Climate Change and Other Global Challenges to Human Flourishing
Climate change is the most pressing global challenge the world faces today, with far-reaching impacts on society, the environment, and our future. A panel discussion at Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing focuses on how science can help inform our individual and collective actions to find solutions.
Climate change is outpacing our ability to use the past as a guide to the future
Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate change on people and the planet, emphasizes the urgency of addressing climate change by describing it as "an unprecedented experiment with the only home we have," planet Earth. "As far back as we can go into the paleoclimate record millions of years ago, we have never seen this much carbon going into the atmosphere this quickly," she says. This has led to rapidly changing temperatures. Hayhoe points out that our entire society and way of life, including how we grow food, allocate water, design infrastructure, and manage geopolitical boundaries, is predicated on the assumption of a stable climate. However, the current rate of climate change is outpacing our ability to use the past as a guide to the future, and we need to look to the future to ensure human flourishing.
Climate change is a threat multiplier
Heyhoe also addresses the challenges of climate change in the context of other global issues such as distrust of science, political divisions, socioeconomic inequality, poverty, hunger, and disease. While these challenges are interconnected, she points out that climate change is an urgent threat that exacerbates and interacts with other challenges, amplifying their impacts. As the US military says, climate change is a threat multiplier. In other words, it takes other issues we're already concerned about, and it exacerbates them. "Quite literally, climate change is what stands between us and a better future," says Hayhoe. The good news is "Climate actions aren't only actions to tackle climate change; they're actions to tackle all of the other problems we confront, too. Climate solutions can give us cleaner air and water. They can protect us from disasters like storms, wildfires, and floods...Climate solutions can give us better health, provide more affordable energy, reduce inequalities, create healthy ecosystems, protect our biodiversity, and give us a more stable world."
Emotions as drivers of sustainable decisions
David DeSteno studies the mechanisms of the mind that shape moral behavior. In this discussion he touches upon how concepts such as hypocrisy, compassion, pride, punishment, cheating, and trust influence human behavior in the context of global challenges. DeSteno's research often investigates how to get people to make sacrifices to work for the greater good instead of their own near-term comfort or convenience. "What we know about humans in general is we tend to discount threats in the future, and we like immediate gratification. But solving the climate problem really requires all of us to accept a little sacrifice now for gains later," says DeSteno. "People's emotional states have a huge influence here. For instance, the reason we pay people back is we feel grateful to them. The reason we pay things forward and accept sacrifices to help others is that we feel compassion for them. And so what we've found in our work is that by cultivating these emotions... when people feel emotions like gratitude, they make more sustainable decisions. That is, they're willing to take less for their own individual gain, leaving more for everybody else. So I may be willing to pay a little bit more, to take a little bit less profit, to keep the pool going, right? In terms of clean energy, et cetera." After listening to DeSteno describe this, Phillip Ball wonders "Do the same considerations apply in terms of expecting sacrifices from a nation or a country, rather than from the individual?" For countries or other entities it only makes sense to sacrifice — "to pay more money for energy, to have higher costs, to fight climate change, to give money to poorer nations to help them do so, whatever it might be — if those around you are making the same sacrifices," says DeSteno. "Otherwise, you kind of feel like you might be being taken advantage of." How do we begin to create trust among leaders so they don't feel like they're taking action at a cost?
The role of leadership, communities, and faith traditions in climate action
Faith leaders and religious institutions have a unique influence on people's beliefs, and behaviors — over 80 percent of people in the world follow a specific faith. They can play a significant role in promoting environmental stewardship and sustainability when they apply their faith traditions' values to climate issues, says Dekila Chungyalpa. She created the Loka Initiative at UW-Madison and a program called Sacred Earth at WWF to "prove that working with faith leaders, no matter where, no matter what religion, would move the needle on conservation and climate issues." In this discussion, she shares how many faith traditions emphasize the responsibility to care for the planet and its inhabitants, and how that can provide a moral and ethical framework for addressing climate change. "The language I'd use is interdependence and interconnectedness. Indigenous elders and leaders often use the word kinship," says Chungyalpa. "There is this natural understanding that the problems just described about climate change are the impacts of systemic problems. These are actually not individualistic problems. And therefore, what is required is that we become more collectivist in our approach towards flourishing, towards addressing these problems." She highlights a couple of examples of successful faith-led environmental efforts that focus around concepts of cultivating gratitude and respect for nature. This is a "common theme for Indigenous culture, and it's very easy to other that — i.e. very easy to think of that as something that just exists in Indigenous communities, whereas...often the space that I find the most promise for debate — even among faith leaders that question climate science is usually the space around theological literacy, where if you are willing to, if you have that curiosity to go back and look at what your theology says, sooner or later, you're going to find something that talks about the importance of nature."
Hope for the future
The speakers each note the need for collaboration between faith leaders, scientists, policymakers, and communities to find solutions to global challenges by leveraging our character strengths. "When it comes to things like climate change, when it comes to existential threats, decisions is the wrong word. We have to accept choices. There are choices, and choices require sacrifice — not just optimizing what's good in terms of GDP and profit," says DeSteno. "I get the sense that there is a hunger for this, and whether people are drawing on spiritual traditions or secular wisdom to cultivate these emotional states, I get a sense that there is a brewing concern, and I just hope it keeps moving in the right direction."
Play the above video about Climate Change and Other Global Challenges to Human Flourishing, a segment from The First Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, organized by Templeton World Charity Foundation.
Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy
Dekila Chungyalpa, Director, Loka Initiative, University of Wisconsin-Madison
David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University
Philip Ball, Science Writer
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