Climate Change Needs an Elephant Whisperer (Op-Ed)
African elephants at Mole National Park in Ghana.
Credit: Patrick Bennett

Raghu Murtugudde is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. Murtugudde contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

When it comes to climate change — and communicating about it — people seem to lose sight of a simple, longstanding fact about the human mind: It is split into two parts. On one side, there is a rational rider, on the other, an emotional elephant. The rider rationalizes and procrastinates when danger is not imminent, while the elephant, while slow to motivate and hard to steer, eventually takes the correct path and stays the course. Society needs to inspire that elephant, and quickly.

Climate change may be the gravest challenge facing humans, and for most other living things. The science is clear, and the debate now focuses on the uncertainties associated with climate projections and the local, regional and global policies needed to adapt to warming — as well as approaches to mitigate the human footprint on the environment.

Climate communication must be an integral part of all efforts to face this daunting challenge. And yet, climate scientists appear to be ill-equipped for this job and lay people are confused, since no clearly defined "to do" list exists for the average person. The race to avert this impending global tragedy of the commons does not seem to have any sense of urgency.

Climate change is now obvious thanks to accurate and precise measurements of greenhouse gases, and the increase in the global mean temperatures, although some people put the high correlation between the two in the context of Earth's longer-term climate variability, and raise all kinds of doubts about causal links.

To be sure, climate always changes and has changed throughout the history of our planet. But scientists understand the physics of the system, and they know that the increase in greenhouse gases traps more outgoing longwave radiation, warming the planet. The recent increase in greenhouse gases, and the consequent warming, has been the most rapid in at least the last 20 million years.

Carbon dioxide levels are increasing by about 3 percent every year now, and the concentration in the atmosphere is near 395 parts per million, by volume, compared to 280 at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The warming rate has been about 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit (0.13degrees Celsius) per decade during the last 50 years, which is twice the rate of warming for the past century. Both the increases in greenhouse gases and global warming are accelerating.

The perfect atmospheric blanket the planet inherited keeps Earth from getting as hot as Venus or as cold as Mars, the Goldilocks syndrome solved for us by a unique set of circumstances that likely made life itself possible on Earth. The gravitational trapping of the moon stabilizes Earth's obliquity to a range of 22.5 to 24.5 degrees, varying slowly at a 41,000 year cycle, and keeping the seasonal changes relatively mild, preventing the climate from varying at a rapid rate.

The vast evidence for the impact of human activities on the functioning of our planet provides additional scientific foundation for the causal links: increasing humidity, a warmer and more acidic ocean, warmer atmosphere and land, melting of ice and glaciers, delayed arrival of winter and early arrival of spring, rising sea levels, and of course, the crazy weather and the rapid loss of biodiversity in many places.

Unlike the problem of the hole in the ozone layer, where all life on Earth stands to lose, global warming creates winners and losers. This, combined with the natural tendency of the human mind to heavily discount the future — and take a wait-and-see attitude when the risk is not imminent — has led to the current, glacial pace of climate negotiations.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, first proposed the concept of the human mind being split into two parts. The rational rider is thoughtful, logical and systematic, but rationalizes forever and never makes a decision, while the emotional elephant is slow to inspire and difficult to move, but once the path is clear, makes a decision and behaves steadfastly to achieve the goal.

Numerous surveys indicate the rider has seen clear evidence of climate change, but is procrastinating. The climate community and the environmental movement are trying to save the planet, but are convinced that simply throwing up images of melting ice and polar bears — and issuing alarming messages — are enough to save the planet. This approach has failed to engage the human mind into action, other than inspiring small changes by a minority.

Buying a hybrid car, or switching to compact fluorescent (CFL) lightbulbs or a vegetarian diet, is not enough. All energies should now focus on motivating the "riders" to engage in fundamental lifestyle changes, from conserving energy from the time they turn on lights in the morning to saving water as they brush their teeth at night. The necessary behavioral changes are so monumental that society needs indicators and incentives that will show people throughout the day the extent of the planet's resources being consumed, including electricity, gasoline, food and water.

This should not simply be a case of putting up signs that warn people at every step and every minute that the world is about to end, since that will surely lead to a sense of hopelessness and futility. The messages should instead remind people of the incredible and bountiful future they will share if they do something about their consumption.

The human being is the most cooperative species on this planet and repeatedly has shown the ability to share intelligence to accomplish the common good. The human mind also is unique in making the correct choices, even when he or she could get away with not doing so — for example, stopping at the red light in the middle of the night even when nobody is watching. Surely, we can appeal to a human mind with such intrinsic values to save the very planet we live on.

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Society must find a way to whisper to the elephant about climate change, to get that mind on the right path. With humanity's ability to dominate the planet like no other species, it may be more important to understand whether we have it in us to save us from ourselves. That would mean reaching the emotional elephant.

Even though climate negotiations appear to be stuck or faltering, the very fact that the entire globe is at the table indicates, yet again, that the global human is seriously at work to face this daunting challenge in a cooperative way. Climate scientists will do well by focusing on specific and usable solutions instead of just talking about the problem. The rider has seen the enemy and realizes that it is us, but rationalizes and does nothing. The elephant is not sure what to do because climate scientists have not given it a clear way forward.  

Society needs a vision for the future of the planet in order to motivate the elephant. It needs an elephant whisperer with the stature and conviction of Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He or she should emerge to confront climate change in a non-violent and equitable way.

The children of today and tomorrow should grow up dreaming about building rockets to explore the universe, not live in fear of the end of a habitable planet due to human actions — and inaction. This is well within society's reach, once we find a way to whisper to the elephant. Moreover, saving the planet from ourselves would bring humans one step closer to understanding our purpose for being. It certainly is not to destroy the planet for ourselves, future generations and other living creatures. The elephant needs to get moving.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.