Why the Paris Climate Talks Are Important

The recent talks showed that the world can work together to address this problem

Posted Dec 17, 2015

By Susan Clayton

Cleveland Post
Source: Cleveland Post

It may be tempting to dismiss the recently concluded Paris climate convention as a matter for scientists and politicians, irrelevant to the daily lives of most of us. But that would be wrong. Here's why.

Climate change is happening. We all know it. The pope knows it. Business people know it; more than 1,000 business leaders are in Paris for the talks. Many Republicans know it: Earlier this fall, a group of House Republicans signed a resolution in support of "conservative environmental stewardship." The 147 world leaders (and hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens) who arrived in Paris didn't gather to address an imaginary problem.

Climate change will affect us. Not just people in other countries, not just future generations (though all of these people are important), but us and the people we know. The effects have already started.

Climate change has acute and direct effects on a few: People lose their houses or their jobs because of extreme weather events. For others, the changes are more gradual but possibly even more severe. Rising sea levels and changing patterns of precipitation force people to abandon their communities or their ways of life. For example, the impact of climate change on cultural icons from fisheries in Maine to wineries in California will be felt across the country, though their heaviest impacts will be local.

The health effects are serious and profound: Areas that are flooded are subject to waterborne diseases, respiratory problems are on the increase, and global increases in temperature have already led to the spread of insect-borne diseases as well as to deaths directly related to heat stress. Millions of people are already dying each year from causes directly linked to climate change.

Less visible, but equally significant, are the impacts on mental health. Living through a hurricane, a flood, or a drought is linked to a measurable increase in post-traumatic stress disorder. Droughts are linked to increases in suicide. Higher temperatures and extreme weather are linked to aggression and conflict. In general, watching the environments we live in change around us can be a source of stress and anxiety, leading to increases in substance abuse and depression, and grief for the places that have been lost.

We can do something about it. Individuals can reduce their carbon footprints by making more efficient technology purchases (Energy Star appliances and fuel-efficient cars) and minimizing excessive energy use (think shorter showers). Individual households have the potential to collectively save significant energy — as much as 11 percent of total U.S. consumption, according to one calculation.

On a broader scale, governments and private individuals (thanks, Bill Gates!) can invest in renewable energy and sustainable technology; rich countries can help poor countries protect their remaining natural resources; and carbon emissions can be taxed.

While physical scientists have been modeling changes and developing new technology, psychologists and other social scientists have been investigating ways to help communities adapt and become more resilient to the effects of a changing climate.

Addressing climate change will have other benefits. Taking action will not only mitigate the impacts of climate change. Making the social, political and technological choices to limit our carbon emissions will also have fringe benefits. These actions can promote healthier lifestyles, reduce pollution, decrease inequality, drive technological innovation and economic development, and contribute to civic engagement and a sense of meaning.

Imagine the future. Most Americans want action on climate change: In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in late November, 63 percent say it is a serious problem. Ten years down the road, we could be congratulating ourselves for having set in motion a process to combat, and adapt to, climate change; and for having come together as a global community to recognize our shared concerns and respond to our shared challenges.

The Paris talks are important not because they will provide all the answers but because the whole world is working together to address this problem. That is an achievement to celebrate, and a signal that further action is possible.

Susan Clayton is president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster. This article was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on December 11, 2015.