We must tackle climate change

Developing nations have a responsibility to change their behavior

November 01, 2013|By Rachel Abbott

Climate change is a looming problem that will affect developed and developing countries. Developed nations have historically — and primarily — contributed to this problem, despite the fact that developing nations will be disproportionately affected in coming years. Social and environmental justice issues are inherently linked to climate change. Thus, it is critical to produce behavior change in developed countries and help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Part of tackling climate change is understanding why humans harm the environment. It turns out that humans harm the environment largely because of habit and a lack of personal responsibility. Humans in developed countries are used to overconsuming and largely do it automatically, thinking and caring about present needs rather than future consequences. Many feel that climate change is a distant problem, too overwhelming to deal with.

This points to the fact that the world requires drastic behavior change and an overhauling of norms and attitudes. Unfortunately, achieving behavior change is extraordinarily difficult. This is why a two-pronged strategy is necessary to address climate change, one that incorporates change on the policy level but also incorporates enhanced awareness, increased education and improved risk communication around this issue.

Developed nations must stop subsidizing fossil fuels and establish carbon taxes. It is imperative that fossil fuel prices begin to reflect the true cost of using fossil fuels. For instance, fossil fuel prices should reflect external costs such as increased asthma prevalence due to air pollution. Given that carbon use is embedded in nearly every human activity, this type of policy has the potential to make a tremendous impact. Nevertheless, it would prove difficult for such a policy to pass in societies where cheap, dirty energy and overconsumption are the norm.

This is precisely why strong grassroots movements must first penetrate developed nations and create behavior and attitudinal change on the community level. If targeted behavioral interventions were followed by successfully implemented disincentives, the world might have a shot at reducing energy demands, generating hope and giving people a sense of control. Humans would be given the opportunity to challenge their previously held heuristics and make commitments to sustainability.

In this new framework, governments and citizens would be able to engage in dialogue about shared values, for it would encourage open discussion, enhance community capacity building and improve community cohesiveness. Mitigation is the only way to significantly reduce risk, but serious mitigation will not take place if people do not feel the need to urge their lawmakers to institute green taxes. This is clear considering the United States Environmental Protection Agency is working to regulate greenhouse gases in place of a divided and ineffective Congress.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the need for structured adaptation strategies in developing countries. It is evident that adaptation is necessary once one considers the African continent's situation. Africa has contributed less than 3 percent to global carbon dioxide emissions since 1900, yet the continent will face considerable public health challenges such as droughts and disrupted water supplies. Africa's circumstances are particularly concerning because the country includes weak institutions. People there will suffer if adaptation strategies, such as altering food supply practices, transforming construction methods and creating surveillance and early warning systems, are not readily employed.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have already devastated parts of the wealthiest country on the planet. If this is not a signal that developed countries must act, I do not know what it is. If only for selfish reasons, developed countries must act in order to protect their own public health or reduce morbidity, mortality and eco-anxiety related to climate change. On the other hand, global protection is only possible if mitigation, adaptation, overhead policy, and meaningful behavior change occur. Developed countries have brought the wrath of climate change, while developing countries will bear the brunt of it. Whether the world is able to avert the most severe consequences of climate change is unknown, but it has a moral duty to protect its most vulnerable.

Rachel Abbott, is a Master of Public Health/Master of Social Work student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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