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Did you ignore climate change today?

George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) based on Oxford, England, gave his first book talk on Sept. 3 at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. about his new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

The book is timely, with the massive demonstration called the People's Climate March scheduled for this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 in New York City, in advance of the international climate summit that will begin two days later.

Coming from an anthropological point of view, with experience as a communicator about climate change, Marshall's opening question is: "What explains our ability to separate what we know from what we believe, to put aside the things that seem too painful to accept? How is it possible, when presented with overwhelming evidence, even the evidence of our own eyes, that we can deliberately ignore something — while being entirely aware that this is what we are doing?" (p. 1) Climate change, he argues, is difficult for the human mind to understand and act upon. "If there are any grounds at all for regarding climate change as a ‘perfect’ cognitive challenge, it is not because of its specific qualities but because it is so multivalent — that is to say, it is so open to multiple meanings and interpretations." (p. 94)

He finds that many people are aware of the risks, but that, even when presented with information, they find ways to compartmentalize it or downplay it rather than to act on it. "Is there something innate in this issue that enables people to disregard it in this way? How else would it be possible for people to know that climate change is a threat but not feel that it is a threat?" (p. 45) To answer this question, he explores the separation between the "rational" and "emotional" brain.

Considering the work of Daniel Gilbert, Paul Slovic, Daniel Kahneman and others, he points out that climate:

- doesn’t have personal agency
- doesn’t trigger our moral sense of indecency or disgust
- doesn't change abruptly enough for humans to take notice or feel a sense of urgency
- introduces "dread risk" (risk that is catastrophic in scale) which may prompt us to emotionally shut down and try to rationalize or ignore the problem - introduces "unknown risk" (risk that is new and unpredictable) which means it is difficult for us to comprehend and prepare for
- reminds us of our mortality and provokes a "terror management" response by which we try to push away the uncomfortable knowledge
- is the subject of public debates, which, even if one side is educated and expert and the other side is laughable, creates the hard-to-shake impression that the jury is still out

Thus, climate change is, quoting Gilbert, “a threat that our evolved brains are uniquely unsuited to do a damned thing about.” (p. 46)

Yet another social reality is that, in general, people tend to avoid political controversy that will threaten their standing in their social group. This applies to scientists, too, who may otherwise be drawn to study climate change, but who, anticipating hostility and misunderstanding, may choose a different field.

Marshall says that information about climate change will be better received when it is communicated not only by professional campaigners, but by ordinary people. He also says it should not be exclusively framed as an "environmental" issue - portraying it as an issue about "gases" is particularly useless - but should be framed as being fundamentally about a large number of important issues.
"The visual and metaphorical language that surrounds climate change marks it, irredeemably, as an environmental issue. These images, constantly reinforced in every news story and media item, create a tightly interlinked schema by which climate change is detached from the other issues (employment, economy, crime, defense) that people care most about." (p. 131)
Climate change does, in general, increase the number of extreme weather events. These weather events cause significant property destruction and disruption to people's lives, and can also take a toll on ecosystems. When someone's house has been destroyed, they do not, however, want to talk about blind forces of nature and the probability, expressed in raw numbers, that the same thing will happen again to themselves or someone like them. Still less do they want to be told that they are contributing to the changing climate by driving their car to the hardware store to buy wood to rebuild their house. They just want to rebuild and to focus on the support they receive from their community.

With an issue this large, that affects every conceivable area of life, part of choosing the frame is deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

On the one hand, people tend to employ an "optimism" bias by which they imagine that their lives and their local environments are better than average and that their futures and their children's futures will be comparatively rosy. On the other hand, when specific dangers associated with climate change are articulated to them, they may feel unable to prevent catastrophe and thus sink into agentic paralysis. Either way, no action is taken. The situation is either cast as someone else's problem or else as unavoidable and incurable.

Often, environmental campaigns proclaim a deadline by which the world must either be saved or lost, as in a phrase such as "we have ten years to save the planet". These slogans backfire, not only because it takes merely ten years to prove them to have been overstated and oversimplified, but because, when a fuller explanation of the meaning is given, "the campaign is immersed back into the tangle of probabilities, uncertainties, and cost-benefit analysis that it originally sought to avoid." (p. 62) In other words, there are facts behind the sound bites, but it is difficult to know when to invoke the complexity and when to chant the slogan.

People do not relish even slightly reducing their living standard today to avoid the mere possibility of a disaster in the future, even if it is rational (on paper) to do so. It is especially difficult when "the future" does not refer to one's own lifetime but to future generations. And it is nearly impossible when the beneficiaries are randomly selected, unknown people rather than one's own family and friends. It is one thing to bail out a flooded basement in one's own house or perhaps in the house of a relative or neighbor, and another thing to stop in one's travels to assist with a house that one has no personal connection to. There tends to be a "bystander effect"; even if a problem is recognized, without a clear plan of action, people tend to expect that "someone else" is in charge or has a plan to fix it. Thus, appealing to people to worry about the environments on distant islands fifty years in the future does not capture many people's imagination or attention, and adding more people at events, rallies, mailing lists, and so forth may only increase the bystander effect and thus the collective inaction. Marshall suggests changing the script: First, ask how much money it would take to pay you off to give you the right to cause damage to the climate that your own children will have to live in. Next, we need "to talk less about the costs of avoiding climate change and more about the lousy deal we are getting in return for a marginally higher living standard." (p. 71)

Historically, environmental campaigns have encouraged consumers to "go green" by making minor changes to their consumption. This backfires because the recommendations are easily construed as being based in personal criticism and blame. Among those who are predisposed to resist or contradict information about climate change, exhortations to "go green" stoke resentment and resistance (e.g. I am going to throw this recyclable bottle in the trash just to prove that I can and that it's my choice, and you can't make me put it in the recycling container), while among those who already care about climate change, reminders to reduce consumption often provoke exculpatory narratives to justify their behavior (e.g. I try to fly as little as possible, but I was so exhausted after studying the melting ice caps all year that I really needed to fly my whole family for a vacation).

Furthermore, a focus on personal consumption fails to strike at the root of the systems that drive production. As long as products and services are for sale, someone is going to buy them eventually. Encouraging people to buy them more slowly is not necessarily a radical change in favor of sustainability. Energy policy needs to change, and for that, social movement and political will - not just individual virtue - is needed.
"The focus on tailpipe gases and disregard for wellhead fuels has been the single most important factor in all government and policy framings. Radical environmentalists alone have attempted to connect two issues that, in the minds of most mainstream experts, operate in entirely independent realms. This does not, on its own, explain why we ignore the risk of climate change, but it does explain the fundamental disconnection that works through all narratives and policies on the issue." (p. 169)
Marshall's book explains very well why climate change in particular is so difficult for people to understand and to deal with rationally, and he proposes some reasonable, insightful, achievable steps to shift the discussion. As he said at Harvard Book Store (I am reconstructing the line from memory): "I spent twenty years as an activist trying to convince people to have the discussions that I wanted them to have. Now I want them to have the discussions that they want to have." But, he added, "If they happen to have the discussions that I want them to have, I'm happy."


  1. Thanks for your excellent intelligent article and all the time you took to write it, Tucker. My aim was to spread new ideas about climate change and you are really helping with that.


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