened.   And perhaps nowhere is the messenger more important than in politics. In the US, climate change has become a fiercely partisan issue. The majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, but there’s a sharp difference between liberals and conservatives on the issue.   And that’s largely attributed to who they’re getting their information from, regardless of what the science actually says.

     If the Earth becomes a partisan issue, everybody loses. The good thing is, you’re now seeing people on the conservative and libertarian right saying, hey, hold on a second. We have a right and a liberty as American homeowners to power our homes as we please.   Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Tea Party movement, is one of these conservatives.   People that did not know me made the mistake of calling me a tree hugging, left-wing liberal. A founder of the Tea Party movement! I laughed and I said, well clearly they don’t know me!   I am probably the first well-known conservative in Georgia to come out on a grassroots level and advocate for solar. I don’t like monopolies — they deserve competition and choice.   And Debbie agrees that there really is no reason that climate change should be a partisan issue.

It’s more fiscally responsible to prevent damage to the environment than it is to clean it up. As Ronald Reagan said, “Being good stewards of the environment God gave us should not be a partisan issue.” Focus on the message that resonates no matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or Independent. And the last time I checked, this Earth belongs to all of us. All of us want clean air or water. And we need to protect it. To get this message out, Debbie founded Conservatives for Energy Freedom. And they recently helped defeat an anti-solar amendment in Florida that was pushed by the state’s utilities.   The only message conservatives heard was from groups that were funded by monopolies or fossil fuel that wanted to stop competition from alternative energy. They’re hearing a different message from Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

We’re giving them the facts and we’re having an impact. But not everyone is moved by politics or religion. Often what resonates most with us and gets us motivated is simply understanding what’s going on in our own backyard.   Oakland-based artist and grassroots activist Favianna Rodriguez uses art to draw awareness to climate change.   I grew up in the Latino district of Oakland and I always understood the impacts of environmental devastation just by looking around where I live. The asthma rates that were in my community were astonishing. The accessibility to clean, whole food was very tough. And so for me, these are all impacts of what it means to not live in alignment with the environment.   When I think of environmentalists I think of native people who are at the front lines. I think of people who are impacted, who are really trying to fight for clean air and clean water.

The organization that I co-founded, CultureStrike, one of the main areas we focus on is to show the many faces of environmentalism.   And, Favianna isn’t just talking the talk.   I just converted my entire home to be powered from solar energy, and I'm the first in my community to do so. I want to model to my predominantly immigrant Latino community what it means to go solar. And that this is actually a less expensive way to get our energy. And that we can be the leaders. We are among the most impacted, we can be the solution bearers.   So while scientists should definitely be part of the conversation, they can't be the only messengers. Of course everyone wants clean air, pure water, even cheap energy. So what we need is a chorus, a diversity of many voices to deliver this message and to deliver it in a way that gets their community to sit up and listen.   You are a messenger too.

Maybe the most important one we have. We hope we’ve given you some tools to think more about climate change and how our lives intersect with this giant issue. Head over to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu for more tools and resources..

Food waste is the world’s dumbest problem

MIT is known for developing a lot of impressive technology. But hidden in the kitchen of MIT’s Media Lab is, perhaps, my favorite MIT invention: the FoodCam. Okay, so it may not look like much but it’s actually quite brilliant. Let’s say you have some leftover food. You put it under the camera and you hit the button. FoodCam posts a photo to Twitter, Slack, and a mailing list. All with a simple message: Come and get it! It looks like a pretty good box of donuts. Yes. It looks yummy under FoodCam. It does. Getting the food can actually be pretty competitive. By the time we got here, just 30 seconds after it was placed, the whole building had swarmed and all the pizza was gone. There’s a mad rush of people that come from, like, every entryway in here to get the pizza. So you got to kind of move pretty quickly. Yeah, it’s a game — it’s like the Hunger Games. Where.

.. Will and Jon invented the FoodCam all the way back in 1999. This was before Facebook. Before Gmail. Before social media as we know it. The idea came from a building-wide leftovers problem. And in some ways, this simple invention gets at the big problem of food waste. I mean that's sort of the serious part of what you have done, really, right? There is no doubt that this completely helped reduce food waste at the lab. Almost all of the catering people know that if they have spare food from their event, they can just hit the button and people will consume that food. And those are not even Media Lab events that are now fueling the FoodCam. When we picture the stuff that’s hurting our planet, what do we think of? We think of, like, smokestacks, cars, oil spills. We don’t really think about all the food we throw away. In the US, roughly 40% of the food we produce never gets eaten. That's over 365 million pounds of food each day. While that’s happening, about one in eight Americans still don’t have a steady supply of food to their tables. And all of this wasted food is a huge contributor to climate change. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, just behind China and the United States.

So it really is an enormous problem and one of the easiest ways to address climate change. It takes a ton of resources to produce food. On top of that, you have all of the energy it takes to keep it cold and transport it around the country. And when food decomposes, it isn’t just stinky. It releases potent greenhouse gases. Basically, we’re trashing our planet to grow food that no one eats.But here’s the thing: No one actually likes wasting food. It’s just something that we haven’t been paying much attention to. Of all of the challenging problems out there, reducing the amount of food we're wasting is one of the easiest. In the US, consumers collectively make up the largest portion of food waste. A family of four spends about $1,500 on food that they never eat. Meat is less as a percentage of what we buy but when you consider it in particular, as a greenhouse gas intensive product, meat waste actually has the highest greenhouse gas impact. And you don't have to be an expert to understand why food is going to waste in our homes.

We’re all busy and on the go. Sometimes I buy food without thinking, “Do I really need that?” There's even been a little bit of research to show that once something goes in the refrigerator it's actually worth less to us than before.   Researchers asked people how they would feel if they got home from the grocery store and dropped a carton of eggs. And then they asked, well if your eggs sat in your refrigerator for six weeks and then you didn't use them, how would you feel about that? And people felt a lot less remorse. I think a lot of the waste in our society does come down to choice and wanting to have the option to eat something at any time, whether or not we use it. Part of the reason we over-buy food is that we’ve got tons of space to store it in. Refrigerators have grown about 15% since the 1970s. One of the things we found in our research is that people are uncomfortable with white space when it comes to food. So we love it in buildings, or in design, but when it comes to food, we do not want to see empty space in our refrigerators, on our plates, and so I really believe that in some subliminal way we're just filling everything. And if we had smaller refrigerators, that let us see everything that was in there, that in itself would lead to quite a bit less waste in our homes.

And it isn’t just our refrigerators that have gotten bigger. The average dinner plate has grown by 36% since 1960. When you have a big plate, you tend to put a lot of food on it —  whether or not you can eat it all. This is something Jill Horst noticed at UC Santa Barbara. You have a tray that's 14-by-18 inches and you feel you need to load it up with food. You would see students that had four glasses: water, juice, soda, milk — and you'd go to the tray return and they would still be full. In 2009, the dining halls stopped using trays. Students can take as much food as they want, but there isn’t a tray to pile it onto. The food waste per person, per tray, reduced by 50 percent. I mean so that was huge. Let’s say that the average student wastes six ounces of food per meal.

That may not seem like a lot — but UC Santa Barbara serves 13,000 meals per day. So that’s nearly 5,000 pounds of wasted food. It's like throwing 350 Thanksgiving turkeys into the garbage every single day. And when you take the trays away and it becomes three ounces, that's a significant impact to help with not only the food waste, but food cost. So, it turns out that something very small — like removing a tray or changing the size of a plate — can have this profound impact on our behavior. And it doesn’t take much effort, because the effect is subliminal. The other thing they’re paying attention to at UC Santa Barbara is portion size. Each plate is portioned one portion for a student. They can take as many portions as they like, but we are actually plating the right size, the right amount that we should be eating. We’ve gotten used to these gigantic portion sizes at restaurants. And in a subtle way, it encourages us to overeat and throw away a lot of food. If you look around, there’s not a whole lot of food waste on the plates because of the proper portioning.

I mean that’s somebody’s meal. That’s all they have left. None of us are perfect. Wasting less food isn’t just going to happen overnight. But just having it on our radar can really help us waste a lot less.   And if we do have extra food, then let’s at least try to get it to people who could use it. There is so much high-quality surplus that's wasted, that just needs to find the people that need it the most. Komal is the founder of Copia, a startup that’s trying to recover all of this perfectly good food. If you imagine the world's largest football stadium filled to its absolute brim that's how much food goes wasted every single day in America — and I'm not talking about last night's pad thai or this morning's half-eaten pastries, but untouched, uneaten, perfectly edible food.   So we don’t need to purchase or make more food. We just need to figure out how to get it to the people who need it.

MIT’s FoodCam is great at recovering food. But when you start scaling this up from one building to an entire city or an entire country, it becomes much more difficult. Let’s say you’re a small company and have 200 sandwiches left over from an event. That’s a lot of food — but it takes time and effort to figure out how and where to donate it. Most people really don’t want to deal with all this. It shouldn’t be this hard to do a good thing. Like, how cool would it be if people who have food could say, hey, we have food, and people who need food could say, hey we need food, and we could connect these two people and clear the marketplace? So Komal is trying to make food donation easy and intuitive. If you have some food, you type your info into the Copia app. A driver will then come pick up your food and deliver it to shelters that need it. And during big events, like Super Bowl 50, there’s a ton of extra food. The issue is that it has a short shelf life. Imagine four 16-foot refrigerated trucks filled to their absolute brim — that's how much food we recovered.

We fed 23,000 people in two days. Nobody slept. And it's not you know hot dogs and popcorn. It was lobster rolls and pulled pork sandwiches and $300 cheeses. High-quality food. If we can get food that would otherwise be wasted to people who need it, we’re not only fighting hunger, but we’re actually slowing global warming. It really is a win-win. And Komal doesn’t want to solve hunger in just California. She wants to solve world hunger — period. It's not about optimism or pessimism. I think it's just that we're hell-bent on making it happen. This isn't going to be an overnight thing. It's got to be policy change. It's going to be other entrepreneurs. It's going to be really big companies and institutions also taking a stand and saying that you know what? We don't tolerate perfectly great food being wasted. Look, no one likes throwing out food. So we made a simple guide to help you waste less.

To find out more go to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu..