Tucked away on an inside page of the Star Tribune last week was a short story noting that global surface temperatures in May were 1.13 degrees above average, topping the previous record for that month set in 2016. Also noted was that for the 12 months just concluded, global temperatures were 1.3 degrees above average, matching the warmest 12-month period ever, set between October 2015 and 2016.
It’s possible if the coronavirus pandemic had never happened and if George Floyd hadn’t been killed on the streets of Minneapolis, this latest Earth-is-heating-up story would have gained more prominent media display.
That it didn’t doesn’t alter the fact that our climate is changing relatively quickly and that the ramifications will be far-reaching.
Certainly, the nation’s food-growing and livestock-rearing capabilities will be altered, as will wildlife and their habitats and, in fact, entire landscapes. It’s possible, climatologists say, the northern coniferous forest and wetland ecosystem that have long dominated the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will be replaced by oak savanna.
Yet the discussion today is less about the inevitability of an altered climate than about the sociology and psychology of human attitude change relative to behavior change, and especially the weak correlation between the two — a topic that, given the coronavirus pandemic and the recent tragic death of Floyd and all that has followed, might be the central issue of our time.
Try as they might, sociologists over many decades generally have failed to tie determinatively people’s attitudes to their behavior. Some scientists, in fact, say people’s attitudes don’t consistently determine their behavior at all.
I’ve been intrigued about this topic since 1988, when I spent a year investigating the illegal killing of ducks.
One morning near Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, I watched an American kill about 80 redhead ducks while they were driven over his blind by a young Mexican man in an airboat. When I later asked the American why he shot so many ducks when doing so in the U.S. could land him in jail, he essentially couldn’t explain it, except to say that shooting large numbers of birds was normal and expected in Mexico.
On another morning, also in 1988, the late U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Dave Hall, along with his colleague, Bill Mellor, and I paddled into a Louisiana coastal marsh about 2 a.m. to hide near a hunting blind the agents knew had been illegally baited with corn.
Just before sunup, the hunters arrived and when the birds started flying, their wariness was lost in their zeal to get the corn. When Hall and Mellor finally revealed themselves to the hunters, showing their badges, the hunters had killed more than 60 ducks, well over their limits.
To his credit, Hall had developed a “Poachers to Preachers” program in conjunction with federal judges in which convicted wildlife killers were required to appear in videos in which they confessed the sins of their ways.
Hall had a video camera with him that morning, and while he interviewed the leader of the violators, he asked me to do the filming.
“This is the third time I’ve busted you for baiting,” Hall said to the violator. “Now you’re out here teaching your kids to poach. What’s it going to take to get you to come into the marsh and shoot a legal limit of ducks, and stop shooting when you do?”
To my surprise, the guy took the question seriously, furrowing his brow and stroking his chin. Then he said, “Raise the limit?”
Infuriating as the man’s answer was, and, yes, in a way, funny, the response was nevertheless fascinating, suggestive as it was of the many ways we all resist behavior change.
Certainly, behaviors in the U.S. tied to cigarette smoking, seat belt wearing and drinking and driving have changed for the better due to persistent messaging.
But in each case, self-interest largely compelled the changes, e.g., if a person stopped smoking, wore a seat belt and didn’t drink and drive, he or she was more likely, on average, to live longer (and in the latter case, stay out of jail) than if the change wasn’t undertaken.
Yet absent such self-interest in the near or intermediate term, people oftentimes don’t change their behavior, regardless of their perceived attitude.
Thus the difficulty, complexity and challenge of fighting global climate change: What, after all, can individuals do to effect positive global climate outcomes in their lifetimes?
The answer too often is “little” or “nothing.”
The same matrix of human choices and their relationships to individual and societal benefits has been front and center during the past four months in the world’s attempt to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.
Stay home, our leaders say. Keep your distance from others. Wear a mask when appropriate. Adhere to these behaviors, the message goes, and the individual and society at large will benefit in the near and long term.
Generally, but not universally, people have done pretty well. But their motivation (to stay alive) has been extreme, and the perceived benefit, immediate.
Unfortunately, because individual behavior change is far more loosely correlated, if at all, to solving climate change, in this and similar cases only behavior change compelled by legislation, regulation and the perceived negative personal consequences of each has the greatest chance of long-term, positive societal outcomes.
Hall’s “Poachers to Preachers” program changed some poachers’ behaviors through persuasion.
But it wasn’t until Minnesota waterfowlers, among others, bought Fish and Wildlife Service agents a $650,000 float-equipped helicopter to quickly and effectively locate and, when necessary, land on duck poachers, that the miscreants’ behavior changed on a large scale.
Sometimes, it turns out, actions do speak louder than words
Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.”
Absent such regulations, look for this month to be the hottest June on record, and perhaps July will be, too.