‘Slow scientist’ measuring attitudes towards climate change in Pacific

A scientist who’s been sacked by his institution for refusing to catch a plane home from Papua New Guinea (PNG) to Europe says that people in the Pacific nation are particularly vulnerable.  

Dr Gianluca Grimalda, who describes himself an experimental economist, was waiting for a coastal trader to allow him to island hop out of PNG, after researching the social impact of climate change in Bougainville.

He says he’s found that people living a highly traditional way of life show little signs of being willing to protect themselves against the risks of climate change.

Grimalda was interviewed by Cosmos via email while he was about to board a coastal trader out of Rabaul in East New Britain.

Gianluca Grimalda waiting to board a coastal trader in PNG

“This result emerges in the context of controlled standardised choices. If this type of behaviour held in real life, protection against risks can be expected to be close to non-existent,” he said.

Grimalda is personally taking climate action by travelling “low-carbon” back to Europe from Buka, the capital of Bougainville province in PNG. He’s estimated the trip will take 8 weeks and cover about 27,000km using cargo ships (1229km), ferries (5677km), coaches (11961km), long-distance rail (6881km), buses (274km), as well as police escort while travelling in Balochistan, Pakistan (1415km).

He estimates the emissions from his journey will be about 535kg of CO2-equivalent, compared to 5,263kg of CO2-equivalent travelling by air.

He says The Kiel Institute for the World Economy told him to fly and sacked him when he refused.

“We live in a time in which ecosystems are literally collapsing before our own eyes. The past month has been the warmest September on record by an amount that shocked most climate scientists.

“The science is clear that it is our dependence on fossil fuel the major determinant of global warming. Rather than phasing out fossil fuels immediately, political and business leaders keep on procrastinating.

“I thought that an apparently irrational action was needed to sound an alarm on the climate emergency as strong as I possibly could. The really insane thing is to continue with ‘business as usual’.”

Pacific research

Grimalda visited 30 villages and surveyed 1,800 people in Bougainville over nearly 7 months as part of research to understand climate change impacts in the region.

His research explores whether exposure to climate change in an integrated market economy leads people to help each other more, or if they lose the ‘egalitarian norms’ of sharing that is traditional in these societies.

He is comparing results in western countries with those in the cultural villages of Bougainville, where the economy is underpinned by small-holder cocoa production and some and tuna fishing but most people live a subsistence lifestyle. It’s hard to find data on average wages on the remote islands, but it’s estimated 20 PNG Kina (A$2.14) is the daily wage for manual work.

“In another study we tried to quantify the extent to which people prefer to (a) do nothing; (b) protect themselves; (c) protect themselves and another person (at a cost to the self) against the risk of collective losses,” says Grimalda.

“We try to replicate research in Europe to measure cultural differences. This is my fourth fieldwork in Bougainville.

“Data analysis will take a long time, but one thing that is already apparent is the propensity by the people to insure themselves against the risk of losing money is very (incredibly) small.

“In my approach we ask people to play some ‘games’ in which random events can destroy the money people hold. This is one way to characterise the impact of climate change.

“In one of the games, people had a 30% probability to hold on to their monetary endowment of 5 Kina and 70% probability of losing it.

“As an alternative, they could receive 2 Kina with no risk. Very few people chose the no-risk option.

“People from European or North American countries would choose the no-risk option 70% of the time.

“What was staggering to me was that even when we reduced the chances of holding the money, the majority of people still preferred to participate in the random event rather than grabbing the safe option.

“In the last of 3 decisions people had a mere 1% chance of holding to K5, but about 70% of the people still preferred that to the safe option.”

The same behaviour occurred when even K50, rather than K5, was at stake.

“Honestly, I would have never thought people could be so risk-loving,” he says.

“If the type of behaviour we saw in the game also held in real life, we would expect very little action to protect oneself against the risks of climate change.”

In a questionnaire he is measuring the extent to which behaviour in the game can be linked to behaviour in real life.

“We are also trying to check the extent to which this risk-loving behaviour can be linked to ’fatalism’ – the belief that the future is already pre-determined – in which case, protecting against climate change has no value.”

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