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Home >Opinion >Columns >A new vocabulary for climate change will help tackle it

Unprecedented blackouts that hit Texas and flash-floods in Uttarakhand have once again brought the issue of climate change into focus. Since the 1980s, the number of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wild fires have roughly tripled, causing a five-fold increase in the value of property destroyed. If the past is any indication, within a few days, once the visible remnants of these disasters are cleared up, the issue of climate change will go back into oblivion. Why are humans so unconcerned about the planet’s future?

There is enough scientific evidence that 11,000 years of extraordinary climate stability during the Holocene epoch was shattered by the Anthropocene era that began with the Industrial Revolution. Today, Earth’s climate is driven not by the geological rhythms of nature, but by the frenzied activities of humans. But it took a while for policymakers to realize our pivotal role in climate disasters.

The Bretherton diagram developed in 1988 provided a detailed schematic representation of various factors and processes that influence climate on all time scales. In this diagram, human activities were represented as just another factor. But by the Open Science Conference of 2001, our role in altering the Earth’s climate was getting far more prominence. In the two decades since, developments in behavioural sciences have helped us understand the behavioural complexities of climate change.

For millions of years, humans focused only on the present. Only with the advent of agriculture did we start to think beyond the present. Yet, one only has to look at the retirement planning of individuals to see how poor humans are at taking care of their own future. Daniel Kahneman, a renowned behavioural scientist who won a Nobel prize for economics, has contended that sustainability behaviour requires humans to accept short-term costs and reductions in living standards so as to mitigate uncertain and higher losses far in the future. Kahneman believes no amount of awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to take care of their future at the cost of the present. To build a sustainable world, humans must be persuaded to care about the future of other people. Getting humans to work towards a sustainable world might be the toughest behavioural change project ever undertaken. As we embark on this initiative, we need to get some of the basics right.

Take a closer look at the language that is used for our crisis of climate change. How is the main problem of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere expressed? The conversation features various terms that range from ‘carbon footprint’, ‘carbon load’ and ‘carbon equity’ to ‘carbon intensity’, ‘carbon credit’ and ‘carbon neutrality’. To capture the problem of other pollutants, we have measures like the air quality index. But there is no consistent single metric that captures the larger problem. This is a serious lacuna in the development of effective sustainability strategies.

In the personal health space, a lot of the communication is around the single metric of ‘calories’. Calorie counts help people pick one food item over another. Using the same metric, one can evaluate the benefits of healthy habits like walking or jogging. So the positive and negatives of the health problem are depicted on the same yardstick. For sustainability behaviours to gain more traction, policymakers should develop a similar common gauge for climate change.

To solve any problem, one should be able to measure both its extent and the effectiveness of various solutions. In the case of climate change, the variable in use should make it easy to grasp the complex science behind the problem. It should make it easy for an individual to evaluate the earth friendliness or unfriendliness of each action.

If the cognitive load involved in a decision is heavy, humans tend to postpone taking it. So an easy-to-understand metric can surely improve the chances of humans adopting an ideal set of sustainability behaviours. The metric should be a word or phrase like ‘metre’ or ‘centigrade’ that is consistent across all world languages. ‘Carbon footprint’ in inadequate for this purpose.

It is not going to be easy to arrive at a metric that encapsulates the effects of all factors that affect the Earth’s climate. Carbon dioxide is the chief contributor to climate change. But there are other human activities that harm the planet, like fertilizer use (a primary source of nitrous oxide emissions), livestock production (causing methane emissions) and industrial processes (that release fluorinated gases). The single metric we develop to measure the impact of human activity on the planet should be all-encompassing. This will go a long way in developing a common language for sustainability.

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the said tower couldn’t be built not because of any inadequacy of engineering skills, but because all those involved in its construction spoke different languages. Religions and social movements like communism that have greatly influenced human behaviour have all had something in common. They developed a special vocabulary. Consider words like ‘soul’, ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘proletariat’, ‘bourgeoisie’, etc. These had power beyond their semantic meanings to drive human behaviour. Similarly, to generate a strong sustainability movement, policymakers should focus on creating an evocative vocabulary around sustainability. Let’s begin with an easily-understood metric for the climate change problem.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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