Thinking fast and slow on climate change

April 26, 2021


The central thesis in Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow is that humans have two systems of thought. The first system is fast, instinctive, and emotional. The second system is slower, deliberate, and more logical. His book explores how we lean towards replacing difficult questions with ones that are easy to answer as well as the many ways we filter out information that contradicts fast thinking.

It is not hard to see how social media feeds our fast-thinking mode at the expense of more deliberate and logical thought.

Climate change is a complex problem with no simple answers but, as behavioural scientists would predict, we spend a lot of time chasing them.

Over 1900 jurisdictions in 34 countries have declared a climate emergency. In 2019, a wave of municipal declarations spread across Canada reflecting broad community awareness of the urgent need to act.

Declarations have proved successful in mobilizing action. However, much of the response has been fast, instinctive, and emotional. Benefits have been realized but far from the scale needed to have a meaningful impact on a wicked problem.

Communities that have taken a more deliberate and informed path to deliver deep and sustained emission reductions frequently face pressure from local residents too move faster. However, in my interview with Peter Garforth, No Small Measures, he explains that if we are serious about building a better future, we need to first invest in the structures and infrastructure that will deliver that future. That is not as sexy - or as fast - as throwing up some solar panels on a roof or buying an electric bus.

Engaging people in a conversation about where and how they use energy asks a lot of them. It asks them to embrace difficult questions and not just defer to those that are simple to answer. It asks them to be open to new information and perspectives. As Kirby Calvert and Rebecca Jahns share in Mapping the Energy Transition, if we don’t provide space for people to engage in the conversation, we only encourage further polarization and impede an effective response to climate change.

Community energy planning is hard work but necessary for building energy conscious communities that can achieve and sustain deep emission reductions.