Fear, Desire, and a Changing Climate

New evidence of global warming challenges us to consider what we really want.

Posted May 11, 2013

The New York Times just reported

that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million, where 350 was considered the safe level. This makes me think of two things. The first is research on the fear effect. Psychologists have studied the effect of scary messages on behavior change, starting with attempts to scare people into quitting smoking or brush their teeth. They have largely concluded that a little bit of fear can be a good thing in getting people to pay attention, but it has to be combined with a sense that effective action is possible. Fear without a prescription for possible behavior change leads people to engage in emotional coping by ignoring the issue. Fear of massive global disaster may encourage responses known as terror management, which often consists of affirming the status quo because it gives us a feeling of security.

So we have to share the message that there are effective actions possible. Here are three:

  • Replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact flourescents or LEDs
  • Replace energy-guzzling cars and appliances with more efficient ones
  • Take political action to encourage effective policy changes. This can be as simple as letting your elected officials know it’s important to you, or voting for the policies when possible.

The other thing that springs to my mind, in an odd juxtaposition, is Robert Frost’s well-known poem:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire…. 

It looks like we’re heading toward fire, which Frost links with desire. But there are many types of desire. In addition to the quick, passionate, impulsive type that we (sometimes) later regret, there are more sane but no less deeply held desires – studied by psychologists as values. We want a world of beauty, a world of peace, safety and harmony for our families, justice. All of these are threatened by a warming world. If we endorse behaviors and policies that protect them, perhaps our desires can be tapped to lead us away from fire.