Loyola-Chicago conference finds a 'perfect storm' of mental barriers to climate action

Chicago — As the facts and threats of climate change surround us, why is it so hard to motivate people to undertake the changes needed?

The topic served as discussion during an afternoon panel session on psychology and climate motivation on the second day of the Loyola University Chicago second annual Climate Change Conference, held March 19-21 on the school’s North Shore campus.

Susan Clayton, a psychology professor who chairs the environmental studies program at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, said that in her analysis it is difficult to motivate people to address climate change because it seems so big and so distant. It is not something immediately perceived, or even easy to prove just by being buried under 9 feet of Boston snow.

To create a sense of connection within people to the issue, Clayton recommended anthropomorphizing the arguments. The key, she argued, is to create a sense of emotional connection so that people begin to see themselves as part of living nature. 

That can occur through personal experiences with nature, social experiences, attention to our heritage, or culture. Clayton also offered a simple, direct and practical recommendation: If you want to create and promote connection with creation, go to the zoo. 

(Perhaps Simon and Garfunkel were prophetic when they sang, “It’s all happening at the zoo!”)

Elke Weber, the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia University and an expert on judgement and decision-making under uncertainty, pointed out that significant behavioral changes such as those demanded by climate change do not come easily.

Rational deliberation and facts do not normally bring about those changes, she said, but rather actions are more often guided by emotions, associations, rules and habits. Humans are creatures of habit who learn most from experience but are often distracted from that learning by the many things demanding their attention. And many goals conflict.

In this regard, she identified climate change as “the perfect storm.”

Inaction and bias for the status quo are behavioral defaults, and vested interests in the status quo attempt to deceive people in order to protect their interests, recently demonstrated in the documentary “Merchants of Doubt.” Add to that the complexity of effective action and the necessity of a broad collaboration on matters of some uncertainty at scientific, technological, political and social levels.

Furthermore, denial, wishful thinking and misperception or underestimation of climate change risks are widespread and understandable, and the risks themselves are abstract, statistical and future, while doing something to address those risks has upfront costs that are certain and unattractive today.

So what is to be done? Weber recommended turning the challenges to advantages:

  • Point out that inaction and the status quo are not safe alternatives, as the projected outcomes of doing nothing become clearer and seen as drastically threatening.
  • Face the fact that change is coming whether we want it or not.
  • Imagine a new and sustainable future that is just for all.
  • In your own imagination, make “green electricity” the default option in all you say, write and do. 
  • Get “all hands on deck” -- the public, politicians, CEOs, corporations and board members, social scientists, architects, playwrights, educators, students -- to address the issues related to climate change, from sustainable growth models to new ways to conceiving and measuring happiness.
  • Focus on the positive consequences of change, and provide lists of effective actions. 

Previous Loyola climate conference coverage: “Jesuits schools explore their role in addressing climate change at Loyola Chicago conference,” March 20; "Loyola-Chicago climate conference discusses 'nuts and bolts' of fossil fuel divestment​," March 25

Other panels at the March 20 afternoon session touched on climate justice and the tangible actions and policies that can emerge from ethical imperatives.

William French, a theology professor at Loyola Chicago, distinguished two frameworks through which to approach climate change: a climate justice framework and a climate prudence network.

Under the rubric of climate justice, he pointed out that climate change is creating millions of climate refugees and setting off conflicts over essential resources such as water and food many places on the planet, while a small corporate and political elite profit greatly. In addition, many countries point to the U.S., Great Britain and other wealthy nations that have enjoyed great historic industrial benefits at the cost of producing the lion’s share of carbon emissions.

“Sadly,” French said, “many developing nations, who bear very little responsibility for causing climate change, are experiencing some of its earliest and heaviest impacts as typhoons hit coastlines and ocean-rise begins to damage low river delta farmlands and villages.”

In turning to the Climate Prudence Framework, French suggested that the concepts of national security and global security should expand from obsession with military and terrorist threats to include preparation for climate change. The U.S. Pentagon has begun to recognize the changes in climate as constituting a serious threat.  

Fellow panelists Lisa Sedaris of Indiana University and Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University suggested nurturing a sense of awe and wonder at creation as a way to move beyond self-interest and arrogance, and toward locating the human family in a larger sacred culture that unites all with creation.

Tucker noted reports on the upcoming papal encyclical on the environment said it would focus on an integral ecology that views ecological integrity, social justice and peace as all interrelated and essential.

Dan DiLeo, project manager of the Catholic Climate Covenant, said during the climate action/policy panel that he expects Pope Francis’ vision in the encyclical to stress the goodness of all creation and humanity’s integral role as its “human face,” and the obligation of human care for creation -- including a moral obligation to address climate change with both charity and justice.

As for actions, he called on Jesuit universities to model what they believe in both charitable and justice commitments and suggested they use Climate Covenant resources to develop clean power plans for their campuses. He also encouraged advocacy, such as support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon reduction rules, the United Nations-proposed Green Climate Fund and its Paris climate negotiations in December.

Kathleen Smythe, a history professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, noted that humans are biologically oriented to respond to personal threats and dangers, but have not evolved yet to respond instinctively to global threats such as climate change. She suggested three elements of the Jesuit tradition that can help people overcome that type of dissociation:

  • A sense of wonder opening people to find God in all things, live vulnerably and with a long sense of history;
  • the moral engagement that Ignatian spirituality calls forth, prompting solidarity and political engagement to reduce destructive impacts of human actions;
  • the sense of calling or vocation that helps people pay more attention to cultural values generating climate change and crisis, values like upward mobility and unlimited and uncommitted liberty.

[Jesuit Fr. James Hug, former president of the D.C.-based, social justice-focused Center for Concern, attended the Loyola Chicago Climate Change Conference (March 19-21) and has filed reports for NCRonline.org and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.]

Editor's note: Want more stories from Eco Catholic? We can send you an email alert once a week with the latest. Just go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.