Germany

This Switch Could Finally Change The Conversation On Climate Change

The psychology of global warming helps explain why we can't solve it. "It triggers nothing in our brain," says one psychologist. "It lets us sleep calmly in a burning bed."

“I don't believe in Global Warming” by Banksy in London
“I don't believe in Global Warming” by Banksy in London
Christopher Schrader

MUNICH — "I just poured myself a coffee," says veteran environmentalist George Marshall. "The electricity I used to make that coffee pollutes the air. And you know what? I don't care."

His remarks highlight the irony in the world of climate change: Even those fighting global warming can't follow their own moral code in private. Yet, they aren't hypocrites, Marshall says, only human.

Of course, Marshall's coffee represents no real danger. And Britons are not known for defending their supposed right to unhesitatingly use up the world's resources. But Marshall, who has also worked for Greenpeace and co-founded the British organization Climate Outreach, wants to provoke.

"Those who believe in climate change usually do so because it fits them well. The others, too, have good reasons for not believing. They aren't idiots because they don't believe in climate change," says Marshall. "It's about the right way to approach them. In order to solve climate problems, we all have to work together and out of conviction. Preaching abstinence has never solved anything."

Instead of physics, chemistry and oceanography, Marshall believes that social sciences and psychology should be at the center of making people understand climate change. There is a lack of reasoning when it comes to the topic, argues Marshall. The human mind is not prepared for climate change because it finds multiple excuses for ignoring it.

The problem is with this attitude: "Why should I cut back, if others don't? There is nothing but inconvenience for me, but no measurable advantages for the environment." In other circumstances, people accept sacrifice without hesitation. On the street, they are ready to give way without being asked, and they inform the cashier when they are given too much change. A quiet conscience or the knowledge that they've acted as a role model is enough to motivate them in those cases.

Moreover, people align their behavior and opinions according to what is considered normal by the social groups they belong to. That's why scientists aren't able to communicate their message in a convincing way. Their strategy makes the wrong assumption. Scientists think that people who are informed can grasp a situation's severity. That's not necessarily true as people filter any new information.

"If there's a conflict between the facts and someone's moral beliefs, the facts lose," says psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes.

People's ability to listen also depends on the source of the information. The person's credibility is taken into account "even before that person opens their mouth," says Stoknes.

A friend, relative, or pastor is more likely to be listened to. "Trust is more important than information," says Marshall.

Scientists also tend to lose credibility with their choice of words: many ideas and concepts provoke associations with other things. For example, if a scientist talks of possible measurement inaccuracies, most laypeople only hear that results are uncertain.

There's another issue at play, the so-called "spectator effect", that is, people's readiness to help during an emergency decreases inversely to the number of witnesses at the event. If there are many people present, each one looks to the other to figure out what to do. "The more people know about a problem, the more likely they are to ignore their own judgment and react according to the behavior of others," says Marshall. If nobody takes that first step, nothing will ever happen.

It's this herd mentality that makes people see climate change as one problem, among many others. This is true for Germany too. Indeed, 55% of Germans are estimated to be worried about climate change. But if they are asked to list global issues in order of importance. climate change comes fifth place, after the Islamic State group, tensions with Russia, a potential Iranian bomb and cyber attacks.

People can worry only about a limited number of problems at a time. That's why a new fear, like the one of Islamist terror, makes another one, like global warming, appear less threatening. Among top fears real or imagined are losing one's job, crime and illness. "We still have not found a way to trigger similar emotions when it comes to climate change," says Marshall.

Daniel Gilbert from Harvard describes what stimulates action with the acronym PAIN: Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, Now. People demonstrate strong reactions if perpetrators and victims have known faces, if the circumstances change quickly and unexpectedly, if moral values are hurt, and if it happens right now.

Terrorism pushes each one of those buttons, says Gilbert. Climate change doesn't. The perpetrator is hard to identify, victims are anonymous and spread all over the world, warnings concerning global warming refer to the year 2100 and change is gradual. "Global warming is really a deadly threat because it triggers nothing in our brain," says Gilbert. "It lets us sleep calmly in a burning bed."

We can only turn things around with a cultural transformation of our society, says Stoknes. There are issues that accelerate after decades of stagnation because of social and political movements. That could be the case with climate change.

In the meantime, the way global warming is framed has to change. "We don't reach the masses with a narrative of hostility," says Marshall. "We must adopt a narrative of cooperation, mutual interest and humanity." His organization Climate Outreach plans to address climate change discussion with values, not numbers.

"It can only work if in each social group, the most powerful opinion leaders start spreading their version of climate change. That's how we'll identify success — if they speak about it in a way that totally displeases us," says Marshall.

When it comes to fossil fuels, the seductive roar of a Ford Mustang V8 is something we'll have to learn to live without.

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