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What if there’s no climate change ‘pill’ to save us?

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Recovering from an indulgent Thanksgiving meal shared with family reminds me of my grandfather. Perhaps like yours, mine died of heart disease and at a younger age than he should have. It’s a familiar tale: A series of heart attacks, followed by angioplasty and stent implants. Prescriptions for statin drugs, but also for diet and exercise that never really took. In his mind, there was little need. The doctors would figure something out next time his heart acted up, just as they always had. 

As it happens, my grandpa was also an Al Gore-loathing Republican who believed that climate change, in the words of Harry Truman, was a bunch of hooey. While seemingly disconnected, cardiovascular disease and climate change have more in common than at first glance — and this includes the mental traps that imperil our thinking about their solutions.   

How connected are climate and cardiovascular health? Consider red meat. Not only has its consumption been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease in large cohort studies, but its production accounts for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector.

Indeed, a recent analysis of global food production suggests that dietary changes, like substituting vegetable-based alternatives for animal-based food products, can do more to mitigate climate change than driving or flying less. There’s even research suggesting a causal link between the two, given that stress-inducing fluctuations in temperature and precipitation patterns may increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Granted, just because two issues are connected doesn’t mean that our thinking about how to solve one will mirror the other. But when it comes to cardiovascular and climate health, there’s reason to suspect it. Both are what economists call intertemporal choice problems, meaning they involve trade-offs between present and future happiness (or “utility”). Pumpkin pie and flights to Europe feel good now but risk our future well-being; broccoli and home-energy improvements pay off over the long-run. Yet, the human brain isn’t wired to delay gratification, and American culture may further encourage impatience. Diet and exercise contribute to longevity, sure, but taking a pill is a whole lot easier. 

But do Americans really think this way about climate change as well? Public opinion surveys suggest that, indeed, many of us do. 

Take, for instance, a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center that asked a national sample of U.S. adults whether “new technology will solve most of the problems from global climate change” during the next 50 years (by 2066). Most (55 percent) indicated this would “probably” or “definitely” happen. In comparison, 44 percent indicated this would not happen. This pattern was remarkably consistent across Democrats and Republicans, as well as liberals and conservatives, who are often divided on climate change and what to do about it. Yet, when it comes to solving it, roughly half of Americans, regardless of their political stripes, felt that technology will ultimately protect us.

An earlier Pew survey from 2015 posed a starker contrast, by asking whether addressing climate change will require “major changes” to the way people live, or whether technology can solve the problem without major changes being required. Although most (66 percent) acknowledged that major changes will be necessary, fully 23 percent indicated that technology will solve climate change without major changes required.

Put differently, nearly a quarter of the U.S. public seem to be betting that technology, and technology alone, will save us — the dangerous implication being that there’s no need to adopt lifestyle changes that are virtually guaranteed to reduce our carbon footprint, such as traveling less and eating less meat. After all, if the experts will invent a solution tomorrow, why should we sacrifice today? 

To be sure, we should pursue technological solutions to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, to avoid the most catastrophic climate scenarios. But like with heart disease, we should be careful not to overlook the immediate steps we can take as individuals to improve our odds.

Like Thanksgiving itself, it may be quintessentially American to bank on a climate change “pill” to save the day. By all means, let’s keep working toward technological solutions. But in the meantime, let’s also hedge our bets with a diet of the carbon kind. 

Jonathon P. Schuldt (@JonathonSchuldt) is an associate professor of communication at Cornell University and a faculty fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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