A few years ago, when I first grasped the importance of climate change, it was George Marshall’s book Carbon Detox that helped me to reduce my own CO2 emissions. I ended up buying several copies, and even adapted the book into a group activity for looking at carbon footprints together.
One of the reasons I liked Carbon Detox is that it looked at the psychology of climate change, and how to talk about it with different audiences. I was pleased to find that George Marshall’s follow up, several years later, is all about that: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change.
There are hundreds of books about climate change. There are documentaries, campaigns, Very Important Reports, conferences, ads, celebrity spokespeople, global concerts, and regular dire warnings. When asked, most of us will say that it’s a serious problem. And yet, most of us ignore it entirely, and it reliably comes bottom of the lists of issues that people are concerned about.
This inability to confront climate change will have serious consequences. We’re presently of warming – enough to re-draw London’s aerial views considerably.
So why are we so unable to give climate change the attention it requires? Marshall sees a very human conundrum. “More than any other issue it exposes the deepest workings of our minds” he writes, “and shows our extraordinary and innate talent for seeing only what we want to see and disregarding what we would prefer not to know.”
Some of the psychology at work in our ignoring of climate change is familiar. We know for starters that we’re wired to see risks that are immediate and fast moving. We’ll duck at a low flying pigeon or jump at a rustle in the grass. A century-long, barely perceptible change, not so much.
We know that we respond to threats we can personify or things that offend us, hence the trillions spend on terrorism. A faceless chemical process just doesn’t rattle us.
Then there’s the bystander effect, the feeling that other people are bound to be doing something. Or pluralistic ignorance, when we become convinced that we’re in a minority when we’re not.
There are so many traps that climate change campaigners have fallen into – the messages of doom that subconsciously make us feel powerless, or the ones that rely on guilt, and that trigger all our defence mechanisms to fend it off. And of course it’s political. If we distrust the messenger, we won’t accept the warning.
Marshall explores these various ideas over the course of 42 short and engaging chapters, often talking to key people – from scientists, sceptics and psychologists to evangelical pastors, or visitors at comic-con. There’s a chapter on ‘Hopenhagen’, on why scaremongering ads don’t connect with us, on cyber-bulling or why we really should stop with the polar bears and ‘saving the earth’. One of the most interesting chapters deals with silence, something I encounter regularly – the nervous laughter and change of subject that immediately follows a mention of climate change in polite company.
This silence is important, because that’s the real battlefield. The high-profile deniers get the attention, but I’m with George on this one: “In real life, it seems that the most influential climate narrative of all may be the non-narrative of collective silence.”
On finishing the book, my overwhelming impression is that this is complicated. There are far more things to avoid than there are proven strategies, but the summary of all these things in the last chapter is worth the cover price alone. Don’t even think about it is a must read for climate communicators, even the most experienced. I suspect that if Al Gore had read it, he might have dropped his plans for jamboree.
There is no magical formula for engaging people in climate change, because it all depends on the audience. But we know we need to be aware of framings and how our messages are perceived. We know we need to focus on shared understandings and resist enemy narratives or competition. As Marshall learns from the church, it helps to create “communities of shared conviction”. We should drop the eco-messaging and stop talking about climate change as an environmental problem. And we can’t assume that what works for us will work for anyone else.
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