The Monitor's View

Worried about climate? Take a hike.

Scientific studies and cautionary reports have their role. But getting out into nature makes us love it.

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    A man sits on a wall as he enjoys the view over the western Austrian city of Innsbruck on a hot summer day.
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A little girl is encouraged to play in a tide pool at her grandparents’ seaside home. The calm rocky pool becomes for her a microcosm of all the vast ocean. It is a world of tiny mussels, clams, and hermit crabs. Its seaweed sways with the tide. Years later she becomes a lover of bird-watching and nature walks – and an advocate for protecting nature.

Most people can probably think of a similar story in their own lives or among their family and friends. Experiencing the natural world first-hand is the best way to learn to love it and appreciate its astounding variety, beauty, and enchantment.

The summer vacation season under way in much of the world presents an opportunity to renew a direct experience of nature by visiting mountains, lakes, or woods. “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” American naturalist John Burroughs once wrote.

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Scientists analyze, measure, and try to understand the natural world – why it works the way it does and how it may be changing. But a society that spends more and more time inside, often in front of video screens, is being challenged to see nature as more than an academic abstraction or an issue for political debate.

Two new measurements of world temperatures in May 2014, one by NASA and one by Japan’s meteorological agency, show last month as the hottest May on record. They represent more data points in a long string: The World Meteorological Organization says 13 of the 14  hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. And higher global temperatures are being associated with a number of harmful effects, from rising sea levels to droughts and crop failures.

That kind of scientific measuring should carry weight. It might be expected to cause a flurry of activity to address the problem.

But new studies of human behavior suggest that fear is a bad motivator.

Fear that climate change will harm humanity seems to have an opposite effect: It causes people to want to put their own selfish interests first, rather than what is good for everyone. Fear can also bring a sense that efforts to improve the situation are hopeless. Instead of rallying, people may retreat further into those entertaining video screens.

A report to conservation groups in Britain last August, called Common Cause for Nature, suggests a change in strategy from alarming the public with forecasts of threats and loss to calling on people to experience nature. “We all share values that are associated with justice, compassion, and environmental concern,” the report says. “This means that reading about the beauty of nature – or the experience of being in a park – can engage environmental values and at the same time suppress self-interested or materialistic values.”

What should be done about potentially destructive climate change? Here’s a thought: First take a walk in the woods, or better yet a swim in a pond this summer. Float weightless in the warm, soothing surface water. Dangle your toes in the cool layer just below.

Climb out. Dry off. Repeat – often. Don’t be surprised if the answers become clearer.

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