Seeking consensus on climate change

MIT Sloan professor sees parallels in anti-smoking efforts

Cambridge, Mass. —Tobacco and global warming may seem to have little in common, but the same kind of convergence of science, public opinion, and business self interest that led to strong action against cigarettes may now be forming around the complex problem of climate change, according to MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Peter Senge.

“The simple reality is that for many citizens, the subject of climate change seems hopelessly confusing, which makes it easy for them to disengage and just let the experts figure it out,” said Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning.

“Not that long ago, that was the case with tobacco. Science was making a clear link between smoking and health, but the cigarette industry saw things differently. Under their “mental model” — the governing set of ideas and concepts by which people operate — smoking was a personal freedom, and the industry had a lot invested in seeing no clear cause and effect between cigarettes and health.”

But as a “gradual welling of public opinion” grew stronger, major business players, including the health care and health insurance industries — and eventually government — joined to make anti-smoking actions politically salient.

Senge sees similar patterns now emerging with climate change. Once again, he says, the data are clear that carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere and that climate change is happening — are clear. But dueling mental models about global warming's causes and solutions have stalled a meaningful, unified response.

“It's gotten to the point that a lot of scientists who study climate change are starting to give up,” said Senge. “They've been putting out facts for years and little has happened. Because they may not understand how social change occurs, some climate scientists think the situation is hopeless, that you can't change people who are diametrically opposed. But what they don't necessarily see is how competing mental models paralyzing social change can shift, often much faster than people expect.”

That happened with tobacco, and Senge also cites South Africa in the late 1980s. “When enough people started telling each other privately that if they continue as they were, they probably had no future as a country, things started to unfreeze. People realized that they would be more and more ostracized, more of a police state. Gradually, they came to understand that their entrenched mental models were no longer adequate.”

That may now be happening with climate change. Events like Hurricane Katrina and abnormal weather patterns “are causing people to open up and recognize that their basic assumptions that humans could not possibly alter global climate may not be 100 percent adequate.” On top of welling public opinion, major business interests, such as the property and liability insurance industry, are also recognizing that doing nothing is no longer an option — the same kind of business response that occurred decades ago with smoking.

“Once you have this interplay of public awareness and business interests saying something has to change, political leaders see an opportunity to act,” said Senge. “In South Africa, many meetings that shifted the political context were organized not by liberal activists, but by corporate interests who saw that apartheid was limiting business and economic development. Now we see Christian evangelicals in this country becoming active on climate change, along with many other private sector leaders.”

The challenge is to transcend rigid political boundaries. The word consensus comes from the Latin consentire, “feeling together.” Consensus does not mean unanimity. It does mean a common sense of a situation and a degree of solidarity around the need for action and the overall aims of that action.

Senge recognizes that consensus on climate change may appear to be a long way off. “But that perception may be misleading. Thirty years ago, no one would have foreseen that smoking in most public spaces would become socially unacceptable. And in 1985, who would have thought that ten years later, South Africa would have a multi-racial democracy, with no violent revolution? Once mental models begin to shift, changes can come far quicker than anyone expects.”

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