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.


Indigenous Mayan carvings depicting information about their cultural and spiritual practices. Indigenous knowledge systems, like those of the Mayans, hold insights that can help us fight climate change.

Indigenous Mayan carvings depicting information about their cultural and spiritual practices. Indigenous knowledge systems, like those of the Mayans, hold insights that can help us fight climate change.


  • I think the world has become aware of the need to embrace a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and the environment. Evidence of this can be seen in the evolving official definition of health over the centuries from an individualistic and overtly medical definition to a more holistic definition that incorporates the physical, mental, and spiritual relationship between oneself and the human and natural environment. An imbalance of this relationship is the crux of human ill-health. WHO has also advocated for complementary and alternative medicine’s (CAM) important place in the provision of healthcare. The UN has moved from getting countries to meet Millennium Development Goals to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. How we harmonize these official discourses into our daily lives is the key to a healthier planet.

    • Marilyn Cornelius

      Thank you, Farzana, for your comments. I couldn’t agree more. And, with the recent advisory from the USDA about the carcinogenic properties of meat, it’s more important now than ever to shift our behaviors in the direction of holistic and wholesome nutrition and wellness, which innately connects human health to environmental health as one and the same.

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