Climate Change, Uncertainty & Behavior
I often think about uncertainty in the context of climate change, and am a proponent of the precautionary principle. Essentially,this is how it works: when you don’t know the outcome, take actions that minimize risk as much as possible. In other words, not knowing the exact situation is no excuse for inaction, but a directive for preventive action. Applied to climate change, this would mean that we take all the necessary actions to minimize greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and effectively as we can.
Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic about uncertainty and human behavior, which yielded some interesting insights about the human condition and what author Jamie Holmes calls the need for closure. We want to be sure of a situation, a person, a decision, and so on. Except life keeps throwing uncertainties at us, and we must keep adapting. Holmes developed a test that helps you figure out how tolerant you are of uncertainty – my result was “Master of Change,” which is reassuring given I work with different clients in a constantly changing business environment.
With what we know about climate change, including the 2014 IPCC summary for policy makers (SPM) of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), is that human-induced warming of the atmosphere is “unequivocal” and greenhouse gas emissions are the “highest in history.” Given this situation, we must waste no time in implementing measures to reduce our emissions globally, and I have written extensively elsewhere about what actions we must take. At the top of the list is switching to a plant-based diet, due to the harmful impacts of the meat and dairy industries.
There is another approach that is high on the list as well. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while speaking at the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCC), Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, touched on a very important strategy for addressing climate change: leveraging indigenous knowledge systems. His argument, which I readily agree with and have been espousing for a while, is that indigenous peoples understand how to: 1) live in harmony with nature, 2) adapt to changing conditions, and 3) use natural resources without destroying the planet. These are all skills we desperately need right now to fight climate change, stabilize human population, and transition to a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable economy and lifestyle. Indigenous knowledge systems contain precious guidelines for diet, herbal medicine, architecture, agriculture, and many more systems. To understand and scale human resilience in the face of global climate change, then, requires that we leverage the best science on uncertainty and human behavior, and that includes the most appropriate, locally-attuned examples of adaptive behavioral responses from indigenous knowledge systems.