Humans accepting climate change vs. Jell-O: The Coastal Effect

There is an old theory in psychology that characterizes humans as a bowl of Jell-O (Jelly for some of you). Life pokes at the Jell-O, the Jell-O jiggles. Eventually the jiggles begin to change the Jell-O, so certain kinds of pokes result in certain kinds of responses. The Jell-O gurgles, babbles, notices things, learns, develops, and eventually becomes self aware.

That is a great oversimplification of a theory that was, in turn, a great oversimplification of human development, yet it does seem to apply in many ways to human behavior. When it comes to climate change, people seem more accepting of the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming when it is hot out, less so when it is cool. Nature pokes, or fails to poke, and the Jell-O responds. Sadly, this seems to be how our Big Brains work.

Climate Change has had, and will have, a very wide range of effects across the entire planet, and most of them have had or will have significant impacts on humans. Imagine a world that is warmed by an average of 3.0 degrees C. This is likely given our current and expected release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere. That is a warming significantly more than we have experienced so far. One could take the effects that have already occurred and simply extrapolate into the future, and that may work for some effects. But other effects may be fundamental qualitative changes in climate systems that will be more difficult to characterize or predict. For example, 30 years ago it may have been difficult to predict changes in the jet stream that would cause widespread changes in weather patterns, threatening agriculture, water supplies, and causing frequent floods or other disasters. But that seems to have happened. Maybe in a couple of more decades, that effect will go away and something else will happen.

So, imagine this world with 3.0 degrees greater average heat, and try to estimate what the worst effects will be. Clearly, this is a complicated question. One change in climate may strongly affect people in one part of the world and a different change may strongly affect people in another part of the world, and those different groups of people may have different levels of adaptability owing to economic or infrastructure differences. It is really hard to say what will happen. In a warmer world, high-humidity super-heat waves may happen in which large populations will find themselves experiencing temperatures well above body temperature for several days in a row. People in those areas, not all of them but a noticeable number, will simply die of the heat. Severe continental storms could become more common, so the chances of a community being wiped out by tornadoes or derechos may become extraordinarily high. Perhaps people will truly consider the costs and benefits of living in a “tornado ally” rather than simply knowing that tornado alley is a thing and otherwise more or less ignoring it. Arid regions may become hyper-arid for the long term, so water management simply becomes impossible. Even if California is inundated every few years with repeated pineapples express, if extreme drought becomes the norm a significant breadbasket may simply be a place we no longer grow food. And so on.

One change that is inevitable is the rise of sea level. The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been associated in the past with sea levels significantly higher than they are now. The sea hasn’t risen to that level yet simply because it takes time, though we really don’t know how much time it takes. If we stopped adding fossil Carbon to the atmosphere today, the sea will still rise, significantly, perhaps several meters. We have accomplished this and we can’t un-accomplish it. But we are very likely to not stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, or any time soon, so it is likely that the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will will eventually achieve will be associated with even higher sea levels. Coastal cities will be inundated. Small Pacific nations will cease to exist. All of that is going to happen, pretty much no matter what. When you imagine all of the different bad things that may happen in the future, sea level rise may or many not be on the top of your list, and it may in fact not be the worst thing that occurs. But at present, sea level rise is probably the biggest single effect that can be easily identified, won’t not happen no matter what, and can be understood the best; how heat waves, drought, flash floods, etc. work, and what their effects will be is hard to grasp. Losing land to the ocean is not hard to grasp. (Though I quickly add most people still don’t get the level of magnitude of sea level rise that we will experience, eventually.)

So, where does the bowl of Jell-O fit in to all of this? A recent study, in PLOS One, examines attitudes about climate change in relation to distance from the sea. The study takes place in New Zealand, but references other studies that look at similar things elsewhere. The bottom line is this: The farther a human lives from the sea, the less likely the human is to accept the reality of climate change science. Putting this another way, the father a bowl of Jell-O is from that which may poke it, the less poked it is, and thus, the less it develops, learns, evolves, gets smart.

Psychologists have examined the many psychological barriers to both climate change belief and concern. One barrier is the belief that climate change is too uncertain, and likely to happen in distant places and times, to people unlike oneself. Related to this perceived psychological distance of climate change, studies have shown that direct experience of the effects of climate change increases climate change concern. The present study examined the relationship between physical proximity to the coastline and climate change belief, as proximity may be related to experiencing or anticipating the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise. We show, in a national probability sample of 5,815 New Zealanders, that people living in closer proximity to the shoreline expressed greater belief that climate change is real and greater support for government regulation of carbon emissions. This proximity effect held when adjusting for height above sea level and regional poverty. The model also included individual differences in respondents’ sex, age, education, political orientation, and wealth. The results indicate that physical place plays a role in the psychological acceptance of climate change, perhaps because the effects of climate change become more concrete and local.

Another study done in 2011 indicated that Americans are more willing to alter their behavior related to climate change depending on an number of factors. In that study, distance to coast was a significant factor predicting willingness to change, but only one of several factors. Interestingly, knowledge of climate change science and distance to coast had similar levels of effect in that case. Another study done in 2013 “showed in [the] U.S. … that risk from climate change is perceived to be significantly lower for respondents located farther away from the coastline. Indeed, among the other geo-physical variables considered in this study (e.g., relative elevation, sea-level rise/inundation risk, temperature trend), distance to the coast had the strongest association with climate change risk perception.” cited here.

I live and work in the Upper Midwest. There are no coasts nearby. I imagine the people around me as bowls of Jell-O that are unlikely to be poked by concern over sea level rise, and thus unlikely to accept climate change as real.

Or are they?

I frequently give talks on climate change, in the Upper Midwest, and I always talk about sea level rise, partly because I think it is very important and partly because I think there is more certainty about sea level rise (aside from the timing, we are not very certain about that) compared to many other effects of climate change. People get this. Even though we live far from the coast, it is possible to show people how important sea level rise is.

Do you like rice? Do you have any idea how much of the global supply of rice is grown in regions that will be inundated by even a couple of meters of sea level rise? Do you ever go to Mexico during the winter? Did you ever notice how close to the sea, vertically, the Maya Riviera is? The region is built on coral, essentially, a vast “inland sea” risen temporarily out of the ocean for your pleasure. Temporarily. Are you, or is anyone important to you, in the agricultural business? (Many are around here.) Did you notice that New Orleans is the most important sea port for bringing fertilizer into the region, and bringing produce out? NOLA will not survive even a very modest, not too far in the future, rise in sea level. Were you thinking that a few meters of sea level rise will not happen for centuries, so who cares? Well, first, you don’t know how long it will take any more than anyone else does. Scientists who study these things have been shortening the time scale with almost every study. But forget about that. Are you a patriotic American? Did the founding fathers work out a Constitution that would only apply in their lifetimes, or during the lifetimes of their children? Did god tell Moses that the 10 commandments have an expiration date? Did Jesus die for the sins of people who he knew, AND NOT YOU???? I should mention that a lot of people around here are religious, though frankly, half the talks I give are to groups of godless heathens of which I am a member. But the point still stands. Timing is not everything. Timing is just an excuse.

I don’t think the goal of climate activists should necessarily be to convince everyone to get on board and stop being dumb about global warming. For one thing, that will never happen. Rather, the goal of climate activists should be to make addressing climate change – which primarily means keeping the fossil Carbon in the ground – normal, part of our social and governmental responsibility, and to do so soon. Most people these days are pretty ignorant about the Ozone Layer, yet somehow we are mostly taking care of the ozone layer, not because we got everyone on board, but because we made taking care of the ozone layer national and international law and set up systems to do that. Climate change is a much bigger challenge, or really, a large number of individual challenges many of which are very big. But we have to meet those challenges with methods and approaches that work and changing human psychology – making humans be something other than bowls of Jell-O – is not going to work in time to matter, if at all. But, getting some more people on board by addressing the psychology of belief, as it were, in the science, needs to happen to bring certain communities and factions to a tipping point.

Maybe everyone should move to the coast for a few years. Get their feet wet.


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Well said Greg. Thank you.

I have charted my distance and elevation from the Atlantic ocean using Google Earth. It's pretty cool to mess around with various sea levels. It would take a 249 foot sea level rise to put a beach at my front doorstep.

I also calculated the effect of a 150 ft tsunami from a slab of mountain land slide from the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands slamming into the East Coast of the USA. It would come at me from two directions but there's enough landmass and of sufficient elevation to keep me safe. That event is almost too catastrophic to think about. Most of Long Island would be wiped clean. There would be only about 6 hours warning.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 22 Jul 2014 #permalink

One obvious confounder is that one's politics vary according to where one lives, with city dwellers being more liberal than rural folk, and cities tend to cluster on the coasts.

The upper midwest might be a good test of this as an interior region with many large cities: is the attitude in Chicago or Minneapolis/St. Paul significantly different from what it is in New York or Los Angeles?

Bad, yes, good idea. In NZ they adjusted for some of those effects but there is just so much you can do there.