2. Why Is Thinking about Food and Climate Change Challenging?

Our system for growing, processing, distributing, and preparing food and managing waste is complex. Climate is another complex system. Accurately understanding their dynamics can sometimes be challenging.

Systems Perspective: Fortunately, humans invent tools (from language to microscopes to science to universities) that extend our capabilities beyond those with which evolution has endowed us. Systems thinking is one set of such tools. This collection of essays—in particular, “How Can a Systems Perspective Help Our Understanding?”—explores how shifts in perspective and related topics that characterize systems thinking can help us better come to terms with food systems, climate change, and the links between them.

The Framework for K–12 Science Education, the document that was the basis for developing the Next Generation Science Standards, offers a starting point: “From a human perspective, one can separate three major scales at which to study science: (1) macroscopic scales that are directly observable—that is, what one can see, touch, feel, or manipulate; (2) scales that are too small or fast to observe directly; and (3) those that are too large or too slow.”1 Many of the phenomena relevant to food systems and climate change are too slow, too fast, too small, or too large for direct observation. Others are too complex for easy apprehension.

Some examples:

Too slow. Humans learn, and adapt, by comparing the effects of our actions with the outcomes that we desire. But the effects on climate of some actions and decisions are far enough removed in time (and distance) to make the connections difficult to appreciate.

For instance, because of their hugeness and mass, oceans demonstrate thermal inertia, taking much longer than the atmosphere to respond to influences on their temperature. The result, sometimes called the “climate lag,”2 is that greenhouse gas emissions have already set in motion changes in climate whose magnitude may not be felt for a generation or two.3

Meanwhile, much decision making, especially in the industrialized West, is predicated on short-term results: how will my actions affect me, my school, my job, in the next days, months, or years, not in decades into the future? Especially in business and politics, reward systems are often geared to the next quarter, or the next election. “We are fast thinkers,” says Oberlin professor David W. Orr, “but slow learners.”4 George Wallace, cofounder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, writes, “It is an innate feature of our mental categorizing that we define things in terms of their closeness: prioritizing the things that affect us here and now, and disregarding those that affect others there and then.”5

“Too slow” removes urgency from responses, leading to notions that we don’t need to act until we’re sure about climate change. A South African writer describes “Lukewarmers,” who “recognize that global warming exists and that human activity plays a role, but believe [correctly, he thinks] that the question of climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide has not been settled, and it is not an urgent crisis requiring immediate, large-scale changes in the world’s energy use profile.”6

Too fast. Paradoxically, while some dimensions of climate change may be too slow to grasp our attention, some consequences may be too fast for responses based on thinking that has been effective in the past. According to Jeanne Merrill of the California Climate and Action Network, “Generally, climate change leads to less predictability. Farmers are historically excellent at adjusting to changing climates. What’s challenging in the period that we’re in now is the need for that adaptation to speed up. Right now, California is really lacking the resources to support farmers to be able to adequately adapt to changing climate.”7

Researchers suggest that some consequences of climate change can build at a steady rate until they reach a point at which change to a different state may be dramatic, potentially irreversible, and too rapid for easy response.8

Too small. At a physical level, molecular interactions in the air, soil, and oceans are too small and too numerous to be observed directly. Some important activity related to food systems and climate is just now being understood. “Soil ecology,” writes geomorphologist David R. Montgomery, “is still in its infancy compared to the far more established fields of soil physics and soil chemistry…. Out of sight, and out of mind, beneficial microbes do heavy lifting that helps sustain plant health. The new understanding of microbes as biological catalysts of natural soil fertility challenges the philosophical foundation of modern agriculture.”9

Some observers find it hard to take climate change seriously as a threat because the temperature changes being projected seem so small. However, as the author of “A Degree by Degree Explanation of What Happens When the Earth Warms” notes, “A shift of a single degree is barely perceptible to human skin, but it’s not human skin we’re talking about. It’s the planet; and an average increase of one degree across its entire surface means huge changes in climatic extremes.”10

In 2014, physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra and biochemist Pier Luigi Luisi wrote, “It is worth noting that the climate catastrophes experienced around the world during the past two years occurred with a temperature increase of less than 1°C and with CO2 concentrations of less than 400 ppm. Climate scientists predict that without dramatic action, we will reach up to 6°C, and up to 550 ppm by the end of the century.”11

Too large. Climate has local manifestations and local effects, but it’s a global phenomenon. Decisions, choices, and actions around the world have impacts on us, and our actions affect living beings around the planet. The food system, too, is increasingly globalized. Climate change is so large that students and others may feel that there is nothing they can do that will make any substantial difference.

“Climate change,” George Marshall observes, “is here and now, but it is also there and then. It does have causes and impacts, but these are widely distributed. It refuses to fit into any single category and, as a result, it fits into none. It is exceptionally multivalent and, as a result, it invites us to apply our confirmation bias and to ‘believe what we want to believe.’”12

Too complex. The climate system, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “is an interactive system consisting of five major components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the land surface, and the biosphere, forced or influenced by various external forcing mechanisms, the most important of which is the sun [others include volcanoes and the Earth’s orbit]. Also, the direct effect of human activities on the climate system is considered an external forcing.”13 And each of those components, of course, contains numerous subcomponents.

Meanwhile, as Daniel Goleman reports, “Ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well suited to the harsh realities of prehistory…. Our brains are finely tuned for hyper vigilance against the dangers of a world we no longer inhabit, while today’s world presents us with abundant dangers we do not see, hear, taste, or smell—from such hazards as toxins in toys, to threats of global warming, to impacts of the stuff we manufacture, grow, distribute, consume, and discard.”14

Systems Thinking

Faced with phenomena that are too slow, fast, small, large, or complex, humans can sometimes find themselves unable to act. Or their perceptions become skewed, often unconsciously: “If we see that other people are alarmed or taking action, we may follow them. If they are indifferent or inactive, we will follow that cue too…. This social conformity is not some preference or choice. This is a strong behavioral instinct that is built into our core psychology, and most of the time we are not even aware that it is operating.”15

Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University found that people will sometimes evaluate the accuracy of scientific conclusions based on their feelings about the conclusions’ policy implications. In their experiment, subjects read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees this century. Then they read about a policy proposed as a response to that rise. Among people identifying themselves as Republicans, just 22 percent agreed with the accuracy of the prediction about temperature if the proposed response was a carbon tax or some form of government regulation. But 55 percent agreed with the accuracy of the same prediction if the proposed response emphasized the free market.16

Such tendencies interfere with formulating appropriate responses to major issues. The essays in this collection, beginning with “How Can a Systems Perspective Help Our Understanding?” are a resource for helping students and others examine their thinking, and the thinking they find in the media and elsewhere, so that they can act more effectively.