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Cognitive Dissonance: John Sterman on Understanding Climate Change

March 19, 2013
​Climate change is a complex problem. Even bright minds become confused when simultaneously presented with consequences that are potentially catastrophic and the feeling that there’s nothing they can do about it. But there are ways of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it's how we think about global warming that seems to be impeding action. John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael J. Crouch Visiting Professor at the Australian School of Business, has been studying why people have difficulty understanding the dynamics of climate. He sees a way to reframe the issue and has devised simulation tools to assist in forming opinions and policies consistent with people's values. Sterman recently spoke with Knowledge@Australian School of Business.
An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business:What is it about climate change that people can't comprehend?

John Sterman: Climate change is just about the most difficult challenge we face. You have incredibly long time delays between [changes in the way we use] the energy system and the impact on the climate. You have lots of feedback relationships, [such as when] the climate warms up, permafrost melts. [Then] bacteria will munch on that newly available carbon, put more carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane in the air, and climate heats up even more. You’ve got non-linearities that create the possibility of tipping points. And on top of it all, it’s a common pool resource problem; it doesn’t matter to the climate where the CO2 comes from, so each nation wants other nations to cut their emissions first.

This makes it a very difficult problem, much more difficult than, say, reducing local air pollution from cars or industry, which itself has proved difficult.

We’ve been studying why people have difficulty understanding the dynamics of the climate, and what can be done about it. A lot of my colleagues in climate science were carrying out the primary research to help us understand the risks of climate change. Their approach [was], “we’ll do that basic research, which is terribly important. Then we’re going to communicate that to governmental leaders, who will then do the right thing.”

But that model of change is fundamentally wrong. It's not how change happens because we live in a political society, [with] most countries [being] democracies [where] public opinion matters. So if you try to do what science indicates is the best thing for society, but there isn’t enough public support for it, you will quickly find yourself out of office.

We have to find ways to change what we would call the mental models of the public around how this issue works. So our research involves experimental studies, field studies and other approaches to try to understand how people think about climate change, and then what could be done so that [they] can learn for themselves how the climate works and then begin to support policies that are consistent with their own values.

We’re not trying to tell people what they ought to think, what they value; that’s not a scientific question. Reasonable people can disagree about what ought to be done, given the risks of climate change. What reasonable people shouldn’t do, though, is discount what we know to be true about the physical world.
As an example, we’ve discovered that many people believe that if we begin to slow the growth of CO2 emissions and eventually stabilise those emissions – so we would stop growing the rate at which CO2 is being added to the atmosphere – then that would stabilise the climate. And this is just not true; it’s not true as a matter of basic physics.

Here’s the way to think about it: The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is a stock, it’s an accumulation. It’s like the amount of money in your bank account, or it’s like the amount of water in a bathtub. And everybody knows what’s going to happen to the level of water in a bathtub if you pour water in faster than it drains out.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: It will rise until it overflows.

John Sterman: Of course. But when it comes to the climate, if you ask people, “What would it take in order to stabilise the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere?” they say, “All you have to do is stop the growth”. And in our experiments, 84% of all the participants violated conservation of mass; that is, they told us that you could continuously pour water into that bathtub faster than it drains out, and yet the amount of water in the tub would still magically stay constant.

When you dig into this and ask why, it’s not because they’re poorly educated. The people who participated in these experiments were highly educated.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: So why don’t people understand this? Why don’t they get it?

John Sterman: What’s going on is not that people aren’t smart, it’s that we’re using the wrong frame to think about this issue. When you ask people this kind of a question, what they’re doing is using what we would call the correlation heuristic. That is, they think the output of the system should look like – be correlated with, have the same pattern – as the input. So if we stop the growth of the emissions, our climate should stabilise.

Now, correlational reasoning is extremely effective in lots of situations. For example, if you eat this plant and you get sick, you eat that plant and you get sick, pretty soon you’re going to learn not to eat [the plants]. The correlation there is extremely useful to you, and therefore we’ve evolved with the capability to detect correlations and then use them to make decisions. We haven’t evolved with the ability to reason very well about stocks and flows, or this process of accumulation.

The good news is, people can learn how to think about bathtub dynamics and to recognise the existence of those bathtubs in the world, whether it’s the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the amount of money in your bank account or the number of alternative vehicles on the highways. People can learn to recognise those accumulations and to think correctly about how the flows affect them. But it’s not something that comes automatically. It requires some mindfulness.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: For many people, the lack of understanding about climate change springs from all the conflicting voices as to what’s actually happening. There are scientists obviously disagreeing with each other, which is fine in academia where you can argue the point. But it's confusing for those in the outside world who may only get a small snapshot of the debate.
John Sterman: It’s a bit of a myth that there’s great disagreement among scientists. [Almost] 98% agree that the climate is changing, that it’s largely caused by human activity, that there are serious risks ahead if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And unfortunately, that tiny [dissenting] minority gets equal play in the media. So the media have to learn how to provide full and complete information without making it appear that it’s a 50/50 split, which is just not the case.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: But if people are looking at how long climate change may take before its effects become an inescapable and deadly reality, it's easy enough for them to say: “We’re going to be dead by that point anyway. Why should we care?”

John Sterman: This is a common belief, but I think it’s missing two important aspects. The first is that climate is already changing. We’ve warmed the planet by about 0.8C, on average, [and] that already leads to impacts including rising sea level, more extreme weather events – floods in places, droughts and wildfires in others – and we’ve seen that here in Australia.

[The second], more important issue is whether people truly don’t care about the future. So you can try this with yourself, with your family, with people that you know and meet, whatever age they are. Ask them if they have or plan to have kids. A lot of the people that I interact with are students or executives, 25 to 55 years old. Many of them have children, some are planning to have children. Let’s say somebody is going to have a child this year. Well in the developed world, life expectancy at birth is about 80 years. So your child born this year can expect to live until about 2092, and your grandchildren can expect to live well past the year 2100. Are you really saying you don’t care about that? Most people, they care.

I don’t think [the problem is] this attitude that après moi le déluge. I think people are overwhelmed by the complexity; they’re overwhelmed by the long time delays, and by the helplessness they feel in the face of the scope of the changes that need to take place in our society.

When you’re presented with consequences that are potentially catastrophic, and simultaneously with the feeling that there’s nothing you can do about it, that’s a very difficult feeling to sustain. Faced with that cognitive dissonance, what we tend to do is to say: “The problem’s really not that bad. We might get lucky.” Or outright denial that there’s even anything to worry about. I think most people are in that place of either feeling hopeless, helpless, or having shifted over into denial.

The interesting thing is, our society has addressed challenges in the past that were as daunting as this. For example, prior to the 1700s the institution of slavery was pervasive around the world and always had been; every culture, every society, from the Bible, China, Europe, in Africa, in the New World, there was slavery. The slave trade in England, for example, was considered to be enormously important to the health of the British economy and the expansion of the empire. Starting in the late 1700s, a small group of people began to agitate to abolish the slave trade and slavery. Nobody thought this was possible and you heard the same kind of arguments that you hear today about the climate. People stood up and said: “If we do this, it’ll destroy our economy.” One slave trader at the time said: “Slavery is the hinge upon which all the trade of the world revolves.”

Well, it’s a long story, but it’s basically a story of a few people having the courage to stand up and say: “This is wrong and we must end it.” And they organised, and they talked to people, and they travelled the country, and they wrote pamphlets. We’re talking about people such as Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, who penned the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, and William Wilberforce, and a few others. They gradually recruited more people to their cause. Within 50 years of Clarkson’s initial conversion to this idea, the slave trade in England had been abolished. That’s a rather short time to do away with an institution that had existed essentially as long as there had been civilisation.
[In tackling climate change], we’re just talking about finding a different way to get around in our cars and heat our houses, how to have hot showers and cold beer. In some ways, this has got to be a lot easier than dealing with the abolition of the slave trade.

So I’m personally optimistic. What’s needed in the bottleneck to action is a better understanding of how people form and change their opinions about complex matters, and providing them with tools through which they can learn for themselves. It’s never going to work for me to tell you how you should think. I have two kids; when they were teenagers, I learned this lesson the hard way, as most people do. You can’t tell those people anything. And I tell my students: “Listen, I can’t teach you anything.” And they all kind of laugh because they’ve been generous to me with teaching ratings in the past. But I’m dead serious. I can’t tell you anything; you’ve got to learn it for yourself.

Most of the time, we learn through experimentation and experience. But in the case of climate change, you can’t do that, because by the time we experience the harm, it’s too late to do anything. So we have had to create simulations, micro-worlds [generated by] management flight simulators. Think of them as video games, if you like, but grounded in the science, absolutely consistent with the science, through which people without technical training can experiment, try any policy they want. Such as, what if Australia’s carbon tax is kept in place? What if it’s strengthened? What if China does this, what if the US does that? What would it take collectively for the world to cut our carbon emissions and lower those risks?

The simulation tools that we’ve developed are being used by the UN, by the climate negotiators for the US. There’s a version of the model in China, in Chinese, where they have learned how to modify it and run it so that they [can] learn for themselves how the climate might respond to the policies they’re considering.

We need to get that out more to the general public, which we’re working on. It’s available for free online. [Just] go to Climateinteractive.org. There you’ll find everything you need to get the models and play with them yourself. So I think that’s the way in which we’re going to begin to make progress on this very tough issue.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business:  Hopefully, as the carbon tax debate continues in Australia, people will take up your offer. Thank you, John Sterman.
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