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DBASSE Lecture and Fall Meeting

On October 14 and 15, the Division of Behavioral and Social Science Research and Education at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, hosted the 2021 Henry and Bryna David Lecture and the Advisory Committee met to discuss topics related to climate change.  

The lecture, Like Wildfire: How Climate Justice Should Change Disaster Response’, showcased the work of Dr. Michael Méndez, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Policy at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Méndez detailed the often unseen downstream effects of wildfires on minority populations. While the fires themselves receive the bulk of attention, he argued, immigrant farm workers and other minority groups face the brunt of the consequences in ways that go under and un-reported.  

Farmworkers, for example, may have to work in smoky conditions without adequate safeguards, and State officials often fail to enforce compliance with safety regulations. Additionally, economic conditions lead to extra challenges for the most susceptible populations. While homeowners and business owners likely have insurance to cover damage and losses from disasters, domestic and farm workers lose their jobs and are left without a safety net. These individuals also may not have the resources to comply with evacuation orders, leaving them in harm’s way when disasters strike.  

Dr. Méndez’s work highlights the importance of considering social and behavioral factors when designing policies to mitigate and adapt to the effects of our changing climate, as well as continued research on these elements of climate change and natural disaster response.  

The open session of the advisory committee included two panels on the role of behavioral and social sciences in discussions around climate change. 

The first panel ‘Climate Change Adaptations and Environmental Identity’ was moderated by Gary Sandefur, Oklahoma State University and featured three presentations: 

  • The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change – Susan Clayton, University of Wooster  
  • Climate Change as an Additional Challenge to Communities – Diane Austin, University of Arizona 
  • Climate Resilience, Adaptation Mitigation, and Loss and Damage – Adelle Thomas, Climate Change Initiative 

Speakers raised critical questions about how individual and community behavior shapes climate and the impact of climate change on behavior and physical and mental health in the short term such as increase in drug and alcohol use and domestic violence or long term increases in aggression, deepens negative feelings about others, suicide, psychiatric hospitalization, heat can impair ability to learn and interpersonal interaction.  

While observing that most people are surprisingly resilient, researchers cautioned about limitations of adaptation, questioning human ability to adjust to heat and expressing concern that those communities  with the fewest resources have the least capacity. Additional concerns were raised about the media communicating fear without offering solutions and the impact on mental health. Committee members discussed gaps in the research including a lack of rigorous attention to climate impacts on manufacturing and service sectors and their workers.  

The second panel ‘Politics and Governance of Environmental Issues’ was moderated by Steven Raphael, University of California, Berkeley, included the following talks: 

  • Scaling Up Knowledge for Sustainability – Maria Carmen Lemos, University of Michigan 
  • Local Action and Sustainability of Urban Transport – Deborah Salon, Arizona State University 
  • Integrating Social and Natural Sciences to Inform Climate Solutions – Bryan Hubbell, Environmental Protection Agency 

Speakers discussed behavioral components of climate change mitigation and adaptation, including the efficacy of efforts to communicate about climate change. They shared frustrations with public policies that nudge people towards greater energy use, while expressing optimism that the same policies could be amended to motivate significant behavior change and make mitigation efforts more successful.  

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