Scientists, scholars, and activists come together (awkwardly) to tackle global warming.

The “Climate, Mind and Behavior Project” is an odd hybrid that blends science and advocacy. As the website explains:

It crystallizes and further develops the emerging understanding of human behavior and human nature generated by behavioral and social sciences, integrating them with insights from evolutionary theory and psychology, and applies this evolving body of thought specifically to climate change policy and related ecological issues, proposing new approaches, tools and solutions.

Yes, that’s a mouthful, but perhaps you get the idea. This cross-pollination of the social and cognitive sciences with climate change advocacy comes together in an annual symposium hosted at the Garrison Institute, a former Capuchin monastery in New York’s mid-Hudson valley that has been retrofitted into a retreat center with Buddhist trappings. I’ve attended the last two gatherings. (See here and here.)


The views (the facility overlooks the Hudson River) are stupendous, the food is excellent (mostly vegetarian and locally produced), and the vibe is … well, weird: Part new age, part science, and part rah, rah, as in, let’s all pool our brain power and figure out a way to get people to pay more attention to climate change and reduce their carbon footprint.

That’s a well-intentioned aim, but for journalists, it’s difficult to reconcile the eco-agenda with the research being presented. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a greener world and all that (hey, I once worked at Audubon magazine for nearly ten years). But there’s a lot to be said for having scientists and scholars lay out their findings in a more neutral context and setting. Otherwise, it feels like a violation of church and state.

In addition to the conference’s odd design, there’s also the issue of whether the suggestions put forward by researchers (for real-world application) are empirically sound. Yale University’s Dan Kahan a presenter at this year’s symposium, seemed troubled by the lack of rigor at many of the sessions he attended. On his blog at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, he said he heard “lots of just-so story telling — ‘engage emotions … but don’t scare or numb’ — based on ad hoc mix and match of general psychological mechanisms w/o evidence on how they play out in this context (indeed, in disregard of the evidence that actually exists).” Kahan was equally taken aback by something else:

I was also genuinely shocked & saddened by what struck (assaulted) me as the anti-science ethos shared by a large number of participants. Multiple speakers disparaged science for being “materialistic” and for trying to “put a number on everything.” One, to approving nods of audience, reported that university science instruction had lost the power to inspire “wonder” in students because it was disconnected from “spiritual” (religious, essentially) sensibilities.

This observation raises an interesting question: How can a conference that is supposedly science-based have an anti-science ethos?

Another odd presence at the annual Climate, Mind, and Behavior conferences is that of public relations specialists. This year, one of the speakers was James Hoggan, who helped launch the climate change-oriented website, Desmogblog. The site’s mission is to “clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science on climate change.” In his talk Hoggan suggested that climate communicators take to heart the PR advice he gives his clients every day: What works, he says, is “a compelling message, repeated frequently, from trusted sources.”

That first element — the part about the “compelling message” — sums up one of the underlying aims of the Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project: Figuring out what that compelling message on global warming is. As noted in a previous post, the annual symposium is an eclectic gathering that infuses “a wave of fresh ideas and optimism into a normally stale and unproductive conversation.”

The question remains whether any of the ideas will help break the climate stalemate at the larger political and policy levels.

Those who insist that climate disinformation from corporate interests and various think tanks is the primary reason for public confusion on global warming might want to consider this observation from Megan McArdle at the Atlantic website:

What really influences people is contemplating their own lives with doubled or tripled electric bills and $8 a gallon gas. To paraphrase Chesterton, serious belief in global warming — the kind that makes you stop climbing aboard $@#! planes to climate change conferences in scenic and distant locales — has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.

The same could easily be said of people attending a certain conference set on the scenic banks of the Hudson River, who come together every year in search of an elusive goal: How to convince the world to take climate change seriously and do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.