There are many factors that influence our understanding of, and action on, climate issues. Sometimes, flaws in reasoning can impact our decision-making and how we choose to act on climate mitigation. By understanding how complex causality affects decision-making, we can reinforce our commitment to solving the climate challenge. These three key concepts, and strategies to overcome them, can help us all remember that our actions do leave lasting impacts on our world.
1. Action at an attentional distance: When it comes to climate change, causes and outcomes are often separated by significant spatial or temporal distances. For example, we all want to prevent polar bears from facing extinction but because we don’t encounter polar bears in our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that our everyday actions (recycling, or driving less) can actually affect polar bears. We can overcome this disconnect by emphasizing what is local and personal, and by focusing our communications on simple steps that we can take in our lives to affect positive change.
2. Distributed causality: Climate disruptions are often caused by many single events that collectively lead to powerful – and sometimes unnoticed – outcomes. For instance, a quick trip to the grocery store may not use much gas, nor emit a large amount of carbon, but billions of people making such trips amounts to significant fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions. By reminding our campuses that individual actions matter, and by offering alternatives and solutions, we can take important steps to a more sustainable future.
3. Probabilistic causality: A cause doesn’t have to lead to an effect every single time in order for them to be related. Climate change is a multi-faceted issue that is often manipulated by special interests, political parties, or the press; for instance, a particularly cold stretch of weather does not mean that the world is not warming. In order to overcome this type of thinking, we need to present scientific data in a relevant, accessible way. Higher ed is on the front lines of climate change science, and it is up to us to ensure that we are communicating these issues in ways that everyone can understand, and act on.
As the conversations surrounding the Paris climate talks have emphasized, the future is now for rescuing the earth from climate upheaval — and today’s children, inheritors of the agreement just signed, will have to be prepared to make the necessary choices to safeguard the planet.
Educators can lay the groundwork for this generational shift by not only teaching environmental science, but also fostering an awareness of how students’ everyday actions can help or harm our world. Associate Professor Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explores how understanding complex causality in nature affects human decision making. She offers insight into how teachers can help students appreciate the intricacies of environmental change.
ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES AND EFFECTS: THREE KEY IDEAS
Teaching and learning about the environment means grappling with three key concepts, which shape the way we understand our impact on the world:
1. Action at an attentional distance: the idea that the connection between causes and outcomes in environmental systems can be difficult to recognize because they exist on large spatial scales and in different “attentional frames.” Middle schoolers may say, for example, that they want to “save the polar bears,” but they don’t see polar bears in their daily lives. As a result, many have a difficult time remembering consistently that their actions, such as recycling and turning off the lights, can actually affect polar bears.