Friday, July 2, 2010

Integrated Research on Climate Change and Hazards in the Americas

I just returned from Panama where I was a participant in "C2HEKE", Climate Change Hazards Education and Knowledge Environment. Click here for the webcast. About 35 participants from the US, Canada, Jamaica, Argentina, Colombia, Panama and elsewhere were chosen to be a part of lectures and GIS training. Most of the participants were from the fields of geography and communications. Not surprisingly, the focus of the conference quickly congealed around bringing accurate climate change science to the public. The word of the two weeks was "uncertainty."

Participants clearly assumed that the public would not believe in climate change if there was the slightest bit of uncertainty. As a sociologist (who has spent alot of time studying marketing and the media), I find this hard to believe. For example, parents are far too eager to believe that Fruit Loops are healthy (it says "fortified with vitamins" after all!) even though there is plenty of evidence that continuous consumption of junk food like this could lead to obesity. No one is really questioning that driving cars leads to climate change, but drivers still drive. As a sociologist, I have to argue that the way our cities are built and the ideas we have come to believe about how people "should" live are the root causes of people's inability to change their behavior. I personally choose to live in cities where I don't need to own a car, but this does not work well for many Americans.

Even in New Orleans where I live now, most places are within easy biking distance. However, in hurricane season, I don't want to be stranded. The public transportation system, while it exists, is not comprehensive enough. This in a city where nearly 30% of residents don't own a car AND WHERE THAT VERY FACT LEFT PEOPLE STRANDED HURRICANE KATRINA! I'm floored by America's refusal to get the connection here. People who are polluting the least are in the most danger. At the conference, Craig Colten from Louisiana State University gave a presentation on hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. He argued that much of disaster response has to do with social memory. For example, during Hurricane Betsy, the evacuation plan was to set up emergency shelters in the brick schools. They would stock up the schools with water, food and basic necessities. That way, people did not have to travel far to find shelter. In Katrina, however, that plan was forgotten. The new evacuation plan was to get in your car and drive to Baton Rouge. Did I mention that almost a third of the city did not own cars. You know what happened next.

So what does this have to do with Fruit Loops and uncertainty? The problem is we know all this. Everyone is well aware by now the dangers of climate change. We're aware that disasters suck, and they suck more for poor people than for rich people. We're even aware that what we do every day (drive, eat meat, take a plastic bag at the grocery store) contributes to the larger problem. So, for me, the problem is not better communication. You can communicate all you want about the dangers of Fruit Loops, but that doesn't make them more expensive. It doesn't put them on the highest shelf in the grocery store so you can't reach them. It doesn't make your kids throw a tantrum for organic apples. Fruit loops are cheap and easy. The problem should be re-framed as how do we set up society, our infrastructure and our ideologies, to support better choices for Americans. We can only choose from the options before us, and right now, our options suck.

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