The Atlantic|March 2020

How the human instinct to conform could help us meet the challenge of the climate crisis

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” reads the frightening first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace- Wells’s comprehensive account of what researchers have discovered about our planet’s climate trajectory. The severity of the crisis, he goes on to note, has made some climatologists reluctant to describe its full extent, fearing that such candor might make the challenge we face seem hopeless. The concern is understandable: Previous warnings of impending peril have done little to alter either individual behavior or public policy.

More than half of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age was put there by humans after 1988, the year the climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress that a dangerous warming trend was already well under way. Worldwide, emissions continue to increase, as floods, droughts, famines, and wildfires become more frequent and more intense. This century has already been responsible for 19 of the 20 hottest years on record. According to the federal government’s 2019 Arctic Report Card, rapidly melting permafrost now threatens to create feedback loops that would release much of the 1.5 trillion metric tons of carbon it holds—roughly twice the amount already circulating in the atmosphere.

Even now, there is much we could do to parry the climate threat. We could enact stiff carbon taxes and mandate an accelerated phaseout of fossil fuels. We could undertake massive investments in renewable- energy sources, launch large-scale reforestation, and alter the mix of foods we eat. We could rush to develop scalable methods of carbon capture and sequestration. Yet on all of these fronts, we are taking only minimal action. The politics around climate change remain intractable, and human nature itself seems ill-suited to the challenge: Putting off solving the problem— or hoping it will somehow just go away—is easier than confronting it. “Call me a pessimist,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in a grim and widely read New Yorker essay on the climate crisis, “but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon.”

Having written periodically about climate issues for more than a decade, I have followed the scientific literature on the subject closely, and I understand the fatalist view that the window for an effective response is rapidly closing. But in the process, I’ve also arrived at a more hopeful perspective, one rooted in another side of human nature. Properly stoked and channeled, our instincts could help support a different trajectory.

RADICAL CHANGE CAN happen swiftly. I’m happy to report that none of my four adult sons is a smoker. But if they’d grown up when I did, I suspect that at least two of them would have taken up the habit. When my own stint as a smoker began—at age 14, in 1959—many of my friends had already been smoking for several years. My parents didn’t want me to smoke, but because they were smokers themselves, their objections rang hollow. At the time, more than half of American men and almost 30 percent of American women smoked. In some circles, it was just something that most people did.

Today, fewer than 15 percent of Americans smoke. Given the difficulty of quitting, few people imagined that such a precipitous reduction in smoking rates could occur so quickly. The decline was rooted in collective measures American society took to discourage the habit. States and the federal government raised taxes on tobacco products. In the ’50s, a pack of Camels could be had for as little as 25 cents in some locations— about $2.17 in today’s dollars. In many areas today, taxes have pushed that price close​ to $10. In New York City, a pack of cigarettes cannot be sold legally for less than $13. By the 1990s, many cities and states were banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and public buildings; some jurisdictions went so far as to prohibit the practice in outdoor public spaces as well.


You can read upto 3 premium stories before you subscribe to Magzter GOLD

Log-in, if you are already a subscriber


Get unlimited access to thousands of curated premium stories and 5,000+ magazines


March 2020