From a blog post (about geo-engineering and why it's not a good idea) by Gavin Schmidt at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/why-levitt-and-dubner-like-geo-engineering-and-why-they-are-wrong/Does reducing global warming imply changing human behaviour and is that possible?
This is a more subtle question [than one answered earlier in the article] and it is sensible to break it down into questions of human nature and human actions. Human nature – the desire to strive for a better life, our inability to think rationally when trying to impress the objects of our desire, our natural selfishness and occasionally altruism, etc – is very unlikely to change anytime soon. But none of those attributes require the emission of fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere, just as they don’t require us to pollute waterways, have lead in gasoline, use ozone-depleting chemicals in spray cans and fridges or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris) have succeeded in greatly reducing those unfortunate actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened.
The first thing to note is that these issues have not been dealt with by forcing people to think about the consequences every time they make a decision. Lead in fuel was reduced because of taxation measures that aligned peoples preferences for cheaper fuel with the societal interest in reducing lead pollution. While some early adopters of unleaded-fuel cars might have done it for environmental reasons, the vast majority of people did it first because it was cheaper, and second, because after a while there was no longer an option. The human action of releasing lead into the atmosphere while driving was very clearly changed.
In the 1980s, there were campaigns to raise awareness of the ozone-depletion problem that encouraged people to switch from CFC-propelled spray cans to cans with other propellants or roll-ons etc. While this may have made some difference to CFC levels, production levels were cut to zero by government mandates embedded in the Montreal Protocols and subsequent amendments. No-one needs to think about their spray can destroying the ozone layer any more.
I could go on, but the fundamental issue is that people’s actions can and do change all the time as a function of multiple pressures. Some of these are economic, some are ethical, some are societal (think about our changing attitudes towards smoking, domestic violence and drunk driving). Blanket declarations that human behaviour can’t possibly change to fix a problem are therefore just nonsense.
Around 1900, horse-drawn transport was the dominant mode of public and private, personal and commercial traffic in most cities. As economic activity was growing, the side-effects of horses’ dominance became ever more pressing. People often mention the issue of horse manure – picking it up and disposing of it, it’s role in spreading disease, the “intolerable stench” – but as McShane and Tarr explain that the noise and the impact of dead horses in the street were just as troublesome. Add to that the need for so many stables downtown taking up valuable city space, the provisioning of hay etc. it was clear that the benefits of the horse’s strength for moving things around came at a great cost.
But in the space of about 20 years all this vanished, to be replaced with electrified trolleys and subways, and internal combustion engine-driven buses and trucks, and cars such as the Model-T Ford. Almost overnight (in societal terms), something that had been at the heart of economic activity had been been relegated to a minority leisure pursuit.
This demonstrates very clearly that assumptions that society must always function the same economic way are false, and that in fact we can change the way we do business and live pretty quickly. This is good news.