As media outlets continue to report about climate change scientific findings, which get ever more urgent and bleak, and with the 2012 United National Climate Talks in Doha coming to a close, it’s a challenge (for me, at least) not to be haunted by the dire predictions.  As some leaders in the field of sustainability have suggested, it’s time to focus more on climate change adaptation, as the window for climate change prevention is arguably in the past.

This blog in The Environmental Leaders online news outlet, titled “UN Climate Talks Roundup: Nations Demand Compensation, Investment Falls Short” was the latest salvo and prompted me to put down some thoughts about human behavior and what is likely to happen as the future unfolds.  Before beginning, though, it’s useful to point out that, historically, unforeseen events have often pushed trends in directions that might have seemed unimaginable prior to their occurrence.\r\n\r\nScholars have documented individual and collective barriers, exploring social and psychological cognitive biases that create resistance to sustainability values.  Hoffman and Bazerman (see references at bottom) suggest these as individual biases:

  • the mythical fixed pie bias
  • over-discounting the future
  • egocentrism
  • positive illusions
  • over-confidence
  • pseudo-sacredness

The mythical fixed pie refers to a limited resources notion the authors regard as a fallacy, that if one party wins the other loses, instead of considering the possibility that both sides to satisfy their interests.  Negotiations reach an impasse because of a belief that each side is in perfect opposition to the other, and therefore tradeoffs are not thought to be possible.  Bazerman and Hoffman do acknowledge that at times there are irreconcilable differences, and sometimes it doesn’t pay to be green, but suggest that the better question for individuals and organizations to ask is “how and when does it pay to be sustainable” (Hoffman & Bazerman, 2007, p. 91).
Over-discounting the future results in degradation to resource stocks because an definite immediate personal gain is chosen over a longer-term benefit to a larger group, as research on resource and social dilemmas shows (for example, see Wade-Benzoni, Tenbrunsel, & Bazerman, 1996 and Joireman, Posey, Truelove, & Parks, 2009).  While the present is certain, the future is less so and we don’t know what might happen between now and then.  This leads to an inconsistency between moral attitudes and actual behavior.
Egocentrism refers to the self-serving behavior that induces people to perceive as fair arrangements that benefit them more than others.  This is the phenomenon that underlies the tragedy of the commons (Corral-Verdugo, Frias-Amenta, & Gonzalez-Lomeli, 2003; Johnson & Duchin, 2000), and prompts people to excessively consume resources.
Overly optimistic perceptions of oneself and the future, as compared to fact is a positive  illusion that explains why companies promote as sustainable products of environmentally or socially questionable value or benefit.  People generally rate themselves higher on environmentally positive behaviors than an objective survey of specific behaviors would indicate (K. Wade-Benzoni, Li, Thompson, & Bazerman, 2007), allowing them to maintain a more positive image of themselves.
Overconfidence in one’s ability to estimate, and the disinclination to recognize and factor in uncertainties is another cognitive bias that leads to over-consumption and other environmentally destructive behaviors.
What is thought to be sacred is believed to be beyond negotiation or change; but not all that is considered sacred truly is, and what exists in this realm may be negotiable.  This is the obstacle Bazerman and Hoffman refer to as pseudo-sacredness, and which they posit as another obstacle to successfully negotiating sustainability outcomes.
Organizational biases fall into three categories:

  • artifacts
  • espoused values
  • basic underlying assumptions.

Artifacts include organizational structures and processes, such as hierarchy, division of responsibilities, reporting relationships, communication patterns, internal language, external relationships, boundaries, and technologies.  These structures and processes generate rules of interaction that often result in a disconnect between desired change toward sustainability and behaviors and norms that have persisted over time.
Espoused values may not match embedded norms, such as that the corporation’s purpose is to increase shareholder value and that sustainability initiatives are Trojan horses, “concealing a threat to prevailing patterns of production and consumption” (Owens, 2003), p. 7).  Embedded norms often include the notion that the organization is an autonomous and independent entity, not traditionally responsible for the environment and stakeholders other than shareholders.  Organizational members are selected for, socialized into, and rewarded for following these norms.
The most basic level of cultural behavior includes the taken-for-granted beliefs about what is regarded as appropriate behavior.  This set of basic underlying assumptions satisfies “the basic human need for stability, certainty, and security within the organization” (Bazerman & Hoffman, 1999), p. 55).  Habitual routines, resource limitations, fear of the unknown, pressure from outside forces such as government and the the public, and threats to established power result in organizational inertia toward sustainability efforts.

With these biases in mind – not to mention societal level biases around patriotism, state competition, national culture, and in-group/out-group biases – it isn’t hard to understand why there has been so little progress on climate change since the 1997 conference that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States has never ratified).

The for-profit sector is well-positioned to help slow or cushion the climate change snowball.  The Environmental Leader blog referenced above reports that, “according to The Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2012, the private sector was the main source of global climate finance, contributing between $217 and $243 billion, mostly from corporations and renewable energy project developers. Public sector investment totaled between $16 and $23 billion globally.”  Here are other reasons the for-profit sector is a logical big player in climate change adaptation:

1.    As technological innovators, companies best understand the economic and technical tradeoffs involved.
2.    Companies must be involved in regulatory and policy decisions as government agencies do not have the knowledge or resources to develop the best solutions.
3.    As social structures businesses,industries, and markets have accumulated power and resources to influence not only economic, but also social, environmental, and political conditions, and have been involved in developing solutions to problems in these realms.
4.    Businesses can profit through creating innovations to satisfy societal preferences for products and services that resolve social and environmental problems.

Back to climate change adaptation, it appears that humankind is responding too slowly and ineffectually to reports of climate change documentation.  Unfortunately, those who are the least responsible for carbon emissions are those who are most likely to suffer soonest due to climate change.  Vulnerable island populations in developing countries are seeing sea level rise and coastal flooding.  The least developed areas of Africa and Asia likely to be more severely affected by drought and heat waves, leading to widespread worsened food scarcity problems.  Whether there is a direct link to Hurricane Sandy from climate change, that storm showed us in the United States that those most likely to suffer impacts are those who can least afford them.  Developed countries have used their wealth and power to resist agreements that might put them at a perceived comparative disadvantage, and this is unlikely to change.

Systems scientists tell us that the bigger the system, the slower the change, which is why it’s so scary that the biggest global system of all, the biosphere, is changing pretty rapidly, even faster than earlier (and even recent) predictions suggested.  The global human social system is also big, and change is likely be incremental and inconsistent.  As callous as it may seem to suggest it, it may be that the one influence that will create faster change is if those in positions of wealth, power, and influence suffer significant losses due to climate change related events.  National disasters like Hurricane Sandy, hitting Wall Street, one of the biggest economic engines in the world, may be the kind of catalysts we need to stop dragging our feet.


Bazerman, M., & Hoffman, A. (1999). Sources of environmentally destructive behavior: Individual, organizational, and institutional perspectives. Research in Organizational Behavior, 21, 39-79.

Corral-Verdugo, V., Frias-Amenta, M., & Gonzalez-Lomeli, D. (2003). On the relationship between antisocial and anti-environmental behaviors: An empirical study. Population and Environment, 24(3), 273.

Hoffman, A. J., & Bazerman, M. H. (2007a). Changing practice on sustainability : understanding and overcoming the organizational and psychological barriers to action. In S. Sharma, M. Starik & B. Husted (Eds.), Organizations and the Sustainability Mosaic (pp. 84-105). Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

Hoffman, A. J., & Bazerman, M. H. (2007b). Changing practice on sustainability: understanding and overcoming the organizational and psychological barriers to action. In S. Sharma, M. Starik & B. Husted (Eds.), Organizations and the Sustainability Mosaic (pp. 84-105). Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Johnson, B., & Duchin, F. (2000). The case for the global commons. In J. M. Harris (Ed.), Rethinking sustainability: Power, knowledge, and institutions (pp. 33-49). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Joireman, J., Posey, D. C., Truelove, H. B., & Parks, C. D. (2009). The environmentalist who cried drought: Reactions to repeated warnings about depleting resources under conditions of uncertainty. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(2), 181-192.

Owens, S. (2003). Is there a meaningful definition of sustainability? Plant Genetic Resources, 1(1), 5-9.

Wade-Benzoni, K., Li, M., Thompson, L., & Bazerman, M. (2007). The malleability of environmentalism. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy : ASAP, 7(1), 163.\

Wade-Benzoni, K. A., Tenbrunsel, A. E., & Bazerman, M. H. (1996). Egocentric interpretations of fairness in asymmetric, environmental social dilemmas: Explaining harvesting behavior and the role of communication. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 67(2), 111-126.