Human Dimensions of Global Warming

Driving Forces


The Underlying Human Factors Driving the Proximate Causes

The driving forces of climate change embody a complex, interactive set of actions and rationales that give rise to the proximate causes. In other words, driving forces are the underlying reasons why people engage in various activities. Understanding the driving forces helps to answer questions such as, why do people drive cars to work (a proximate cause of climate change) when they could walk, ride a bike, or take a bus?

There are five driving forces:

  1. population growth,
  2. technological development,
  3. economic growth,
  4. institutions, and
  5. attitudes and beliefs.

No matter whether they represent agrarian, industrial, or high-tech postindustrial societies, growing populations demand more energy, materials, and room. Human population growth has been explosive, going from 1 billion, less than two hundred years ago, to just over 7 billion today. Many experts think that this rapid population growth, coupled with the other four driving forces, is at the root of climate change.

Wind turbine
Wind turbine.
Credit: Image used with permission. The link, retrieved July 7, 2011 is no longer active.

Technological change has also been quick. Looking at energy and attendant technologies, most energy needs were provided by biomass until the Industrial Revolution, but in many regions, fossil fuels replaced biomass in the 19th and 20th centuries, and nuclear and renewable energy emerged in the latter 20th century. Turning to high technology, computers were unknown before the 1950s, but dominated economies, bureaucracies, educational systems, and even social networks by the first decade of the 21st century. Rapid changes in technology, coupled with soaring populations lead to immense demand for energy and materials — all driving climate change. Ironically, one hope for decreasing the human forcing of climate change involves developing and adopting advanced energy and computer-controlled technologies.

Economic growth (including “negative growth”) can also be rapid and can have a tremendous influence on climate forcing. The fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites is a good example. The Soviet political system promoted growth-at-any-cost economic policies. The industries of this empire used outdated, dirty fossil fuel-based technologies, resulting in massive greenhouse gas emissions. With the collapse of the Soviet political and economic system in the late 1980s and early 1990s, greenhouse gas emissions from these countries plummeted and global carbon dioxide emissions actually decreased for a short time. Similarly, but in the opposite direction, the recent explosive growth of the Chinese economy, with its 1.3 billion people and heavy reliance on coal, has resulted in soaring global carbon dioxide concentrations—concentrations that exceed the worst-case scenarios envisioned by climate scientists.

A globe and money on a scale, with the money weighing more than the Earth.

Legal, governmental, economic, academic, and other institutions can drive human activities causing climate change. For instance, American institutions tend to promote commuting by car and discourage mass transit. Low taxes on gasoline and cheap or free parking make it less expensive to drive to work than to take mass transit; higher gas taxes and expensive, limited parking would make it more cost effective to take mass transit. Extensive road networks, paid for by taxes, and massive parking lots, paid for by a combination of employers and governments, make it convenient and comfortable to drive. In contrast, walking to and from a distant bus stop and waiting for the bus in foul weather with no shelter makes taking the bus much less convenient and comfortable than driving. Ironically, it would be much cheaper for employers and governments to provide more bus stops with shelters than to build roads and parking lots. Many other institutions encourage Americans to drive to work rather than take mass transit.

Cover of Bilateral Finance Institutions and Climate Change
Bilateral Finance Institutions and Climate Change.

Widely shared cultural attitudes and beliefs can also cause humans to engage in activities that contribute to climate change. Americans like the individual freedom provided by owning and driving a car, thus promoting the proliferation of vehicles on the road. Americans also prize comfort, convenience, utility, and feeling in-charge, which causes many of them to prefer large, inefficient sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans, and pickup trucks over commuting or small, efficient, and less showy compact and subcompact cars. Coupled with rising population, growing wealth, and support from institutions, characteristic American attitudes and beliefs have driven the explosive growth of the SUV, minivan, and pickup market over the last generation and have led to a surge in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.