MIT Researcher Sterman on Behavioral Change

Time’s Walsh Reports on ‘Accumulations’ And Public Misunderstanding of Climate

Those interested in climate change and behavioral change – or lack of behavioral change – will be interested in Time reporter Bryan Walsh’s recent blog posting entitled “What the Public Doesn’t Get About Climate Change.”

“I come across a lot of scary facts,” Walsh wrote on a Time blog.

Note first of all Walsh’s view that it is “facts” he is writing about here, and not opinions.

Also of interest in the context of behavioral change is some research Walsh describes as being done by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor John Sterman. Sterman has researched how public misunderstanding of “accumulations” leads citizens – and perhaps also MIT grad students – to some mistaken conclusions.

“One of the most frightening studies I’ve read recently.” That is how Walsh describes John Sterman’s research, which led to a Science “Policy Forum” magazine column (pdf) on October 24.

The source of Walsh’s being scared? It boils down to this:

Sterman asked more than 200 MIT grad students to estimate greenhouse gas emission reductions needed globally to halt increased atmospheric concentrations.

“They probably are a lot smarter than you or me,” Walsh wrote of the students, noting their academic quals.

So how many came close? About 16 percent, Walsh wrote. “When the MIT kids can’t figure our climate change, what are the odds that the broader public will?” he asked rhetorically.

Walsh pointed to a “tremendous gap” between a very worried science community and a public “which rarely ranks it as a high priority.”

“As a result, we have our current dilemma: a steady drumbeat of scientific evidence of global warming’s severity and comparatively little in the way of meaningful political action.”

In an interview with Walsh, Sterman pointed to “a profound and fundamental misconception about climate.”

Using the analogy of adding more water to a bathtub until it inevitably overflows, Walsh reported that most of Sterman’s students concluded that capping emissions at current levels would stabilize carbon concentrations.

“That’s not the case – and in fact, pursuing such a plan for the future would virtually guarantee that global warming would spin out of control,” Walsh wrote. Instead, carbon emissions “would need to be cut drastically from current levels,” and not just held at those levels, if carbon concentrations are to be reduced.

Walsh reported that Sterman does not think the Manhattan Project metaphor of attacking climate change is sufficient. Sterman instead prefers an analogy to the civil rights movement to steer the social revolution he thinks needed.

“The reality is that this is even more difficult than civil rights,” Sterman said. “Even that took a long time, and we don’t have that kind of time with the climate.”

Sterman called the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “completely inadequate” in terms of clearly explaining the dynamics of the climate system for a lay audience.

“The burden is on scientists to better explain in clear English” the climate and what affects it, Walsh concluded. “We should try to remember that sometimes common sense isn’t a match for science.”

To download PDFs of Sterman’s previously published relevant research on this issue – and learn more about his intriguing research on public understanding and misunderstanding of “accumulation” and its importance to the climate change issue – click here and here.

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