A new narrative that is designed to encourage action to combat climate change must acknowledge the abstract nature of global warming. First and foremost we need to address the fact that people are not rational actors. Perhaps the most cogent approach to managing the Herculean task of communicating with an inherently irrational public is to focus on a narrative that deals with fostering the right mental attitude. A new narrative designed to change peoples' mindset must deal with the following five psychological realities.
Morals and values
Crafting a new narrative that encourages action on climate change is a moral issue. The central issue concerns finding ways of encouraging people to assume responsibility. We cannot continue to hide under the relativistic argument that causes people to be reluctant to act simply because others may not. A new narrative must inoculate us against the tendency to defer our responsibility to someone else. To bring about change we need to address peoples' values and this is premised upon our morals and our values.
A study called The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University finds that people differ in their willingness to accept technological and environmental risks due in part to their values.
The fact that there is a significant number of people who do not want to do anything about climate change should be understood as a moral failing. Those who do not believe they can do anything about it are suffering from a value-based crisis. Therefore, a new narrative must tie into a value system that has the audacity to hope for a better world.
If we can succeed in changing people's values, this can go a long way towards mobilizing people to act on climate change. An article by John Havens titled, Quantifying Happiness: Leveraging Values to Increase Wellbeing at Work, suggests that values are the key to a happier and more productive work. Work that reflects our values is work that will be perceived as more fulfilling. While it may appear that material gains are the ultimate reward, Havens suggests that creativity and autonomy are more important than money. These attributes can be inculcated into the work of climate change.
Happiness can encourage people to engage in the work that needs to be done. We need to find ways to counteract the fact that people commonly expect gratification without wanting to work for it. The right narrative can use happiness as a powerful inducement to act.
People want to feel good, and this often entails a sense of meaning and purpose. The question then arises, how do we get there? To have a sense of meaning and purpose people need to feel connected. It is a major failing of contemporary culture that people feel that they are cut off from each other and from the natural world. The state of interconnectedness is a reflection of the physical world in which we live. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
We need to appreciate the ramifications of our connectedness to nature. We are part of nature and a new narrative must heal the rift that divides us from this realization. Living with an awareness of the interconnectedness of life is often experienced as a sense of sacredness. This in turn translates into a propensity to take care of each other and the Earth.
The language we use colors the message we are trying to communicate. A new climate narrative must use accessible language that resonates with people. If we want to reach a large number of people we have to use language that is not the exclusive domain of specialized nomenclature.
We need to use language that both engages and enthralls. The litany of seemingly impenetrable abbreviations and acronyms make the language associated with climate change seem like a foreign tongue. This goes over peoples' heads and ultimately causes them to tune-out.
To induce change on a global scale we will need to simplify the language and make it universally accessible. Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, it goes to his heart.” By using the right language we can overcome disinterest and inspire people to act.
Tackling climate change will not be easy so it is important that a new narrative address the inevitable pitfalls we will experience along the way. We need to embolden our capacity to be tenacious in the face of such difficulties. As Paul Stoltz, PhD, explained in his book Adversity Quotient, success can be predicted by how a person responds to adversity. Consequently, we must build a narrative that bolsters our capacity to deal with the long and difficult road ahead. This includes the kind of flexibility that enables us to learn from our experience and employ different strategies to find creative solutions.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Irmeli Aro, courtesy flickr