To scare or not to scare?

Two articles caught my attention this morning because they, essentially, take polar opposite views of what will motivate people to do something (anything!) about climate change.

The first, People don’t fear climate change enough, was actually published a few weeks ago by Bloomberg but I only saw it this morning. In the article, Cass R Sunstein (Harvard Law Professor), argues there are three major reasons that people don’t think climate change is a problem they need to focus on RIGHT NOW. None of them are necessarily divided neatly along right/left lines and have more to do with the way we acquire and process information. The first obstacle Sunstein sees is that ‘people tend to evaluate risks by way of “the availability heuristic,” which leads them to assess the probability of harm by asking whether a readily available example comes to mind’. Sustein contrasts the perceived threat of climate change with that of terrorism and it is fairly easy to see how people view terrorist plots as a more salient threat – even if people tend to either over or underestimate the threat of terrorism based on how recently an attack has occurred rather than through any real understanding of the threat level at any given time (at least that’s what this learned fellow thinks – and it makes intuitive sense). (Wikipedia has a fairly detailed page on availability heuristic here).

Sustein’s second obstacle, which is closely related to the first, revolves around the fact that people tend to focus most closely on ‘risks or hazards that have an identifiable perpetrator’ and that, therefore, are more likely to produce outrage. Sustein argues that ‘Warmer temperatures are a product not of any particular human being or group, but the interaction between nature and countless decisions by countless people’, making “public outrage … much harder to fuel’. Leaving aside for the moment whether it is actually useful to fuel outrage against climate change, this point is also valid.

Sustein’s final obstacle is that ‘human beings are far more attentive to immediate threats than to long-term ones’. I certainly see this all the time in my work. It is often just too much work for people to take a really long term view – even if the longer term impacts of climate change are likely to completely undermine the achievements their day-to-day work is making right now. Sustein’s conclusion, such as it is, is that the next global assessment of climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the first part of which is due out next week and can be gotten from here on 27 September) isn’t likely to make much of a dent in our global apathy towards taking the required actions to avert surefire climate catastrophe in the not-too-distant future – saying:

But the world is unlikely to make much progress on climate change until the barrier of human psychology is squarely addressed.

Sadly, I think we could say that for so many pressing issues.

So much for the first article – basically, we need to start scaring the pants off people and make them think that the spectre of climate change is waiting around the corner to destroy their lives if we are to generate enough public outrage to make a difference in time to avert the very catastrophe people are currently determined to ignore.

The second article I read this morning, published in The Guardian on Friday takes the opposite view. In an interview called ‘Threatening climate change messages are not effective‘, Dan Kahan (Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale) argues that it’s not fear or a lack of understanding that prevents people from acting on climate change, but ‘rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s “cultural” group’. Kahan is basically saying that it comes down to cultural differences between ‘individualists’ and ‘communitarians’. Individualists, according to Kahan, ‘who believe individuals should be responsible for their own well-being and who are wary of regulation or government control – tend to minimize the risk of climate change’, while communitarians ‘favor a larger role for government and other collective entities in securing the welfare of individuals and tend to be wary of commercial activity [are] likely to favor restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions’.  In this metric, scaring individualists isn’t likely to bring them around to the idea that greater regulation is needed if we are to combat climate change and even if scaring them did generate action it would likely only be at the individual/household level, which, at this point, isn’t going to make nearly enough difference. Kahan doesn’t provide a solution nor does he say what he thinks might help persuade ‘individualists’ to get on board the regulation bandwagon, but he does tell us what he thinks WON’T work:

I think the only thing that is certain not to work would be a style of framing the issues and presenting information that continues to accentuate the perception that the sides on the debate are identified with particular groups. I believe there are ways – in fact, many ways – of presenting the information about climate and science that don’t have that effect.

Interestingly, climate change communicators don’t seem to have too much trouble getting ‘communitarians’ to take individual/household action, so I’m not convinced it’s as simple as Kahan makes out. His guide for figuring out what might cut through and get people working on this issue is still useful, regardless of what you think about his tendency towards essentialism.

The point is, are there ways to combine science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people? I think if somebody believes there aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.

I’m choosing to interpret ‘affirming’ here to mean helping people understand that the fact climate change is real and is happening right now (and that pretty much every scientist who knows anything about the climate system agrees that a) it’s happening and b) we are largely responsible) doesn’t mean they can’t continue to be an ‘individualist’ and do individualist things in individualist ways; it just means they need to put their individualism in the larger context and think about the impacts of their individual actions on the individualisms of others. And more specifically, the impacts of the bits of the broader communitarianism they do subscribe to (neoliberalism, capitalism, globalisation, whatever) are having on the long term sustainability of their individualism and those communitarian things they do like (not that they would call their communal love of free markets communalism, but you get what I mean).

Do these messages exist? Kahan seems to think they do and that climate communicators just need to get more imaginative. He may be right. There are plenty of great (and successful) examples of imaginative communication aimed at getting people Kahan would call communitarian active on climate change (350.org’s Do The Math campaign being one) but not so many that I’m aware of that speak to these so-called individualists in their own language. The Carbon War Room is the only one I can think of and I have no real idea whether it has achieved much of anything.

In my work the biggest barrier to action is ‘general busyness’ rather than outright denial that there is a problem. At a training I facilitated a while back someone said ‘I really can’t think about this now. I’m so busy and I know that if I start thinking about climate change I won’t be able to do anything else’.  So, for me at least, it’s a problem of helping people see they CAN do something about climate change without it having to take over their whole life (not that I can talk…). I’m still getting the tone of my presentations right, but I think the best approach is a balance of ‘pants-scaring’ and ‘positivism’ –  having enough of those ‘oh, crap, this is really serious’ moments at the start and then plenty of the ‘and here is something practical you can do right now without making too many changes, at least at first’. It’s never going to be easy, and it does take imagination and an understanding of what motivates people, but I’m still hopeful we can get there.

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