The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

As the heat breaks records around the world, making it ever more probable that indeed 2010 will be the hottest year on record, I can’t help but think about the huge gap between our understanding of the issue of global warming and actually doing something about it.

Last week, while the outside temperature hit 35 degrees C in downtown Toronto, and I was still working without A/C, the old saying “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” seemed real and true in a very physical way.

I’d have plenty of ammunition to go on a rant about how our politicians can’t seem to muster up the actions to match their words about climate change. There is real and tangible lack of political will out there. Even seemingly convinced politicians, like Obama, Gordon Brown, Stoltenberg, have great qualms about implementing policies that efficiently cut our carbon emissions. Not to speak of how the voters are turning to political candidates that are climate skeptics and even ridicule any conservationist strategy; the front runner in the Toronto mayoral race, Rob Ford, being an excellent case in point.

But this time I’ll start closer to home, with my own shortcomings. In Italian there’s a saying that goes “Fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare” – There’s an ocean between what you say and what you do. And that’s where I’ll start my confession: Last week was amazingly hot. On top of the heat that was already hard to deal with, Monday night set in with an extended smog warning. While city smog is a completely different problem from that of human-driven climate change, some of the causes are the same. Modern smog is a type of air-pollution, derived from emissions from vehicles, combustion engines and industrial fumes that react in the atmosphere with sunlight to form secondary pollutants that also combine with the primary emissions to form photochemical smog. In Toronto, where I live, smog is usually the result of the migration of pollutants from the United States combining with unfavourable weather patterns. The cure for smog is to wait until the weather changes, staying indoors during the hottest hours, meanwhile reducing the use of cars, air-conditioners and similar devices that contribute to making things worse. At least that’s what the smog-warning tells you to do.

Tuesday morning I had a doctor’s appointment with my youngest daughter, the smog warning still in effect. So I consider my options; look up the transit map and decide that one subway-ride and 3-4 stops on a northbound bus would get me there easily. Estimated travel time 40-45 minutes. Very pleased with myself, I go about my business; wake up my daughter; have breakfast with her; try to wake up my other daughter; answer a few e-mails; translate a few lines; put on make-up; yell at my eldest daughter again…

Then I look at my computer clock, and realize there are only 32 minutes left before our appointment, and no yelling in the world is going to bring us to the appointment on time. So I grab for the car keys and archive the idea of going by subway.

The regret started settling in already during the drive. Despite the repeated smog-warnings on TV and radio, it looked like everybody and their brother had decided to take the car on that particular morning. In the end it ook me more than half an hour to make it to the doctor’s office, a ride that under normal, non rush-hour conditions would take only half that time. So in the end I took the car to save 5-10 minutes, and we’re still late.  And the smog is worse.

And I catch myself thinking,’: If I, who is convinced by the science, who believes it is my duty to act now, whether my neighbour does or not, if I can’t manage to make my actions match my words, then what hope is there for sweeping change?

It’s filled with people out there who either

  • don’t believe human-driven climate change is a real phenomenon,
  • or that it’s a big conspiracy of tree-huggers wanting to ruin their life,
  • others think it’s impossible to do anything at this point, so why bother.
  • There are fundamentalists of all extractions who believe that as a prize for their belief, God will give them a new Earth, so why worry about the current one.
  • There are people who won’t do anything because it would be unfair to do anything your neighbours, the Chinese or the Americans aren’t forced to do.
  • And then there are those who just cover their ears and go “LA-LA-LA-LA” as soon as they hear whisper of changing course to level off climate change.

If even I can’t change my habits, then who of the above will ever be convinced to do so?

Much of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010 is dedicated to this predicament. There is a whole chapter dedicated to how to overcome behavioural and institutional inertia.

Understanding the drivers of human behavior is essential for climate-smart development policy. First, myriad private acts of consumption are at the root of cli­mate change. As consumers, individuals hold a reservoir of mitigation capacity. A large share of emissions in developed countries results directly from decisions by individuals—for travel, heating, food purchases. U.S. households account for roughly 33 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—more than U.S. industry and any other country bar China [ibid. p. 322]

Technological development doesn’t seem to “do the trick” unless followed by political or behavioural change:

Many cost-effective energy-efficient technologies have been available for years. “No-regret” invest­ments such as improving building insula­tion, addressing water leaks, and limiting building in flood-prone areas yield benefits beyond mitigation and adaptation. So, why haven’t they been adopted? Because concern does not mean understanding, and under­standing does not necessarily lead to action [ibid]

The report offers some explanations:

What explains the disconnect between perception and action? Concern about climate change does not necessarily mean understanding its drivers and dynamics or the responses needed. Polls show that the public admits to remaining confused over climate change’s causes and solutions..  This “green gap” in public attitudes stems partly from how climate science is communicated and how our minds (mis)understand cli­mate dynamics.

I’d like to add my own analysis of “the disconnect” between perception and action:

Sometimes making the wrong choice isn’t understanding what to do, it’s about lack of time, lack of planning, and at the same time having the wrong choice alternative readily available to you. And I hereby wish we’d elect politicians that have to guts to make them less readily available. I wish that when considering how to get from home to my doctor’s office, I’d have to consider some kind of obstacle put in my way by the city. Anything that will make my more prone to using public transit. And that when I consider what house to buy, there’ll be something steering me towards the more ecological solutions, so that there’s more leading me in that direction than my own moral compass.

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~ by Hege on September 5, 2010.

One Response to “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”

  1. Fabulous post! Loved reading your great post, I always can tag it

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