If climate change doesn’t threaten rich people, nothing will change

Andrew J. Hoffman is a Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. He came to the Czech Republic to present his book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate at the Ekofilm festival. 

How do you perceive climate change? Are you worried or optimistic?

I am pessimistic but hopeful. I think the odds are against us but I believe humans and especially young people have the right capacity to change the current situation.

Yet many people still do not believe that it is happening. Why?

It depends on the audience. Some people are worried about restricting economic growth. Some people believe it is a threat in their belief in God. For some people, it is a liberal hoax to steal our freedom. Whenever you are speaking to someone, you need to figure out where they are coming from. More science is not going to get their attention.

Then what will?

Well, different things. It is not always the intellect, sometimes it is the heart. I think there is place for movies, novels, music and art. These need to start to convey the climate change. Think about Orwell’s book 1984 or Ayn Rand’s novels which changed the way people think. They tell evocative stories which change peoples’ minds. Stories are very important.

That is interesting. But what about education?

Education is important when children are growing up. We call it K12. It is a battleground. In the US, the Heartland Institute which denies climate change produced a book why climate change is not real and sent it to 200,000 science teachers in elementary schools. Teachers have a major role on forming opinions of children. When people are already grown-up, it is proven that the more educated they are, the more strong they feel about their position.

So more science will not help?

We are being selective in the science we trust. Some people may lose faith in science about climate change but if they get cancer they go to hospital. People are inconsistent. Internet does not help either It is the big disruptor of truth. You can get any information you want without understanding the motives of sources. Especially in case of such wedge issues like climate change discerning between good and bad information is key. We need to understand that climate change is a cultural issue. It divides us.

Should we focus to convince deniers or the mass?

The mass without a question. Don’t waste your time on people who have already formed their position in a way they cannot change their mind. We should focus on the big bulk of people who are not exactly sure.

But how?

You need to show them that it concerns their lives and can hit them in their wallets. If a hurricane or droughts affect them, they see the impact. The world affluent people need to become uncomfortable. It is sad but if a hurricane hits New York people care but media barely notice a flood in India. Until these rich people are impacted, nothing will change.

What else can help?

It is important to give hope and show that there are ways to get out of this. I teach organizational behavior. One of the aspects of change is to show where you are now and where want to go. The mass will then follow you. But the environmental movement does not do that. It is only giving catastrophic scenarios. Pessimism does not motivate. One of the most inspirational speeches by Martin Luther King was called I have a dream, not I have a nightmare.

What are the hopes then?

There is a huge technological shift towards renewables. Solar, wind, geothermal energy, driveless cars and so on. We need to think forward. Look at Puerto Rico. It will be without power for months. Elon Musk said that we should not rebuild it the way it was before but make it resilient. It is true. The world is different now and we need to build differently. Sometimes people will not acknowledge a problem, unless there is a solution.

Do we not rely too much on technology saving us? 

Yes and no. I think we do worship technology but at the same time technology and culture go together. The Guthenberg printing press caused a reformation. Technology changes many things but we are often afraid of it. I remember how Steven Jobs announced that every home will have a computer and I and my peers were like “He is crazy. Who would want a computer in their home?”.

Technology transforms our lives. Where do you see it going?

I think 50 years from now when you will look out of the window you will see a very different picture. I think driveless Uber is the future. I guarantee you that in 100 years you will not see all those cars and garages outside. My grandma lived to 95 years and saw electrification, first car, man fly, land on moon, first computer, in one lifetime. The day you die the world will be way different than you imagined.

How about the whole economic system? Will it change? Many people believe it is completely wrong and it destroys the environment.

We can never tear the system apart and build a new one. You only get to some place from where you are. You cannot just eliminate the capitalist system, you can change it. It is like saying “I don’t like the Czech culture. I am going to wipe it clean and start a new one.” It is not possible. You start with the culture you have and then change it.

All this is going to take a lot of time. What can we all do now?

I think the most important thing is to vote and select leaders who care and want to bring change forward. But I personally think change is happening now in the way we see mobility and energy. The economic market is killing the fossil fuel industry. Donald Trump cannot bring it back. What he is doing for the climate change is bad, but it is also bad for the economy. The future economy is not in coal.

Why is he bringing it back? Why is he so anti-environmental?

It is easy. He appeals to his base which is worried about losing livelihoods in the coal industry. It is one thing to eliminate coal, another one is not to include a coal-miner who loses his job and livelihood for his family and ignore that the whole town will die. It is not possible to leave the human out in the equation. Trump promised not to follow any party in the beginning but now he is playing to their tune.

The whole debate in core is all about economic interests, right?

Absolutely. A lot of conservative politicians know climate change is real, they are smart people and understand science. But they are afraid voters will vote them out of office. I genuinely believe that if Trump came out tomorrow and said “This climate change, there is something to it.” There would be a lot of angry people but he would not get hurt as much as many people think he would. Many people would say “I agree with him and I am tired of hiding it behind this fear to come out and say it is real.”

Unfortunately it is not happening and the future of environmental protection in the US does not look bright.

That is right. I am very concerned about what the federal government is doing. Trump is destroying the Environmental Protection Agency. When the EPA says there is no connection between CO2 and global warming that is wrong. I think there will be a backlash but he is moving so fast. He knows he is doing damage but he wants to get it done before he gets pulled out. Politicians and media portray environmentalists as anti-economist.

What role does media play in this climate change context?

A very important one. In the US, the media is divided into conservative and liberal. For 8 years the Fox News, a major media outlet, fed this diet “Here is what bad happened and here is why it is Obama’s fault.” Trump is eliminating everything including climate change measures that Obama put in place because they think he was evil. People just do not understand that Trump will not do anything for his voters. He is a rich person and cares about his own interests. That is why I have been pushing academics to get more involved in media and on social networks.

Are they doing it?

Majority aren’t but young people are starting to. Academia is insular. The reward system cares mostly about where your academic contributions are. Some of us deviate from that but we need more people to find their own way.

You also wrote that there are less and less environmental journalists. Why is it so?

Newspapers are struggling for survival and so they cut the places. At the same time dedicated environmental page do not make sense. Are electric cars an environmental or business story? Is Paris Accord an environmental or political issue? The environment bleeds into other areas. At the end of the day, climate change is not an environmental issue. It is not an issue about fuzzy animals, it is about us surviving. It is not about economic terms but about a value of a human life.

This interview was published in Ekolist.cz

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