The Climate Tipping Point

The Climate Tipping Point

Project Team: Katelyn Boisvert, Zola Berger-Schmitz, Olivia Keck, and Matthew Heldman

Recent polls reflect increasing belief that climate change is a problem, yet it still seems few are doing anything about it. This observation results from a phenomenon we have termed the “Climate Tipping Point,” that is the point where climate awareness leads to human initiated action.

Increasing climate change awareness is an important first step; but without additional motivation to tip a person to action, we cannot make the progress needed to address this issue. There is a gap in the percentage of people who view climate change as a problem and those that believe human action is necessary to combat it, which we described as the climate action gap. Understanding how to bridge the climate action gap is necessary to positively change human behaviors related to climate mitigation and adaptation.

What drives the disconnect between climate awareness and the belief that human action is necessary to combat the climate crisis, both at the individual and at the countrywide level?

This is a question gaining traction in the world of climate research and is the focus of our research project. Many studies explore the psychological factors that contribute to this disconnect at the individual level. Whether it’s faith that technology can solve the issue, failure to comprehend the impact of an individual action, or trouble comprehending the effects of incremental changes, many individuals believe that human-initiated action to reduce the effects of climate change is unnecessary.

Climate change education and policy implementation are good ways to influence people who view climate change as a major issue and just need to take that next step toward action. Many things could prompt this step, but costs and relevance of the climate action are good motivators. It is our hypothesis that risk perception, when people feel that their life is personally at risk, is a strong driver impacting an individual’s likelihood to take action to combat climate change.

Explore this background further with our first infographic! 

There is limited research on factors contributing to the climate action gap at a countrywidelevel, so we explored several factors that could be instrumental for policy implementation.

In 2015, Pew Research Center conducted the Global Attitudes Study sampling individuals from 40 countries, which included questions on climate change. A difference in population percentage of people who said climate change is a very/somewhat serious problem and those who said human action is necessary to reduce the effects of climate change was noted worldwide, which we calculated as the climate action gap and represented geographically.

Created by Katelyn Boisvert using Piktochart Graphics

Our research compared the climate action gap for each country against factors including economics, equality, education, and risk perception to explore their potential contribution as drivers for this behavior. Economics, measured by GDP, averaged a 6% higher climate action gap for the poorest 15 countries as compared to the richest 15 countries . Equality yielded a 3% higher climate gap for countries with a higher (more unequal) Gini Index. Education did not influence the climate action gap, suggesting that climate change education may not be the determining factor in motivating individuals toward climate action.

Another PEW survey question explored if people felt they would be personally affected by climate change, which we attributed as perceived risk. This value demonstrated a positive correlation when plotted against climate action showing that countries whose residents feel more at risk from climate change are more likely to believe human action is necessary to address it, and a trend was observed for those countries as presenting with lower climate action gaps.

Curious about our results? Check out our second infographic!

Understanding the interplay of these factors is important to inform climate policy and for its success, and should focus on the need for human-initiated action and building public support for climate-friendly solutions.

Wondering about specific policy examples? Check out our last infographic!

Are you victim to the climate action gap? If so, what will push you over the tipping point? Check out our podcast on this issue! 

A list of references can be viewed


Science… Only Part of the Equation

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Category : Environment Blog

Every year, 2.7 million people die as a result of ambient, or outdoor, pollution. An even more astonishing fact is that close to double that number die from indoor air pollution.

photo from: https://esaikawa.wordpress.com

Photo of Professor Saikawa from: esaikawa.wordpress.com

This tragedy is the foundation of Emory University Professor Eri Saikawa’s research. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently to discuss her work.

Professor Saikawa originally started her career as a modeler, studying the relationship between pollution and ambient emissions. When she learned that negative effects from indoor pollution are much worse than ambient, she wanted to explore it herself. She began a research project to study the impact of burning yak dung as a fuel for heating and cooking in Tibetan households.

Have you ever thought of culture as being an integral part of scientific research? It is what makes her work “interesting but challenging,” Saikawa says.

This study produced fascinating scientific results, and it also revealed a different side of science and the impact that culture can have. Science showed that purchasing chimneys, using alternative fuel sources, and improving ventilation would all help to decrease harmful indoor emissions in Tibetan households, but no one wanted to do it. Why? Culture.

Tibetans have been using yak dung as a fuel source for generations. Saikawa described that many families were aware of pollution within their homes but were not worried about the health impacts.

People often relate ambient pollution to its contribution to climate change, and Tibetans are very worried about climate change. There is a snowy mountain peak that the Tibetan people consider holy. They watch fearfully as the snow recedes further each year and disappears.

However, indoor pollution is a more serious and immediate issue for them than climate change. It is a problem of human health, and as a result should receive very different attention.

Photo by Qingyang Xiao

Photo of Tibetan household by Qingyang Xiao

Professor Saikawa described how one of her biggest challenges was getting the Tibetans to “perceive the environmental risk and see it as a problem.” Unlike the very visible cue of the mountain losing its snow, the impacts of indoor air pollution are not as easy for people to recognize as a problem.

In general, healthcare is not well promoted. When Professor Saikawa visited Tibet, she noted that the nearest healthcare facility was an hour drive from the rural villages. The people did not view it necessary to spend their time going to get healthcare.

The health risk caused by breathing in emissions from burning yak dung in their homes without proper exhausts and ventilation is immediate. In other countries having similar indoor air quality problems, scientists went in with fancy chimney and stoves but they have gone unused. People simply continued in the same ways they always had.

In addition to overseeing the research, Professor Saikawa has to balance her personal views of the situation with how Tibetans think and act. The difficulty resides in how much responsibility we have over the situation. It is important to protect people from negatives health effects while still respecting their culture.

In situations like these, it is not enough to rely on the science of the issue. Saikawa described this as one of the main problems facing the scientific community. She described her experience in Tibet as very positive and eye opening to their way of life and how “you can only understand how people live by going through what they do.” A good lesson for all of us!

Want to learn more about Professor Saikawa’s research? Check out this article on Emory’s eScience Commons: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2015/01/yak-dung-burning-pollutes-indoor-air-of.html

Or read the full research article here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231014009327


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