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Arien Mack, Editor

There is no issue more urgent than climate change, yet government, corporations and the public are reluctant to change. This issue examines the psychological factors, money and politics, and infrastructures that impede change as well as the difficult choices that must be made to foster urban resilience in the face of climate change.

The papers in this issue are based on presentations given at our thirty-first Social Research conference, "Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren't We?" which took place at The New School in 2014. Despite the urgent need for action, we have seen a marked reluctance on the part of governments, corporations, and the general public to do what is necessary. It is this aspect of the problem of climate change that the conference and this issue take on.


The four papers in this section all tackle a central question in dealing with climate change: How to increase awareness of the fact that climate change is a real problem and generate support for and compliance with policies aimed at remedying the problem?

There is no silver bullet—no single solution to get us to a sustainable climate. There is, however, silver buckshot: a combination of political, technological, economic, and behavioral actions and interventions that will provide the necessary progress towards that goal. Far from being merely additive, behavioral interventions—i.e., changes in the “choice architecture” of environmentally-relevant decisions—have the potential to amplify and multiply the effectiveness of political, technological, and economic tools. Homo sapiens differs from homo economicus in ways that are both challenging and enriching. A more comprehensive understanding of human attention, motivation, judgment, and choice than that provided by the rational-economic model provides entry points for the design of decision environments that allow us—as consumers, citizens, or policymakers—to change our behavior in ways that bring us closer to a sustainable future.

Simple mental models, such as the analogy of climate to a greenhouse, are commonly used to convey complex facts of climate dynamics. We consider simple models for climate-related decision support—for informing choices rather than for understanding facts. We identify attributes of “good” simple models both in general and for informing decisions under uncertainty, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of illustrative simple models in the climate domain, and present and assess a medical analogy we believe useful for climate related decision support: thinking of climate change as a serious, progressive disease. Finally, we consider reasonable expectations for the effects of such models.

Resistance to change has been a central topic in social psychology since the inception of the field. It has been addressed by theorists as diverse as Thorstein Veblen, William McDougall, Kurt Lewin, Leon Festinger, and William J. McGuire, among others. Decades of research show that people are resistant to changing beliefs that are logically or psychologically connected to systems of beliefs and values that are important to them (i.e., ideologies). In this article, I describe some of the studies that I and others have conducted on the role of political ideology and system justification motivation in fostering skepticism and resistance to scientific information about climate change.

Scholarly activities around climate change began with the natural sciences, spread to policy, then science communication, and now are expanding into human behavior and decision-making. One of climate change’s biggest challenges is its game theoretical structure as a threshold, collective risk social dilemma, in which most (if not all) stand to lose by some high probability but no single individual can solve the problem. Scientists have designed new cooperative experiments around climate change to test reactions to scientific information, different levels of collective risk, rich-poor scenarios, and how time discounting affects our ability to cooperate in the face of climate change. This paper provides an overview of these experiments, some policy-relevant findings, and how scientists are looking to improve experimental design in the hopes of learning what might make the sacrifices required to combat climate change easier to achieve.


Structures of Coastal Resilience (SCR) is a multi-university collaborative developing adaptive design strategies at four coastal bays along the east coast, complementing the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study (NACCS), released in January 2015. The Corps was tasked by Congress in January 2013 to conduct this $19.5 million two year comprehensive study of the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, evaluating flood risks and identifying areas in need of additional analysis. SCR seeks to inform the work of the Comprehensive Study through a focused look at social, environmental, and infrastructural vulnerabilities at four communities within the USACE study zone.

Climate change and resulting sea level rise will cause risk from coastal storms to increase throughout this century. Aggressive implementation of emissions reduction policies would significantly limit the risk, but in any event, planning for comprehensive adaptation is necessary. Past experience with long-term planning to reduce vulnerability and exposure along the coast shows a significant shortfall between the need to reduce risk and the implementation of appropriate policies. A new approach to public policy in this arena should be a priority for policymakers.

The psychology and politics of private property rights in the United States have coalesced into strong advocacy for postflood rebuilding in place in climate-vulnerable coastal areas or receiving compensation for giving up that “right.” Individuals and businesses located in such vulnerable areas are, understandably, deeply invested financially and emotionally in their properties. In many cases they may have occupied their homes or operated their businesses for decades, if not generations. Now they and society as a whole are faced with a new and disquieting reality: flood conditions that trigger questions about how owners should inhabit such areas or, indeed, whether they should inhabit such areas at all. This is a legal issue, a political issue, and an ethical issue bound together as one.

Energy is at the core of the sustainability challenge. Most of the production, transportation, and everyday processes that we depend on for daily life are energy intensive. With government investment in research and development, renewable energy technology can advance enough to become a low-cost alternative to fossil fuel use. We have begun this transition to lower cost and plentiful renewable energy, but we still have a long way to go. The primary barriers to this transformation are related to technology, infrastructure, and politics, but smart sustainability policy and management from the federal government can help us move past these barriers, and towards a sustainable economy powered by clean energy.


The issue of climate change is personal and global at the same time. How we tackle this challenge and effectively stave off the worst effects projected is what I would like to discuss. Defusing the threat of climate change is an enormous under-taking. We must not underestimate it. It requires reimagining and adopting transformative energy systems that do not spew carbon into the atmosphere but rely on clean, efficient energy systems. Fundamentally the shift must come from changes in our companies, cities, states, countries, and each one of us. Some changes are technological, some are behavioral, and all require a tremendous commitment to action.


Despite the dire warnings of impending doom from climate change, very little mitigation has yet to take place. This can partly be explained by the public good nature of greenhouse gases where the costs are borne heavily by each emitting nation but the benefits are shared by the world. But the lack of action also is due to the high cost of mitigation and the long delayed and relatively low benefits. Stringent mitigation policies are not justified. Unable to discuss more moderate solutions, the world is reluctant to act at all.

The global economy faces a critical deficit of capital directed toward conservation. Fundamentally, this deficit results from a systematic global misallocation of capital that does not incorporate the value of nature into the capitalist economy. To address this deficit, The Nature Conservancy has launched a new global center for natural capital investment, NatureVest. It is the belief of The Nature Conservancy that we can attract a significant amount of capital to conservation outcomes by 1) developing a pipeline of opportunities to deploy capital through investment products that offer both conservation impact and financial return and 2) building the field of natural capital investment, through thought leadership, research, events and investor outreach.

While intergovernmental policy and mainstream capital markets remain unmoved by the mounting evidence of the severe costs of climate inaction, selected groups of private investors and activists have mobilized to transform the orientation of capital markets. The fossil fuel divestiture, impact investing, and clean energy investing movements have made significant inroads, yet remain marginal relative to the vast amounts of capital controlled by traditional investment intermediaries. Such firms still, by and large, neglect to account for the significant risks inherent in continued investment in companies dependent on fossil-fuels, risks that likely will translate into significant financial losses over the long-term once the “carbon bubble” is addressed. Such market inertia is nothing new, but the causes are complex and often only partially understood. Most calls for policy action related to private markets include the need for a tax on carbon emissions - clearly a critical starting point - as well as various other tax incentives or subsidies. However, a broader set of capital markets’ rigidities also must be addressed – spanning a range of industry-related beliefs, norms, and practices that represent barriers to change.


The Papers in this section explore the complexity of responding to climate change through the lenses of social justice, design, and the tendency to avoid knotty , multiscalar, temporally intergenerational problems. In other words, it is a reflection on why responding to climate change feels like it presents such difficult choices.

In recent years talk of climate justice has taken off. Yet there are different ways of viewing climate justice. It can be seen as a set of ideas about which there can be competing conceptions (in this respect it is similar to global justice, distributive justice and so on), or it can be viewed as a social movement. In this essay I mainly discuss climate justice as a conception of justice, and conclude that it is not entirely clear what it is supposed to encompass. I conclude, however, that the concept is meaningful enough to do significant work in the climate change discourse.

Traditional approaches to collective problems, through manipulation of individual incentives and so forth, cannot be made to work because the costs of freeriding are overwhelming. We, therefore, face a collective action that is entirely governed by state agencies.

Both Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene have shown that New York City is vulnerable to storm surges and extreme weather. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has been actively working to document the impacts and vulnerabilities of industrial waterfront communities to climate change impacts through original research, policy analysis, and other advocacy efforts. While flooding has been amply documented in areas like lower Manhattan, industrial waterfront communities have received less attention. Moreover, while there have been extensive conversations regarding opportunities to reduce the vulnerability of the region to flooding and storm surge, many government reports have almost exclusively focused on the built environment -- leaving behind the social, environmental and public health issues central to both the everyday life and the long-term resiliency of these communities. This article discusses the wide range of community-based responses to climate change that NYC-EJA has been working on, highlighting opportunities, major challenges, and lessons learned.

The damages from meteorological events of the future are likely to increase with a changing climate, as rising sea levels coupled with the potential for intensified storms makes flooding and storm-driven surges even larger threats to the region. Studying ways to adapt to this reality, the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored work towards a novel approach to ameliorating potential damages with an initiative called The Blue Dunes. Blue Dunes resulted from a process that facilitated dialogue between scientists and designers integrating science with the social art of planning in order to propose a way forward. The process itself and its benefits are discussed in this article.


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