Why We Need a New Climate Change Narrative
We need new narratives to combat the pervasive popular and political inertia. Our old narratives are not working and may even lead to apathy and indifference. Despite the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change we are not moving fast enough to change our perilous course. According to a 2013 Pew survey, only 69 percent of those surveyed accept the view that the earth is warming, and only 1 in 4 Americans see global warming as a major threat. These numbers illustrate that we need to craft a new narrative and do a better job of communicating the urgency of climate change action.
Even the devastating spate of extreme weather events in the last decade has not augured change. We desperately need a stronger and more far-reaching global movement. To do that, we need an inspirational vision that resonates with the vast majority of the general public.
The story we tell must not only be highly desirable it must also be achievable. To reach new audiences we must inculcate the research findings of a wide array of disciplines including science, technology, economics, politics, psychology and sociology.
In the final analysis, the goal is to empower individuals and stimulate action through positive examples of behavior change.
These new narratives are a fundamental first step. They will clear the way for a paradigm shift that will make broad spectrum progress possible. Unless people see a way forward, they will not move in the right direction. We need systemic solutions that can only come from a paradigm shift, but first we need to lay the foundation with new narratives.
While it is clear we need a paradigm shift, historically such shifts have taken centuries. This adds to the urgency of our endeavor as we are now faced with a situation where we must bring about change at an unprecedented pace.
To expedite the paradigm shift mentioned above we must build a compelling narrative. The key to engaging climate change is not about science, technical details, or even financing, it is ultimately about getting people to believe in the need for change.
The new narrative is about making change more alluring and less fear inspiring.
Fear and other narratives that foster apathy
We are using the wrong narratives. We have failed to effectively communicate and our fear-based approaches may even foster apathy and indifference. Rather than promote fear, the new narrative must generate the kind of confidence that allows us to take radical steps forward. We have gotten very little action when our narratives cause people to feel fear, despair, doubt, grief, anger or guilt.
Fear is a common reaction to the enormity of the climate change crisis. However, we cannot be scared into acting, nor can despair lead us to responsible action. The problem with these negative emotions is that they breed skepticism or cause paralysis.
In a Time article, UK based psychotherapist Rosemary Randall suggests that climate change is such a disturbing subject, that “like death, it can raise fears and anxieties.”
Just as fear-based religions no longer produce results, traditional marketing approaches premised on anxiety are also falling by the wayside. There was a time not too long ago when marketers successfully scared people into buying a product or service. However, as reviewed in a Ted Talk on solar energy, this type of marketing is increasingly less effective. A better approach involves the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that we see in social media and content marketing. This type of marketing is premised on the love of something, rather than an anxiety-ridden fear based need.
Other commonly employed narratives do not work either. One of the most common among the deep greens is being a tedious bore. This will not move the conversation forward and commonly does the very opposite of what claim we want to achieve.
Facts based narratives are Inadequate
We have failed to create a compelling narrative because we almost always couch these approaches in reason and science. The issue of engaging people to act on climate change will not work if the narrative is based solely on a better understanding of the facts. We will not make progress as long as we reduce the problem to an information deficit issue.
Many wrongly assume that people will behave rationally if they are apprized of the facts. However, the scientific consensus on the veracity of anthropogenic climate change has proven grossly inadequate to generate responsible action either from the general public or from our political leaders. Put simply, people are not rational actors. In fact, most have an irrational bent that causes them to actively ignore the facts.
Contrary to the premise of the film by the same name, inconvenient truths are not compelling and they commonly lead to inaction. When we overwhelm people with the scope of the problem we make them feel helpless and hopeless. They end up feeling like the answers are too hard or that it's simply too late.
Feelings of disempowerment are a corollary of fact-based narratives and apathy is the end result when people feel the problem is too big and too deeply entrenched. According to one study (McCright and Dunlap 2011), the more familiar climate change skeptics were with the issues the more skeptical they were of the facts.
According to research by Christopher Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, providing information fails because “it does not address key underlying causes.”
Bill Chameides, the Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, wrote a fascinating article on this subject titled Creating a Moving Case for Climate Action.
"Clearly climate change is one of those areas, where huge swaths of the population rationalize their irrational rejection of an ever-growing body of evidence," Chameides explained.
To help illustrate why people can be so obtuse, he pointed to some compelling explanations put forward by Yale law professor Dan Kahan who posits that, "our cultural biases and allegiances cause us to reject some kinds of facts because they threaten our core beliefs and perceived communal interests." He further explains the paradoxical observation that the more scientific information we provide, the less likely these deniers are to embrace the facts.
Chameides rejects the idea that we can "manipulate" people to act through rational explanations (ie economics, employment, health, and security). The reason these arguments fail is because they are half truths. So for example, economic growth from combating climate change will come at the expense of some industries and many jobs will be gained while other jobs will be lost.
As Chameides sees it, "we must get minds on board." However, we need more than reason and science to get people on board. We cannot induce change by appealing to people's rational side when they are often controlled by irrational emotional forces.
"To change their minds, we have got to appeal to the irrational in people. To change minds we first have to change hearts. We need to craft messages that get inside people’s psyche, viscerally connect with them and get them to want to act on climate change, to want to act in ways that promote a strong vital environment." Chameides said, "The most effective environmental messages may prove to be those packing both a “left brain” and a “right brain” punch."
This is not science fiction, marketers have been doing this for decades so there is no reason the same techniques cannot be applied to engaging people in the struggle against climate change. With the help of the same types of neuroscience that informs marketers, we can engage a new audience composed of deniers.
Due to their ability to engage people emotionally, artists are also important to change perspectives. In Chameides' view, a "dreamteam" of neuroscientists, artists and climate scientists can create the change we so desperately need.
A Daily Beast article by Mark Hertsgaard reviews three new books on climate change. One of those books is called, “The Green Boat," by Mary Pipher, a psychotherapist and writer by profession. She addresses some of the key issues that may keep us from acting. Piper empathizes with those who tune out the appalling and fear-inspiring reality of climate change while emphasizing the need to face the hard truth. She makes a persuasive case for dealing with the scary truths about climate change and facing them together with others.
However, Piper concedes that the answer is not so simple as asking people to "wake-up." She acknowledges that this approach simply does not work. Her work as a psychotherapist has convinced her that people must believe that waking up can actually make things better.
“Neuroscientists have discovered that the human mind functions best when it acts as if there is hope,” Pipher writes.
To put it another way, hope is an essential ingredient for people to change.
She suggests that people begin by facing their despair, and then acknowledge the realities that brought them to despair. It’s critical to take this step with the help of others. For Piper, love is the catalyst that propels people to act, despite fears and the undeniable possibility of failure.
Chameides puts it even more bluntly in Creating a Moving Case for Climate Action:
"An appeal to reason, no matter how beautiful couched, is a waste of time. People respond only to crises and then opt for remediation not a change of direction. We continue to build on earthquake faults, rebuild in floodplains and continue to use fossil fuels because to do otherwise is inconvenient, costly and has no immediate, direct reward or benefit."
While the problems and the solution must be science-based, the psychological component of inducting change is ultimately about influencing people's convictions.
A science-based understanding does not replace heartfelt conviction and passionate feeling. Efforts to communicate a theoretical understanding of the facts have failed. However, passionately held convictions can move people in ways that reason alone cannot.
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: Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira, courtesy flickr