Susanne Moser, PhD, is an action-oriented researcher whose work focuses on the social impacts of, and responses to, climate change, particularly in coastal areas and on how to communicate global warming in a way that facilitates the necessary social changes. She published an anthology on the topic, entitled Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007; now out in paperback).
From 1999-2003, Susanne worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists as the staff scientist for climate change, working in the trenches of effective climate change communication and social mobilization for change. She is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IPCC is made up of more than 2000 of the leading climate, and climate related, scientists in the world.
Bill Pfeiffer [Sacred Earth Network's founder] met her for the first time in March 07' in Boulder, Colorado where she worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She has been a member of Sacred Earth Network for many years. Their short, but exciting, chat led to this interview.
Bill Pfeiffer: For the non-scientist, can you summarize where you believe humanity is at in relation to climate change? You mentioned when we met that you have a hard time with James Lovelock’s “ its too late, we can’t do anything” analysis. What’s your synopsis of where we stand and what we, in the broadest sense, can do?
Susanne Moser: Oh, always a tough question. Today I feel optimistic. Maybe a better way of saying that is to say I feel empowered vis-a-vis the great forces that shape our lives. But some days I get really desperate myself. In any case, I think, we have to be realistic.
First of all, I'd say, the days of denial of the fact of climate change, of dodging our responsibility, and for delaying action have come and gone. Over the past 20 years, science has helped put to rest a lot of questions. The key ones are: whether or not global warming is happening, whether humans have a role in causing it, what it may mean for different parts of the world, and what we need to do and can do to avert a truly scary future. Sure, there is always more to find out, and fine-tune in our scientific understanding, but these large questions - they have been answered.
Maybe the way to summarize that is to say: while 20 years ago the unknowns about global warming could excuse you to do nothing, the unknowns we face today should make everyone work harder than they have every worked before to try to avoid a world that will be truly dangerous to live in.
Let me give you an example: We know, for example, with great confidence that global warming leads to global sea-level rise - partly due to the expansion of ocean water as it warms, partly because of the melting down of land-based glaciers and ice-sheets. Recently scientists have observed a very rapid break-down and melting of the Greenland icesheet - so fast, in fact, that it's causing a revolution in our thinking about how large icesheets work. No one until recently believed that they could melt as fast as what we're observing right now. Well, if Greenland were to melt down completely, the added meltwater would raise ocean levels all over the planet by about 20 feet. This won't happen over night, but over the course of a couple of centuries. Still, much faster than historical sea level rise since the last ice age. what's critical here is to know that if air temperatures rise above a certain threshold (and no one knows exactly where that is!), then this total collapse and meltdown can't be stopped.
Twenty feet of sea-level rise even over a couple of centuries is truly catastrophic -- millions and millions of people here in this country and all over the world will be displaced from their homes, their land; they will lose not just property but the basis for their livelihoods; and we have a major "environmental refugee" crisis on our hands - which is of
unprecedented proportions, and we don't seem to be so kind to foreigners as it is now! I could make this picture scarier yet, but I'll stop here.
The point I'm making is this: our climate system has some long lag times built into it - it reacts slowly and over a long time to our "poking" it with our emissions. But then there are thresholds (most of which we don't know or can't predict), when it can react so quickly, it will be catastrophic for society. We know we've been poking the climate for a long time, and we are destabilizing it, and it could shift abruptly. But we don't know for sure whether and when it will.
So, from that point of view, I'd say, humanity is at a critical juncture vis-a-vis global warming. Will we destabilize it further or try to reduce our impact and reduce the chances of catastrophe? James Lovelock says it's too late. We're screwed. Maybe so.
But I don't like talking like James Lovelock. I think it's a big mistake to communicate the urgency of the Earth's health in a way that scares people to death, rather than engages and empowers them.
What I find encouraging is what I have learned in my work about social change: just like in the climate system, social and technological systems change slowly for much of the time, and then all of a sudden shift abruptly. A dam works well and for a long time, until one day it breaks. A social movement builds slowly and quietly, until one day it takes off and major political changes become possible. We're witnessing the building of such a climate protection movement right now. What we don't know is when the American public will get up in large enough numbers and say "Enough!" Social change can happen fast, too.
And that is why James Lovelock is only half-right. We could pull this off!
BP: Given the monumental nature of the problem and the need for global coordinated action, what is role of the individual? I think most people tend to feel that this is the ultimate disempowering issue.
SM: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the international scientific authority on this issue -- says, that we now have at least a 90% confidence that most of the global warming we've seen in the past 50 years has been caused by human action. Human action -- that's all of us, every one of us (and quite frankly, us in the developed world much more so than those who barely make a living). So, at the simplest level, I would answer your question by saying, if we caused it, we can stop it. What makes this overpowering for most of us is that we don't think in the "collective we," we think in terms of the "individual I." In other words, it's very difficult to persuade anyone that their little personal action (changing the light bulbs in the house, buying energy efficient fridges, or even purchasing a Prius) is going to do a lot of good. After all, the neighbor just bought a gas-guzzler, the lights in our office buildings stay on all night, the classrooms are always overheated in the winter and air-conditioned too much in the summer -- what difference does it make – the little that I alone do. A seemingly reasonable argument. It's precisely that sort of thinking that made us believe we could get away (without consequence) with wasteful behavior in the first place, but here the problem is coming home to haunt us.
So, let me give you three answers that are far more satisfying. First, we need to create a sense of the collective. It's hard to make any change alone, so pull together your family, your friends, your neighbors, your church, whatever, and do it together. There are great
workbooks for such "ecoteams" about how to go on a "carbon diet" together. And then, look at the difference that many of us acting together can make. It's the old Margaret Mead dictum: that change depends on each one of us. To give a concrete example: if every household in the United States changed just one light bulb to a compact fluorescent, we would eliminate the need for one whole power plant right there. Tiny actions, multiplied many times, add up to something that matters. It saves money, too. That's one important thing to remember.
More importantly even is that the actions of individuals are critically important to send messages to others, and thereby to establish new social norms that tell everyone around us (our neighbors and our children) what "good" or "ethical" environmental behavior is. Social norms are far more important than any bit of information I could give you about why to act. Individuals also have enormous economic and political power through their individual actions. Why do you think people organize consumers boycotts? Again and again "voting" with our dollars has worked. Purchasing better products, purchasing fewer
products, purchasing energy-efficient products, investing in carefully screened retirement funds, you name it, there are countless way to push our economy at least into a greener direction. It may not be perfect, but it's better than the status quo. Voting with our phone-dialing fingers and letting our political representatives in the state house and in Washington know what we care about also matters. I've been told numerous times by Congressional staffers that their Congress person wasn't doing anything on global warming because he or she wasn't hearing anything about it from their constituents. Call them. Let them know. And reward those who do something useful with your vote. Now that we're headed into a presidential election campaign, push the candidates to tell you what they will do about climate change. It would be enormous if we finally made climate change a politically important election item. Don't make it about "the environment." Climate change is also about jobs, security, health, children, the future.
It's critical that we push from the bottom up to get something happen at the state and federal levels. Why? Therein lies the third answer. Governments can set regulations and policies that affect what we all do in our individual lives. Imagine you could have a safe car that's sporty, good-looking, powerful, affordable, and gave you 80 miles a gallon? Well, if such a car was available, we wouldn't maybe have to make these typical trade-offs. If we built energy efficiency right into the products we use in our lives, then you also wouldn't have to convince every single buyer in the store to go with the greener product. It would already be green, and we could resort to making choices between silver and gold, or whatever your favorite color may be. In other words, we need to push our governments and industry to facilitate the production of products that serve us and the planet, not make us choose between them (humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to think about themselves in the here and now first), or facilitate the building of infrastructure that makes it feasible to get around and do things with a far lower impact on the environment.
BP: Their are a lot of folks out there who argue that the car is the problem and just getting greater efficiency is not going to cut it but actually just put off the collective reckoning of an incredibly destructive culture (made in the USA!).... that with these type of changes we will just keep business as usual and not make the radical changes necessary. What do you say to them?
SM: Aahh, such a complex issue and question. On the one hand, you can rightfully argue that fuel efficiency improvements (especially at the snail's pace they are happening) are not enough, especially if we quickly compensate for those gains by driving more miles, drive faster and bigger cars, or simply if more and more of us are driving. The Chinese are rapidly getting behind the wheel in greater and greater numbers, and even though they are driving some pretty fuel-efficient cars, that won't improve the overall condition of the environment (from the direct impact of road-building to atmospheric CO2 concentrations). So, at best efficiency gains can simply buy us time. If they fool us into thinking we're solving the larger problem of reducing our total footprint on the planet - then we're obviously missing the boat.
On the other hand, as Voltaire once said, "the perfect is the enemy of the good": we should not miss important opportunities just because we feel there are even better ones, but possibly some that are completely impossible to realize. If we insist on the perfect, we may in the end accomplish nothing at all. And wouldn't that be the greater tragedy? So, unless we can bring about a completely new system of how we get around, with similar levels of flexibility, giving people similar senses of personal satisfaction and social status, along with the necessary value changes, and do that quickly - then by all means, let's do it. That would be fabulous. Personally, however, I would not put a lot of chips on that gamble. I assume that kind of radical shift will take a virtually complete running dry of our oil supplies (quickly) or else a much slower shift in cultural values regarding transportation, or at least a feasible technological alternative to oil - also not available right away. That's why - in the meantime - I think efficiency improvements are a good way to buy us time, raise awareness of the need for change, foster values of conservation, and support the research and development to find us an alternative. We certainly have not a minute to lose to get on with that business!
BP: You said earlier "humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to think about themselves in the here and now first", if that is the case, then there are real limits to how much the scientific community can convince the rest of us to prevent the worst effects of climate change. What do you think are effective alternate or additional methods that can catalyze the massive sea change needed?
SM: Hm, interesting question and I think I know what you’re trying to get at. Here is what I would say: Scientists are very comfortable thinking in 100-year, 1000-year timeframes, and many work on even longer time-scales. In fact, the point I just made about evolution comes from such a long-term perspective. Most lay people on the other hand have a hard time relating changes that happen over many decades and centuries to their personal lives and their daily work and concerns, right now.
That fact, by itself doesn’t diminish the important role scientists can and must play. Scientists have to give us “the long view” to place changes happening right now into the larger context. It helps us see whether what we’re doing to the atmosphere and the environment and the consequences we’re observing are in fact something we should be
Scientists and other communicators have another important role to play, and that is to make these long-term changes relevant to us in the here and now. One important way to do that is by helping people understand why they must act now (and how to act now) to prevent potentially dangerous changes later. Seems like every insurance agent has gotten us convinced of that need (pay a little now and thereby prevent catastrophic loss if and when your house burns down…). Seems like we got that principle with regard to paying into retirement funds or into college funds for our kids. It’s the same kind of thinking that is needed with regard to climate change. The other important way to make long-term dangers relevant to us now is by emphasizing the benefits of acting now. These are the so-called win-win responses to climate change. We act now to reduce energy use and thus save money, get cleaner air, have less asthma and more, healthier children, more beautiful views, and so on and – at the same time, almost inadvertently – we also reduce heat-trapping gas emissions, which helps the climate. In other words, the here-and-now benefit of acting becomes the motivation, not the long-term dangers of not acting.
Above and beyond that, and I think this is what you were trying to get
at with your question, is that doing something about global warming is
not just a rational, cognitive response. It needs an emotional response, maybe a spiritual response, certainly a deep shift in our values. I think you’re quite right about that. And – that deeper shift is incredibly difficult to achieve and complex in itself.
From the work I’ve done on communication and social change, I’d say, the deeper the social change, the harder, and the longer it will take to bring about. Values and social and cultural norms take generations to change. Clearly they do and it’s not impossible or futile to try to foster that – through the upbringing of our children, through active modeling by parents, by entire communities, through education in our schools and in informal settings, essentially through all efforts that help establish and model new social norms. But this is not something that can be achieved through a quick outreach campaign. I believe it is essential that we foster such deeper changes by engaging children and youth through parents and schools. The next generation will need both useful knowledge and guiding values that will help people navigate an increasingly challenging world.
Meanwhile, Bill, don’t forget, the set of changes needed in our energy and resource use can and must be tackled at many levels, through many efforts. Not all will be successful, but immediate changes are needed, at all levels. We need people working on those as well as the deeper fundamental shifts. This is why I think Joanna Macy’s work is so powerful. She says we need three types of actions: one is what she calls “holding actions” – things that prevent further damage and make immediate improvements; the second are structural changes that put in place new infrastructure and institutions which allow us to begin doing things in new ways; and finally visioning and actions that foster
far-reaching changes in consciousness, because we humans need new ways of being with the non-human world.
Scientists offer some input into this menu of needed actions, and everyone else who cares does their part. There are so many opportunities and so much need for constructive help. What unites us in the challenge is a hope for a better future, that we’re all charting new territory to get there, and that we need each others’ strengths and insights to succeed.
BP: In the first part of the interview you mention that social change like climate change has "tipping points" (my phrase) that can happen quickly whereas when you talk about big shifts in consciousness later on you speak of them in the long term. Could it not be argued that a big shift in consciousness (along with the holding actions and structural alternatives) is crucial in the short term and that it, and only it, can keep us from the worst consequences of our accumulated environmental ignorance?
SM: Sure, I'd love for that to happen, I am just not overly optimistic that we can achieve these deep shifts quickly. The deeper the shifts, the more effective, yet also the harder to bring about. That said, I suppose it is possible. That's the nice thing about surprises - they are the unexpected, and it would be great to see the unexpected in this arena.
BP: How does it feel to be a Nobel winner !?
SM: Hard to grasp in some ways -- we lowly IPCC contributors are removed enough, but still it's a great move on the part of the Nobel Committee and I'm glad that some folks see climate change for the threat to peace that it is!