The Big Picture: The Impact Our Relationship to Energy Will Have in the Future

Many scholars and economists around the world have come to a simple conclusion; as global climate change threatens our planet and our way of life, human activity regarding energy development and consumption will play a crucial role in the solution (or lack thereof). Tom Dietz, professor of Sociology and Environmental Policy at the Michigan State University, speaks to the fact that a solution to this problem will be anthropomorphic, as is the very problem we aim to solve.[1] Specifically, Mr. Dietz analyzes the behavioral changes that would be necessary for humans to make in order to enact significant change and improvement for our climate.  He observes what incentives will compel different groups to change their consumption patterns, and even goes as far as to measure how these changes are reflected, or ignored, in our political system.

Mr. Dietz, like David Victor, professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego, has come to some alarming conclusions. In measuring how humans change behavior based on their understanding of the negative impacts that climate change will have on their lives, he has found that their willingness to change is generally as expansive as their willingness to save money. In other words, behavioral change regarding climate change is not a top priority for most, even those who understand the negatives impacts that their emissions and consumption have on the planet.  Similarly, Victor describes the gridlock in international politics surrounding the climate change issue. Gridlock in the United Nations has become status quo, as many nations set goals that they cannot achieve or that do not amount to meaningful CO2 reductions in the first place. Mr. Victor eloquently describes how international negotiations have failed to look at this issue with the complexity that it deserves, and that a unanimous agreement for worldwide CO2 reduction at the levels necessary to significantly stem the damages from climate change is unlikely to ever emerge from this body.[2]

Climate change is a result of many human activities, while CO2 emissions receive the lions share of publicity, other contributing factors should be taken into account. Mr. Victor points to the fact that the political barriers to making headway on CO2 reductions and other major contributing factors to climate change could be mitigated if governments were to establish precedence for successful regulation first. He gives the example of how many countries could lower ash pollutants from power plants without great difficulty, thus solidifying political support for climate initiatives as well as demonstrating immediate benefits to these actions (reductions in ash contamination can result in better air quality in the short term).  Sound policy on the nation state level, as well as bilateral agreements between large polluters (US and China) could have major impacts on CO2 reduction, regardless of whether international CO2 standards have been established.

Whether people will change their behavior depends on several factors; research into how providing better information to consumers will help them curb energy consumption is getting attention. I am working on a project to observe changes in lower income households as they use energy-monitoring units to monitor their consumption. Whether this information will help consumers lower their consumption to a point that will benefit the environment, or at all, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this research helps scientists observe the relationship that man has with energy – a relationship that will define our future, and may help bridge the gap between those who believe that technology is an end all be all solution to our problem and those who do not see any solution to our current state of affairs.

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