The Northeast might not be able to recognize the growing threat of climate change like the rest of the United States, according to natural resources professors at the University of Connecticut.
UConn professor Mike Dietz, Ph.D., who teaches courses in water quality management, explained how recognizing dangers as “enormously complicated” as the climate crisis is not a part of human nature.
Humans are uniquely bad at reacting to “slow-moving,” long-term threats – and the effects of climate change “aren’t powerful enough here on a short-term basis” to motivate people in the Northeast to act, Dietz said.
DrawingFrom his undergraduate background in psychology, Dietz cited a 2014 article from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), called “Naturally Green: Harnessing Stone Age Psychological Biases to Foster Environmental Behavior.”
The SPSSI article ascribes today’s environmental problems to five behaviors human ancestors developed for survival, one of which is the “preference for immediate over delayed rewards.” Human ancestors would have benefited enormously from letting “today’s desires prevail over tomorrow’s needs.”
“If early humans would have spent too much effort on satisfying their future needs rather than their immediate needs, they would have been less likely to survive and pass on their genes in a sometimes harsh and unpredictable natural environment,” the article said. “Temporal discounting benefited our early nomadic ancestors because they could not save for the future.”
However, in today’s world — with fewer environmental threats to our immediate safety — this trait can cause humans to be ‘shortsighted,’ and leave us unprepared for the insidious reach of climate change.
“Our brains have evolved to respond adaptively to localized environmental threats that we can see or smell, such as a fire, famine, or flood, but not to global environmental changes that we cannot appreciate with our evolved sensory mechanisms,” the article said.
According to the article, humans can’t appreciate the threat climate change poses to future generations because “people in modern societies still weigh immediate outcomes much more heavily than distant ones.”
More than once, Dietz observed this phenomenon in his own field – what he likes to call “the psychology of hydrology.” When Massachusetts residents living on a lake were advised that the water where they swam was not up to Environmental Protection Agency standards, they became much more involved in local water quality management. In other cases, when people don’t live on a body of water, and have “no tangible connection” to the negative impacts their actions have on the environment, Dietz has seen how they will ignore professional advice.
“We react to things that influence us,” Dietz said. “People only speak up against issues when they affect them or their family, financially or emotionally.”
Dietz mentioned that it’s particularly hard to “sell” the threat of climate change to UConn when its main campus in Storrs is relatively sheltered, and climate change has a negligible impact on the undergraduate experience.
“Does it really affect the students’ day to day lives?” Dietz said. “Not a lot … no dorms were destroyed the last time we had a hurricane.”
Meanwhile, the climate crisis is costing other parts of the U.S. lives, and billions of dollars. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a record-breaking 22 “weather and climate disasters” killed more than 260 people last year. With each individual emergency creating at least $1 billion in damages, weather and climate disasters totaled close to $100 billion in 2020 – the nation’s fifth hottest year on record.
In 2020 alone, a record-breaking 30 named hurricanes formed in the Atlantic Ocean – 12 of which made landfall in the U.S. Seven of the named storms made the NOAA’s list of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters and composed more than 42% of the nation’s $100 billion bill.
In addition to an unprecedented number of named tropical storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. “also had its most active wildfire year on record due to very dry conditions in the West and unusually warm temperatures that gripped much of the country,” according to the NOAA. More than 10 million acres burned across four states – 51% more than the yearly average of the previous decade.
UConn meteorology professor Richard Anyah, Ph.D., said there’s a “very dangerous” reluctance of people in the Northeast to fully appreciate the way climate change is harming real people.
“Compared to other parts of the country, such as the Midwest and the Pacific Coast, the Northeast has not seen a large share of climate change-related events which persist for long periods,” Anyah said.
Anyah explained how climate change is an ever-present threat that constantly chips away “the ability of natural and human systems to remain sustainable and resilient” despite the Northeast’s neglect of the issue.
The problem Anyah illustrated is that people in the Northeast only think about the threat when they experience “extremes” such as hurricanes and flooding, or “rapid-onset events” that come and go very quickly.
If we do nothing to confront the lingering issue, and the impacts of climate change “explode,” Anyah said, “we may have little to do to prevent the irreversible effects.”
Anyah and Dietz explained how the climate crisis is creeping up on Connecticut in “unpredictable” ways.
According to Anyah, the Northeast is becoming wetter and floods pose a greater threat to the coastline. Due to rising ocean temperatures, conditions are increasingly conducive for “stronger and more damaging storms to form.”
Anyah noted that states like Connecticut are generally less prepared for these new storms, and so “damage can be amplified due to lack of proper coastal protections and preparedness.”
According to Dietz, climate change affects Connecticut in less attention-grabbing ways than the hurricanes and wildfires in other parts of the country. He pointed to prolonged droughts, where an area receives its typical yearly amount of precipitation – just in more sporadic rain events with more space in between them – becoming more common across Connecticut.
Now, with fewer rain events providing the normal yearly amount of precipitation, Connecticut has also seen more intense rainfalls. Higher air temperatures allow for more moisture to build up in the atmosphere before it’s released all at once in dramatic storms.
Several rivers in northeastern Connecticut, not farFrom UConn, recently discharged unprecedented volumes of water after intense rainfalls. Dietz recalled flash floods in July 2021 when Ashford, Connecticut received more than five inches of rain in less than three hours, and record-breaking flows of the Natchaug River in Chaplain, Connecticut after Hurricane Ida in August.
Dietz said it would take something like “The Great Hurricane of 1938” – that had lifelong effects on people like Dietz’ grandmother – to wake New Englanders up to the threat of climate change. If not, the long stretches of drought – or the unpredictably violent rainfalls that break them up – might soon introduce Connecticut to the climate crisis.
“Whether people get it, I don’t know, because the tap still works; water’s still on and they haven’t had to pay more for it.”
Mike Dietz, UConn Professor
Dietz also said that more “temperamental” weather, in general, will surely create new agricultural issues across the state. He’s just not sure how.
Dianne Dorfer, a local farmer, noted that this is the first year she lost any of her tomato crop to disease. In the past, she said that frost always killed her tomato plants before anything else.
Dorfer blamed climate change for her new problem. She explained to a group of UConn students that higher temperatures, later frosts and milder winters create an opportunity for pests and diseases to move into Connecticut and attack her farm.
Jane Braxton Little, an environmental journalist who calls herself a “climate refugee,” and whose community was destroyed in the California Dixie fire earlier this year, said that “We don’t want for things to have to burn down, or blow up or get flooded for people to get engaged” against climate change.
Little said that the strategy she adoptedFrom Katharine Hayhoe – a climatologist and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, which wakes people up to the threat of climate change using Christian theology – is “getting people where they live.”
In Little’s case, the key was showing her friends and neighbors how the wildfires that destroyed their community were simply “different” than the wildfires previous generations battled.
“You don’t take out a town that’s been here for 150 years without something being different,” Little said. “What’s different is a climate-changed forest.”
In the end, Little stated that everyone has a stake fighting climate change.
“There may be some pockets that experience it slower,” Little said, “but how could a 1.5°C change not affect everyone? What happens in the other part of the world will impact what happens here. We’re global at this point.”