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Why is there so little action on climate change?

Are there new ways to engage the public in mass action to reduce global warming, or should we focus on adapting to the inevitable?

Credit: Matt Brown, Flickr. Some rights reserved.

According to the World Bank, human-induced or “anthropogenic” climate change may raise the earth’s temperature by two degrees in the next 20 or 30 years. Once four degrees is reached—which may arrive by the end of this century—the polar ice will be gone, sea levels will have risen dramatically and extreme climate disruption will be a fact.

But climate scientists aren’t sure what will happen in the gap between these two scenarios. No-one knows where the point of no return is located, nor what the consequences will be of current climate changes for the human species and the planet. In effect, humanity is playing a game of Russian roulette. So what’s getting in the way of taking the necessary action?

To find out some answers to this question, I hosted a discussion in November of 2014 between George Marshall, the co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), and John Foster, a Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University in the UK. The discussion was held under the auspices of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria where I’m currently studying.

I chose these two participants because they’re known for having very different views about how to respond to global warming. Marshall is the author of Don’t Even Think About It—Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. An optimist at heart, he believes that there’s still time to avoid disaster, but only if bold new ways are found to engage people on the topic. Marshall’s book analyzes a broad spectrum of views on climate change from hurricane survivors to Tea Party activists.

By contrast, Foster’s book After Sustainability concludes that current action and advocacy strategies haven’t worked, and that societies need to accept the reality that awaits them in a future that will inch ever closer to that four-degree threshold of anthropogenic warming. In an echo of debates between other activists and thinkers like Carolyn Baker, Shannon Biggs and Jem Bendell, he views Marshall’s stance as little more than “willed optimism.”

Joining Foster at his office in Lancaster and connecting to Marshall by telephone, I started the discussion by asking each author to explain the lack of action on global warming.

Marshall calls climate change a classic “wicked problem:” “multifaceted in every respect …incomplete, contradictory and constantly changing.” These problems are very difficult for human minds to frame because people are accustomed to dealing with issues that have an identifiable, common enemy—something or someone that promotes a collaborative response. But in the case of climate change, people themselves are the ultimate perpetrators, and there’s nothing in the history books to help societies deal with a wicked problem like this.

“Climate change is so strange because it is based on anticipation,” Marshall continued, which “makes it challenging and dangerous. There is so much space for personal and cultural interpretation and socially constructed narratives.” In his book he looks at how the public’s engagement in climate change has diminished in recent years, partly due to the advent of professional “denialists” like Myron Ebell who fuel doubt and make it easier for people to ignore the issue.

He also highlights the fact that even scientists who live and breathe the facts of global warming are often incapable of facing the emotional consequences of what they know. Facts are dealt with by the rational brain, but it is the emotional brain that makes decisions around beliefs. Marshall thinks that scientists’ unwillingness to show emotion around the subject of climate change has been counterproductive to attempts to engage the public.

In addition, the denialists have come up with some highly emotive and effective arguments. One of the best examples is the 2006 Competitive Enterprise Institute film entitled “They call it pollution, we call it life.” Marshall describes the film as “devious and exasperating, but damn good communication.” “We need a completely different approach to engage people, one which has social and cultural meaning and that speaks to peoples’ emotions.”

Foster agrees that “denial is not just in those who resist the idea of climate change,” but in contrast to Marshall he believes that societies need to start focusing on “how we might behave once we stop pretending that serious and catastrophic climate change isn’t going to occur. The problem/solutions approach hasn’t worked.” Instead, people should realize that this is already a tragedy.

“This would allow us to find acceptance,” he said at one point in the conversation, “acceptance of what is happening, acceptance of ourselves and our limits, and acceptance that we are not in control, never have been and never will be.” Foster calls this “existential resilience,” citing Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook which defines community resilience as “the ability not to collapse at the first sight of oil and food shortages.”

Marshall rejects this call: “I don’t agree that time is up at all. If we could increase public engagement over the next 20 years we could change the outcome. If we still think we have a chance of pulling this back we will cope very differently than if we know that we can’t. Then we might indulge in defeatism.”

Nevertheless, both protagonists agree that the current trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions makes it impossible to stop climate change from taking humanity into uncharted territory. So what’s to be done?

For Marshall, the key is “to create as large a public base of awareness and engagement as possible. First off, people have to accept that the issue exists at all.” Foster responded by saying that global warming itself is the only thing that will do this: “the agent of getting a widely held social belief in climate change… will be climate change”.

Marshall is less sure. In his research he’s found that current extreme weather events have done little to sway opinions: reactions still fall into patterns of prior belief. For example, the unprecedented wildfire of 2011 in Bastrop, Texas, destroyed 1,600 homes, ten times more than any other fire in Texan history. Yet in all of his interviews, not a single person could recall talking about climate change as a possible factor in the fire and the drought that helped to cause it.

In the latter part of his book, Marshall explores a number of social movements that have created or facilitated rapid change. He says that these “have largely been religious—or political movements that look and smell very much like a religion. I think there could be lessons to be taken from here.” Religious movements like the Mormons “constantly experimented with ways to engage new cultures. Climate change is not about an attitude. It’s not a voting preference. It’s a core conviction—by which I mean a belief. I am urging an approach that has a very high degree of proselytizing built into it, so for me the first condition of anything that we say or do on this is that it has to contain the compulsion and commitment to share.”

Foster has a different view. “Rather than climate change,” he offered, “maybe we need to look at this as peak hubris. A lot of what is happening is the unraveling of the hubristic human ambition to manage and control everything. You can see it in terms not just of climate and peak oil, but supra-national states and organizations that are too big for humans to handle, and financial systems that are too big to fail but fail nonetheless.”

He’s a proponent of what he calls “human re-wilding.” “This is not about trying to reinvent ourselves as indigenous people, but finding a way of unlocking ourselves from our futile, escapist and destructive progressivism.”

At the end of his book Marshall sums up what can be done to engage people more effectively with climate change:

·       use narratives of positive change, since people respond to stories, not science

·       build a culture of co-operation, not unity—everyone doesn’t have to be or become the same

·       practice emotional honesty, which allows people to share feelings of grief and anxiety

·       relate climate change to the sources of our happiness—what’s important to us and our friends, families and communities; and

·       present the future as a journey of conviction—understand and validate peoples’ values first, and then come up with ways in which the issue of climate change speaks to them. 

The COIN blog discusses specific ways of communicating with young people about climate change in these ways.

However, none of this goes far enough for Foster. He feels that we have to recognize how fragile life is, and how it is always teetering on the edge of the unknown. “I think that the way we live so widely in ignorance of this [fact] means that we don’t even recognize and acknowledge life, which is itself a kind of denial. Hence, what is coming could be a form of liberation…. if we can survive.” 

About the author

Georgie Wingfield-Hayes is a therapist who works with a combination of nutrition and other techniques to promote an integrated approach to wellbeing. She is a current post-graduate student at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability


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