The Washington Post
December 11, 2014
By Chris Mooney
You may have noticed: We can’t act on climate change. Granted, very devoted people are in Lima, Peru, right now, trying to change that. But inaction has been the norm on this issue, especially in the United States.
When a gigantic threat is staring you in the face, and you can’t act upon it, it’s safe to assume there’s some sort of mental blockage happening. So what’s the hangup? That’s what a new report from ecoAmerica and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute – entitled Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication – seeks to help us better understand.
The report is framed around communicating about climate change effectively — but read more closely and you’ll quickly see that the reason we need help here to begin with is that humans have some pesky attributes, ones that render us pretty poor at grappling with slow-moving, long-range, collective problems like climate change. So which traits are we talking about? They include:
Psychological Distance. “People have a hard time thinking about — or acting on — things and events that are perceived as far in the future, physically distant, happening to other people, or involving uncertainty,” notes the new report from ecoAmerica and CRED. Climate change has all four of these attributes — to our minds, anyway. We think it’s something that’ll affect our grandchildren, not us (even though it’s already upon us). We think of it as physically distant — involving polar bears, or small island nations we’ve never visited. We see it as happening to others (Arctic peoples, islanders), and we definitely see it as shot through with uncertainty (or at least, the “skeptics” among us do).
Finite Pool of Worry. People, adds the new report, “are able to worry about only so much at any given point.” For the most part, daily concerns swamp us and leave little remaining bandwidth for stressing about something like climate change. So instead, we tune it out. What this means is that media messages that tell people to worry — because, you know, West Antarctica looks very vulnerable and it contains nearly 11 feet of sea level rise — can backfire. The new report suggests it’s better to present hope by talking about solutions, and also to make climate change personally relevant to people (like all the things they actually worry about are).
Emotional Numbing. On a related note, we simply can get overloaded emotionally, especially by people constantly trying to make us feel fear and alarm. “If communication efforts repeatedly expose people to to emotionally draining messages and images, audiences may eventually stop responding emotionally altogether,” says the ecoAmerica/CRED report. Again, this argues for the personalization of the climate issue and a focus on solutions, not on disastrous impacts.
Confirmation Bias and Motivated Reasoning. People also have a tendency to “seek out or absorb only the information that matches their mental model, confirming what they already believe to be true,” notes the report. And, it adds, they also argue in such a way as to reach the conclusion they already deeply believe in. You see this every day on Twitter: Climate “skeptics” automatically dismiss new climate change information, even as climate advocates share every new study, and constantly look to trumpet new temperature records, links between climate change and present-moment disasters, and so on.
You can see this effect in the following chart from the University of New Hampshire’s Lawrence Hamilton, in which higher levels of education drive Tea Party members away from accepting climate change, even as the opposite happens with all three other political groups (Democrats, Independents, and non-Tea Party Republicans):
Defaults. We’re also terribly biased in favor of the status quo, of doing things the way they’ve always been done. It’s easier and simpler that way. And right now, our society is still built in such a way that the default option tends to involve using energy in forms that contribute to climate change. After all, it’s not like your utility automatically shifts you over to a program where your home is powered by wind and solar (even if it has one). For most of us, it takes too much effort to actually make a behavioral switch.
Discounting. Economists have long noted that when you introduce a time element into considerations, people value money differently. Losing $ 100 now means a lot more to us than losing it in 10 years, and gaining $ 100 now works the same way. The same goes with the future consequences of climate change. “When scientists tell the public that sea levels will rise by several feet in the coming century, people’s natural tendency to discount, compared with a long time scale, can make the predicted rise seem inconsequential,” notes the ecoAmerica/CRED report.
Ideology. Finally, researchers have increasingly focused on ideology itself as a psychological phenomenon. After all, political beliefs are deeply felt and highly emotional, and yet we rarely even know why a certain conclusion feels so right to us, even as another person can feel just as strongly about the opposite view. Yet ideology has vast effects. The ecoAmerica/CRED report even points to a study in which changing a message ever so slightly — from “Want to reduce your use of fossil fuels?
Get solar panels!” to “Want to increase your use of renewable energy? Get solar panels!” — made it much more appealing to political conservatives. (Liberals were totally cool with the “reduce” message.)
In light of all this, the ecoAmerica/CRED report concludes that to make people care about climate change, you have to make the issue immediate, local, personal, and emphasize ideologically congenial solutions. It also suggests treating people like, you know, people — personal conversations do much more to change minds than Twitter debates — and inserting climate discussions into group settings, like churches.
In other words, to save the planet, we might have to not only change our energy systems — but how we talk to each other.