Aug 21 2023

How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Mind over matter that seriously mattersHow Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis

Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis, by Ann-Christine Duhaime, M.D., Harvard University Press, 2022, 336 pp.

To achieve climate change goals, a neuro-scientist urges the world to work on the mind.

The greatest paradox of our time is that while climate change has widely been recognized as an urgent problem, it does not press the emergency button for individual and collective action to counter it. Knowing well the root cause and the possible solutions to the problem, why does it gets pushed on to others to fix it? Why are we hardwired not to change our behaviour and consumer tendencies? Simply put, it is the neuroscience of decision making that works to prioritize short-term survival over long-term consequences. No wonder, the risk of anticipated 2°C rise in temperature before the close of the century remains disconcerting.

In Minding the Climate, Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at the Harvard Medical School, explores why changing behaviour in response to the climate crises remains challenging. Having lived life for eons on resource scarcity, human mind responds to better rewards for changing the old behaviour. If a behaviour isn’t perceived as immediately rewarding, we probably won’t change it – never mind that we know we should. In a market economy, just giving people information without incentives and rewards doesn’t work to change consumptive behaviour. Writing lullabies won’t cure opioid addiction by itself.

Environmental issues have been known to present challenges for behaviour change, in part because the phenomenon and the fix are many steps removed from our immediate sensory perception. While the perception may have started changing due to increasing frequency of climatic events in recent times, we are physiologically not equipped with carbon dioxide sensors to reflect strong personal threatening experience to affect behavioural change. Add to this the fact that behaviour change research has focused on choices that individuals make in their domestic lives, rather than on a more collective and political sphere. Furthermore, the invisibility of greenhouses gases adds to the visible challenge.

Duhaime presents a systematic study of the human brain – from understanding its evolutionary origin to strategies for its pro-environmental shift. Taking a deep dive into the human decision-making apparatus, she found that the brain is heavily influenced by its evolutionary design but is also exquisitely flexible. The brain design both constrains and frees us. By linking neuroscience with evolutionary biology, consumer psychology and environmental science, the author reflects hope that humans do in fact have the capacity to change. Minding the Climate is a groundbreaking work on how we might leverage our brains to fight climate change.

It is a thinking person’s guide to encourage our neurological circuits to embrace new rewards. To demonstrate how indeed this could be possible, the Green Children’s Hospital has been initiated by the author and her colleagues as a prototype that makes connection between the environment and health. No reward is good enough for people to see their loved children have a good life. It works both ways as it not only helps cut down emissions from the sector that contributes 8 percent to the atmospheric carbon load but also reminds people that hospital patients looking at trees recover faster than those who look at the brick wall. Such small, incremental steps that individuals take are necessary to look at rewards differently.

Duhaime is not suggesting a quick fix though. The task is to understand how our ingrained tendencies could be overridden by our brain’s capacity to adapt. Minding the Climate is a pioneering work on a subject that has so far not been considered in the global discourse on climate change. It is a work in progress and will only be considered complete when people in the 20-tons-of-carbon-emissions-a-year consider themselves a burden on the society. Our brain has got us to this point, it alone will take us into the future of possibilities.

First published in The Hindu on July 2, 2023.

Apr 9 2023

Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, London

How has the recent Russia-Ukraine war impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy, and how does this impact Gustafson’s conclusions?


Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, by Thane Gustafson, Harvard University Press, 2021, 336 pp

The harmful consequences of climate change are occurring and its impacts on temperatures and weather patterns are already visible. Georgetown political scientist Thane Gustafson’s engaging book, Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change, describes sector-by-sector impacts of climate change on Russia’s economy and what its diversification policy options could be to manage these unfolding changes. The book stands out in its sophisticated research methodology and insights on how the economy will react to the changing environment and declining global demand of fossil fuels caused by the global transition toward renewable energy. The chapter on the Arctic especially stands out how Gustafson rightly mentions the way the Arctic defines Russia (p. 184) both as a challenge and an opportunity. The Arctic is a challenge as its northern areas are warming faster than the rest of Russia and an opportunity as decreasing ice covering would open up the Northern Sea route for faster navigation between Europe and Asia, which might herald in an era of economic prosperity. What especially makes sense is Gustafson’s discussions on Russia’s unpreparedness and inertia of its state institutions captured by elites to invest in post-carbon alternatives effectively as the world starts relying more on renewables.

While a majority of the discussion points are important, recent geopolitical developments in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war have radically impacted the implications of climate change on the Russian economy both qualitatively and quantitatively. The book broadly concludes that the positive impacts on the economy might well be overshadowed by the negative impacts due to climate change. In the wake of the war while the reverberations of Russian actions are being felt by all economies, its local impacts might be more catastrophic than what Gustafson suggests. Since the book was written before the war, its findings should be viewed through the lenses of war.

Jul 5 2022

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What is the effect of modern capitalist institutions and their effects in colonial history and human misery on our present climate crisis, and how can we redeem our relationship with nature?

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism

Climate Chaos and Its Origins in Slavery and Capitalism, by Reva Blau and Judith Blau, Anthem Press, 2020, 114 pp.

Human activities are unequivocally leading to the warming of the atmosphere, and causing widespread changes in our climate system. The scale of these changes, and the adverse effects on our current climate, in many ways have remained unparalleled over the past several thousand years. Reva Blau, middle-school ELL teacher and Judith Blau, Professor emerita of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, considerably argue using examples such as: The 1619 Project and The Industrial Revolution to advance our understanding of, the deep-rootedness of modern capitalist institutions, their foundations in racism, slavery, violence, injustice, and the effects of colonial history and human misery in general on our present climate crisis.

So, what is the way forward? Are we doomed? The authors are surprisingly optimistic about the ability of the current generation of social entrepreneurs to reject capitalism, create a circular economy built on promising technologies such as the blockchain, and thus reverse climate change disaster. They cite the success of recent climatic movements led by young social activists such as: Ayakha Melithafa, Carlos Manuel, Greta Thunberg, Raslen Jbeli, and others to redeem our relationship with nature.

Throughout the book, one point that left me unconvinced was their outright rejection of new technologies (such as geoengineering) without presenting any scientific evidence in favor or against them. The book appeals to the emotions of local social activists without presenting a thorough critical evaluation of the existing institutions—which they argue, are destructive of our ecosystem. Despite these shortcomings, the broad claims of the book are well-argued in other social science literature.

Jul 5 2022

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Reviewed by Dr. Priyanka deSouza, University of Denver

How can cities prioritize context specific human vulnerabilities to climate change, and what are the tools that cities can use to operationalize a reframing of the climate crisis to enhance collective decision making?

Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level

Cities, Climate Change and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level by Ella Jisun Kim, Anthem Press, 2021, 144 pp.

The effects of climate change are being felt in cities around the world. The severe impacts of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other climate-related events on health have cost the United States an estimated ~ USD $14 billion in the last decade alone. Cities have started to incorporate climate considerations in their policy and planning processes. However, most urban climatic adaptation actions to date have involved the protection of material assets from potential climate disasters. In her book, ‘Cities, Climate Change, and Public Health: Building Human Resilience to Climate Change at the Local Level’, Dr. Kim argues that such measures are insufficient, and cities should prioritize context-specific human vulnerabilities to climate change, instead. Such an approach can address key concerns of equity and social vulnerabilities that are often missing in existing plans. Dr. Kim argues that this can be achieved by framing climate change as a public health crisis. She argues that such a framing can also increase public awareness, support and involvement in climatic adaptation at the local level.

Dr Kim’s book explores tools that cities can use to operationalize such a reframing of the climatic crisis to enhance collective decision-making. Specifically, the book describes the results from the ‘Frames and Games’ research project that grew out of a unique partnership between the city of Cambridge and MIT, to increase public engagement in local climate change adaptation planning. The Frames and Games project utilized tools such as: 1) providing participants with relevant vignettes, that framed climate change as a public health crisis, 2) role-play simulations that were designed to immerse participants into scenarios to help them engage with thinking about how to respond to the climate crisis, and 3) digital games that allowed players to ‘see’ the impacts of various decisions on the effects of climate change in their cities. Dr Kim conducted a rigorous evaluation to determine the impact of each of these tools on the participant’s perceived knowledge of climate change, and their desire to act. She details the results in her book. She found that the tools proposed had measurable impacts on different aspects of local engagement in climate change adaptation, even among more politically conservative participants. This book is a must read for planners who are looking for new methods to increase public participation in their cities.

Nov 10 2021

Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A structured approach to studying the interests of future generations in sustainability and environmental justice

Giving Future Generations a Voice
Giving Future Generations a Voice: Normative Frameworks, Institutions and Practice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, Edward Elgar, 2021, 232 pp.

The importance of future generations in discourses about the environment and sustainability is universal. Future generations are often described as a symbol of hope and action. At the same time, they are the victims of the choices made by past and current generations. It is becoming clear that generations in the future will be faced with increasingly difficult problems associated with the changing climate, rising temperatures, and higher sea levels.

The question is, are current generations doing enough to lay the foundation for the future or are they simply depending on them to find their own solutions? Giving Future Generations a Voice, edited by Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, helps make clear the kinds of things current generations ought to be thinking about with the future in mind.

This book is particularly helpful in two respects. One, it paints discussions of the needs of future generations in an appropriate institutional context: institutions that are designed to support future generations more directly (often led by an appointed commissioner), and institutions that indirectly address intergenerational concerns around sustainability and climate change (i.e., UN Sustainable Development Goals). Two, it provides a normative basis to think about the work of such institutions, drawing on philosophy, law and political science, particularly scholarly work on intergenerational justice.

The book is organized into three sections: (1) normative basis, (2) mandate and operating principles, and (3) lessons from practice. In the first, Peter Lawrence (in Chapter 2) argues in favor of a procedural reform of Institutions for Future Generations (IFGs) to factor in their true interests. He introduces the concept of proxy institutions underpinning the democratic values of equity and inclusion. Nicky van Dijk (in Chapter 3) suggests that a “Capability Approach” ought to guide the IFGs in the area of sustainability and human rights. Similarly in Chapter 4, Bridget Lewis argues that both moral and legal rights provide a basis for appropriate IFGs despite current limitations in human rights law regarding obligations to future generations.

In section 2, Jonathan Boston (Chapter 5) and Friedrich Soltau (Chapter 6) propose helpful operating principles to guide a more effective functionality of IFGs as exemplified by what Boston calls “commitment devices” that can help with enforcement. Soltau also examines the “time” variable to make clear what needs to be done now, and how benefits can flow to future generations.

In the last section, the contributors draw on empirical experiences ranging from the Australian ombudsman to other European approaches to IFGs. Phillipa McCormack and Cleo Hansen-Lohrey (Chapter 7) draw lessons from the ombudsman tradition and argue that IFGs should be equipped with a flexible mandate centered on principles and values rather than specific outcomes. They also raise the importance of processual issues such as education and outreach. In Chapter 8, while Alan Netherwood and Andrew Flynn praise the establishment of the Wales Well-being of Future Generations Act under the auspices of the Commissioner of Future Generations, they admit a lot of work needs to be done to account for the distinctive interests of the future generations. Jan Linehan (in Chapter 9) focuses on the reform of legislatures in a number of countries (mostly in Europe) and argues that proposals for independent parliamentary bodies and deliberative assemblies are crucial to providing a voice for future generations. Finally, Elizabeth Dirth (in Chapter 10) explores various concepts that can ensure more fluid and effective decision-making for future generations by offering a systematic account of different kinds of existing European IFGs.

To date, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, there has not been an adequate effort to consolidate the debates around the interests of future generations. This edited volume is particularly helpful because it provides a bit of everything: raising the question of why IFGs are needed and presenting what they might look like in practice. The book offers a structure for those interested in studying the interests of future generations in various substantive fields, most notably sustainability and environmental justice.