To Confront the Climate Crisis, Team Humanity Must Apply Social Science

Lead for the Planet: Five Practices for Confronting Climate Change will be the first title in our brand new trade imprint, Aevo UTP, to be released on September 1. Written by Rae André, climate change educator and bestselling author, the book guides concerned citizens and business leaders to take on the climate crisis by detailing five key practices for effective sustainability leadership. In the first of three posts, André looks at why applying social science will help Team Humanity to tackle the climate crisis.

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Part 1 – To Confront the Climate Crisis, Team Humanity Must Apply Social Science

Here are some mainstream recommendations on how to address the climate crisis. What do they all have in common?

  • The countries of the world must come together to address the climate crisis.
  • World leaders should create an organization devoted to climate change and empower it to hold countries accountable for their carbon emissions.
  • In the United States, the major political parties must unite behind a carbon fee.
  • China and the United States could lead the world by jointly reducing their own carbon emissions and influencing other countries to do the same.

These recommendations are all macro-level interventions that require humanity – “Team Humanity” as I like to refer to it – to organize together to address climate change. In my work as an organizational psychologist, I often apply the lens of social science to evaluate collective behaviors like these. In this case I observe that all of these recommendations operate across societies and at the highest level of societies, and they all require people to cooperate. They are also aspirational: if they would only work, Team Humanity could save the planet.

For my new book, Lead for the Planet: Five Practices for Confronting Climate Change, I searched the social sciences for best practices on climate leadership. I looked for answers to questions like “What does social science suggest about Team Humanity’s ability to cooperate? What does it say about people’s ability to trust each other, help each other, and make sound decisions together, all of which are prerequisites for global cooperation?” Fortunately, research in such disciplines as psychology, sociology, and anthropology does offer some actionable answers. However, it also challenges some cherished assumptions about how societies change.

Consider first the human propensity to trust – and, especially, to trust macro-level institutions. Leading trust researcher Dr. Charles Heckscher, author of Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community, points out that, on the positive side, it is indeed possible to build trust when people have a collaborative purpose. On the other hand, he finds, doing this is both challenging and unreliable. Hecksher argues that because today’s complex problems require specialized knowledge and the commitment of many stakeholders, achieving the needed level of trust is not likely. He concludes that, “We are not likely to be able to get the nations of the world to work together on climate change or the reduction of inequality; neither the needed attitudes nor skills are widely enough distributed.”[1]

In related research on trust we learn, not to our surprise, that the higher the level of government, the less likely people are to trust it. For example, in the US, citizens trust local government more than state government, and local and state government more than federal government. They hold these beliefs even though they see and accept that national, state, and local governments have different responsibilities. In sum, Team Humanity’s ability to trust others – a prerequisite to achieving cooperative global solutions – is weak.

Consider next the human inclination to help each other, commonly referred to as altruism. Certainly the members of Team Humanity can be situationally altruistic, as when an individual risks their own life to save that of another. However, the social context of this sort of behavior matters a great deal and often creates limits on altruism. When studying altruism across groups, social scientists often refer to parochial altruism, the act of being unselfish toward in-groups while at the same time being aggressive toward out-groups. They point out that even human brain patterns reflect this human tendency. The brain patterns for empathy and concern for one’s in-group members are strong when the group is threatened by an out-group, and at the same time the individual’s tendency to act aggressively toward the out-group grows.

Interestingly, competitive individuals are more likely to engage in parochial altruism. Being in competition with other groups motivates them to perform, and it also encourages them to become especially cooperative with their own group members. Parochial altruism is especially strong in individuals who have high levels of testosterone. Toward their own group such individuals express high levels of solidarity, but when threatened by another group they are likely to escalate hostilities. Of course, these behaviors constitute what we informally refer to as tribalism.

Given the psychological influences of tribalism, it may well be that individuals and nation states that compete for resources will not be able to cooperate to fix the climate problem. Some highly competitive individuals do not even think cooperation is a desirable goal. Some even tend to dislike soft-hearted people. Individuals who score high on the personality trait of competitiveness see relationships in terms of power. They like to win, [2] and they are likely to want their business sector to win. Assuming that individuals in the highly competitive energy sectors are also competitive, these tendencies suggest that they will be loyal to their own tribes and aggressive toward the others. They are not likely to be part of a global climate solution.

Finally, social science research also suggests that, historically, Team Humanity has failed to make the right decisions and has often crashed whole societies because of environmental problems and resource shortages. Societies make bad decisions because they fail to anticipate or even perceive a problem, or fail in their attempts to solve it, says geographer Jared Diamond.  Will the climate interventions currently proposed by Team Humanity be enough? Diamond asserts societies must learn to embrace long-term thinking and reexamine their core values, even though evidence shows this is very difficult. He puts Team Humanity’s choice this way: “A lower-impact society is the most impossible scenario for our future – except for all other conceivable scenarios.” [3]

Climate leaders should take into account these and the many other relevant findings from social science in order to make the best possible decisions for the planet. Often research results feel counterintuitive, yet paying attention to them is crucial for making effective decisions about which goals to pursue and how humanity should organize to pursue them. In particular, as the research cited here suggests, climate leaders should think carefully before defaulting to solutions that rely heavily on cooperation. In my next post I discuss an approach that, based on further social scientific analysis, may be more fruitful.

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Interested in finding out more about Lead for the Planet? Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

Click here to pre-order your copy of Lead for the Planet. The book is officially released on September 1.

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References

Landrum, N. & Ohsowski, B. (2017). Content trends in sustainable business education: An analysis of introductory courses in the U.S. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(3): 385-414.

Landrum, N. & Ohsowski, B. (2018). Identifying worldviews on corporate sustainability: A content analysis of corporate sustainability reports. Business Strategy and the Environment.

[1] Charles Heckscher (2015). Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 169-170.

[2] Rae André (2008). Organizational Behavior: An Introduction to Your Life in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 43.

[3] Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, New York: Viking Penguin Group, 522-524.