President's Blog

Happy and engaged Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Some promising news first: despite the abundance of misinformation, Americans are aware of the fact that our planet is warming up fast and are worried about it. That’s a good foundation for action.

According to data from our Center for Climate Change Communication, 74% of Americans believe global warming is happening (that includes 70% of moderate Republicans and 42% of conservative Republicans). Some of us deal with the issue by denying that humans have anything to do with it. Yet still 62% of us believe the evidence that we, humans, are responsible for the mess we’re in. Two-thirds of us are worried about global warming and 69% believe we ought to reduce our carbon emissions regardless of what other countries do (even if it means imposing a tax on fossil fuels or strict regulations on coal plants).

The worst enemy we face in combating climate change, avoiding mass extinctions, and adapting to the environmental disruption we’ve already caused appears to be not misinformation or lack of awareness but rather shared helplessness. If you believe your actions won’t make a difference, you’re unlikely to entertain sacrifices or lifestyle changes. And if others around you, or leaders in a position to do something, show little interest in changing anything, then why bother.

If we are to drive change, we need to create a shared sense of agency and control of our destiny, or what social psychologists call self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to achieve something–win a basketball game, get a job, solve a math problem. Research shows that people with high self-efficacy are more likely to put in the effort to achieve a goal, they are more likely to sustain the effort even if they experience failure, and, as a consequence, are more likely to succeed.

Psychologists have found that a person’s self-efficacy can be, at least to some extent, developed through experience. Whether through persuasion, or by seeing how other people try and succeed, or by personally experiencing some early success, people can develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy and be more willing to do what they can to achieve an important goal.

That is why I am more and more convinced that the work of universities like ours can be essential to driving change in attitudes, self-efficacy and, ultimately, behavior. We can do it by teaching the facts about climate change and environmental sustainability, and, very importantly, by modeling environmental stewardship in our own activities and by serving as a lab for our students to experiment–and hopefully experience success.

I feel very hopeful about the potential of the Institute for a Sustainable Earth we recently launched and I very much look forward to how it will advance our research and our teaching in this area. A good example of the impact this institute can have is the Global Deal for Nature, a science-based global policy framework published three days ago by ISE director Tom Lovejoy and a leading group of experts.

And, we need to do more.

On this Earth Day, I call on our community to redouble our efforts to strengthen our research and teaching in areas related to environmental stewardship, to hold ourselves to the highest standards of environmental performance, and to serve as a field of experimentation for students and other members of our community.

Together we can make a difference.

Happy Earth Day!