One Thousand Sorrows

There goes no single week without a breaking news related to climate change. Its indicators and negative consequence are getting too close to home to deny. Despite the Paris agreement, there are not enough effective new policies in the most polluting countries, or those whose economy are too tangled with the fossil fuel industry. The Dutch government who was supposed to be the “greenest ever” have recently undermined their own plans to  fulfil the climate agreements. And on the societal front, Dutch people choose flying to far islands for vacation, more than ever before.

As Daniel Kahneman puts it tackling the climate disaster is the “perfect problem”. He is world famous psychologist and winner of 2002 Nobel prize in economics, In a conversation with George Marchall, author of “Don't Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change”, Kahneman talks gloomily about the situation: “I’m deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change”. The threat of climate change is simply too “distant, abstract, and uncertain”. With these conditions, the biggest threat to human civilization is also a perfect match to several psychological biases that distort rational decision-making. The consequences are distant problems but we should make sacrifices to our current comfort. Our “loss aversion” and “instant gratification” instincts cannot take that in. The extent of the disaster is uncertain, as the climate is a very complex system, so our “optimism bias” tricks us to believe that all will turn okay and techies will solve it.

For another episode of the Voice of Utrecht Young Academy, I talked to Francien Peterse. She is assistant professor of organic geochemistry and a climate scientist. With deep sorrow, she tells me about the insufficient efforts made for saving the planet. We talk about the role of scientists in encouraging stronger actions. From talking about one collective action, we drift to another urgent issue for academics who see an increasing pressure to deliver more with less resources. Francien and some other colleagues have organized the #WOinactie week to protest against the recent budget cuts for the higher education in the Netherlands. These cuts have caused rage in part of the scientific community. Here again, different parts of the community act hesitantly in providing their support, as they feel the burn less severely and are uncertain about the benefits of taking action. The common excuse I hear is that higher education is an internationally competitive market (top sport!) and the problems are the same everywhere and simply too big to solve.

Each of these collective action problems is too complex to describe in a short blogpost. But our situation was aptly described by Roger Waters back in 1992:

We watched the tragedy unfold
We did as we were told, bought and sold
It was the greatest show on earth
But then it was over
And when they found our shadows
Groups ‘round the TV sets
They ran down every lead
They repeated every test
They checked out all the data on their list
And then
The alien anthropologists
Admitted they were still perplexed
But on eliminating every other reason for our sad demise
They logged the only explanation left
This species has amused itself to death

You can listen to Francien in the new episode of the Voice of the Utrecht Young Academy podcast. You can also find all episodes of the Voice of UYA on Soundcloud, Stitcher, and iTunes, where you can also listen to our other podcast series, The Road to Open Science.