In an article Corporations love to talk about going green, but not many are planning for a changing climate from the new Climate Desk (a collaboration between Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, The Atlantic, PBS’s Need to Know, Grist, and the Center for Investigative Reporting,) Felix Salmon explores why many companies jump on the Green bandwagon but do little to plan ahead for the changes that are already well underway.
Most companies seem to focus solely on mitigating changes to the climate: reducing carbon emissions, improving environmental sustainability, and striving to be an enlightened steward of the planet. Adaptation is the opposite, more pessimistic approach: It is about ensuring survival in the exceedingly likely event that climate change occurs.
Some of his analysis also applies to education and related institutions. Substitute “corporations” for “educational systems” and there are some interesting and disturbing similarities.
In the mainstream business world, climate change adaptation strategies are scant. The reasons for inaction are sometimes simple, but also counter-intuitively complex.
Start with the superficial: Adaptation strategies have essentially zero PR value. They have nothing to do with saving the planet. Instead, they’re all about trying to thrive if and when the planet starts to fall apart. That’s not something any savvy company wants to trumpet to the world.
Then there is the mismatch of time horizons. Climate change takes place over decades, and corporate timescales generally max out in the five to seven year range. Businesses typically won’t spend significant money planning beyond that period, especially because the effects on business models and future profitability are so difficult to predict.
Of course, education systems are businesses of a sort, but their business is preparing people (often youngsters) for the future. And when it comes to climate change, which some scientists including James Lovelock say humans are too stupid to successfully prevent, there is the issue of motivation that Salmon brings up:
The behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational,” likes to say that climate change is a problem that is perfectly designed to make people do nothing: It happens far in the future; its effects will be felt most greatly by other people; and the efforts of any one individual are minuscule.
But climate is changing here, now, in our own backyards. Individual efforts may seem like a drop in the bucket, but every drop adds up.
As for the question of whether we are too stupid: given that climate change is already happening and we haven’t been able to prevent it, then, yes, we’re guilty as charged. But can we smarten up in a substantial way? In a prior post I wrote:
“Jon Miller, who has for years stressed the importance of civic scientific literacy in society, notes that 28% of US adults pass basic scientific literacy, which is up about ten points from earlier surveys; only Sweden, with 35% literacy, is above us. In the U.K. the rate is 14%. While that means there’s still nearly three our of four American adults who lack that literacy (with about a quarter of the adult population being functionally illiterate all together). In a 2007 Science Daily article, Miller, who laments that 70% of the nation can’t understand the New York Times Science section and stresses civic scientific literacy certainly doesn’t mean everyone will agree on science and technology policies, points to required science courses in U.S. colleges as a primary reason we don’t fare worse:”
A professor in political science, Miller said one reason for the Americans’ slim lead is that the United States is the only major nation in the world that requires its college students to take general science courses.
“Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain,” he said, “analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among U.S. adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing.”
Adding to the United States’ relatively good showing is Americans’ use of informal science education resources, such as science magazines, news magazines, science museums and the Internet.
Why is it important to have a population wise in the ways of science? Miller listed several reasons, including the need for a more sophisticated work force; a need for more scientifically literate consumers, especially when it comes to purchasing electronics; and, equally as important, a scientifically literate electorate who can help shape public policy.
If someone with the creative drive and resources of, well, say, James Cameron, were to join forces with a dedicated team of climate literacy, energy awareness and sustainability science savvy experts, I dare say we could spark a marked increase in our ability to minimize impacts and maximize adaptive response and resiliency.