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Modeling the 'human' in human-caused climate change

People walk down a city marketplace while others eat meals.
Marc Dufresne
People mill about the Church Street Marketplace, one of Burlington's most popular districts.

The academic journal Nature recently published a study that tries to put the “human” back into human-caused climate change.

In essence, University of Vermont scientist Brian Beckage and his team created a model that says as the climate changes, so will human behavior — for the better.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch recently spoke with Beckage to learn more about his work. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: So you and your colleagues, essentially, write that most models that look at climate change and its dire effects on our planet, they have been missing an integral part of the equation, and that is humans and their ability to adapt and react. Can you walk us through the study?

Brian Beckage
Brian Beckage
Brian Beckage

Brian Beckage: That's exactly right. Most studies that project future climate change, impacts on human systems start off by having a group of experts outline possible scenarios for future emissions pathways, which are based on technological change and carbon intensity of the economy and other other factors like that. They determine those scenarios, and then they use those scenarios to drive climate models. And then project future climate change.

What we did was tried to make human behavior integral to the climate model. So linking models of human behavior with climate models, so that people can adjust and change their behavior over time in response to the climate change and feedbacks within the human system that are interacting with climate. We have another paper in a journal called Climatic Change from 2020. And the title is a little bit provocative, but I think it captures this. And the title of the paper is, "The earth has humans. So why don't our climate models?" And so that's kind of the the essence of it.

And I'd like to ask you about this one thing in particular that your study says should be taken into account. And that's humans' direct experience with weather. Recently, we've seen these huge storms like Hurricane Ian in Florida, or ,even closer to home, Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont. How do those direct experiences with weather move humans to sort of change their behaviors and hopefully move the needle on climate change?

There are a number of human behavioral processes that can either amplify or discount weather signals. With other events, we tend to believe information and have more heavily weighed information that's consistent with our pre-existing views of the world. And those views are influenced by our social networks. We get used to changing patterns of weather and climate. And then also we forget about past extreme events. They may be very impactful in the short term, but that also depends on people's belief systems. So if people don't believe that climate change is human caused, or don't think it poses a serious threat, then then they're less likely to associate that with climate change.

And a good example of that is sometimes in the media, there'll be a climate change meeting in some, say, northern country in winter, and then there'll be a huge snowstorm at the time someplace. And then people will say, "Well, see that means climate change is not occurring." And that's part of that bias. The simulation is that we tend to more heavily weigh information that is consistent with our own views of of how the world is working. Our work is trying to account more for these human processes and how they can interact with other components about the climate system and to reinforce behaviors. And it can lead to threshold effects where the human system can change pretty rapidly if the right combination of feedbacks occur.

You also write that certain factors change perceptions of climate change, and like you're saying can lead to these rapid changes in human behavior. What are some other factors? We just talked a little bit about weather events. But I understand you also looked at changing politics, or even new technology advances that can have an effect too, right?

So there's a feedback called the endogenous cost production feedback. So that means that once we start to adopt green technologies, low carbon technologies, the cost usually goes down as those technologies become more widely adopted. And so that can lead to a reinforcing feedback so that initially they're expensive, but as more people adopt them, they become less expensive, and then their adoption increases becomes more more widely adopted, and then the costs go down. And so it's reinforcing feedback.

One potentially important one is what we call credibility enhancing display feedback. That's some feedback where individuals who tend to be maybe more prominent begin to adopt behaviors that lower their carbon footprint and other people in their networks notice that. And because they see them doing that, they want to emulate that. And it also changes their beliefs about climate change. And that can be a reinforcing feedback. There's lots of these feedbacks within the human system that can lead to much more rapid changes in our carbon footprint and the carbon intensity of our society that can lead to reductions in projected climate change you might not otherwise see with those static, extensively determined scenarios that we talked about earlier.

Maybe you're giving a little of a spoiler alert here, but are the findings then in your study, ultimately, good news?

Well, yeah, I think they are good news. I think we need good news. They're good news in the sense that by putting people back into these climate models, I think it's empowering in some sense. There's different feedbacks that individuals can be part of that that can percolate through the human system, through our social networks, and through political feedbacks and technology — adoption that can really begin to have a significant effect.

You move from a perspective of being powerless and having no agency to changing the system. And so I think in that sense, it's a hopeful message that people can can make a difference and that the human system can respond to changing climate, to adopt changes in societal structure and behavior to avoid dangerous climate change.

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