Author Archives: Nicolas Maiarelli

About Nicolas Maiarelli

Nicolas Maiarelli is an economics student at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, CUNY. Although not originally from the city, he considers himself to be a true New Yorker- for better and for worse... You can often find him at any number of cafés furiously typing away at his computer.

Can positive thinking be the key to our big CO2 fix?

Jonathan Chait at New York Mag­a­zine has an upbeat lead sto­ry on cli­mate this past week. Chait’s piece reflects opti­mism from break­throughs that have real­ly tak­en place; in the past six months, Pope Fran­cis has made action on cli­mate his focus, and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has pushed U.S. pol­i­cy for­ward with the Clean Pow­er Plan and with a trip to Alaska ded­i­cat­ed to push­ing the pub­lic dia­logue on the issue. Chi­na and the U.S., the two largest emit­ters of CO2, are com­mit­ted to guid­ing the world to a suc­cess­ful cli­mate agree­ment in Paris this Decem­ber.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Gov­er­nor Brown is push­ing the world’s eighth largest econ­o­my to chart the way to a low car­bon future for the plan­et, and even recent set backs reveal how fast the under­ly­ing argu­ment in his state has shift­ed. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, we’ve just noticed that on the Apple site, the new iPhone is cur­rent­ly fea­tured with a news series on the two degree tar­get of the Paris cli­mate talks on the screen. 

Cli­mate, as a top­ic for Amer­i­ca, is gain­ing need­ed vis­i­bil­i­ty, even as seri­ous impacts (drought and wild­fire along the West Coast) and unsea­son­al heat (across the con­ti­nent) under­line our shared inter­est as cit­i­zens.

Chait’s sun­ny piece may also reflect a new idea – may­be the pub­lic hasn’t been able to face up to cli­mate because the scare sto­ries have been too over­whelm­ing. When there’s lit­tle peo­ple feel they can do, peo­ple would rather avoid think­ing about it entire­ly. Nico­las Maiarel­li reviews a book that explains why the best cli­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion may be that which looks to the pos­i­tive sto­ries. As Chait points out, keep­ing on the safe side of two degrees would be a human achieve­ment on the scale of the inven­tion of med­i­cine. The world that fol­lows could be wealth­ier, more just, and ush­er in an era of human well-being that hasn’t been seen before. 

Here is a curi­ous fact: as the evi­dence of glob­al cli­mate change has become more obvi­ous, con­cern over the issue has waned in devel­oped coun­tries. When asked, in 1989, “How much do you per­son­al­ly wor­ry about the green­house effect of glob­al warm­ing?” near­ly 65% of Amer­i­cans and almost 70% of Nor­we­gians answered “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” In 2013 that num­ber dropped below 60% and 50%, respec­tive­ly. And yet in the past decade alone there have been count­less reports and papers; innu­mer­able doc­u­men­taries have out­lined our steady, fool­ish march towards envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, and inter­na­tion­al pan­els that have made bold dec­la­ra­tions of lofty goals. There have been pho­tos of polar bears strand­ed on doomed ice-rafts and time-lapse pho­tos of a dis­ap­pear­ing Ama­zon rain­forest. We’ve named a peri­od of mass-extinc­tion in our hon­or. And yet…

With the astute­ness of a psy­chol­o­gist, the opti­mism of an adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive, and the con­sid­er­a­tion of an econ­o­mist, Per Espen Stok­nes unpacks this cli­mate para­dox in his new book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Glob­al Warm­ing. Draw­ing from the research of his­to­ri­ans, soci­ol­o­gists, behav­ioral econ­o­mists, ecol­o­gists, and psy­chol­o­gists, Stok­nes pro­pos­es a more effec­tive approach to address­ing cli­mate change.

So why is it that despite the del­uge of cli­mate change infor­ma­tion, we have declined to change our behav­ior, and have instead dis­tanced our­selves from the prob­lem? “At some lev­el,” Stok­nes writes, “we’re aware that we’re caus­ing this shift our­selves. We know we’ve done some­thing irre­versible. Just like Adam and Eve, we’ve eat­en the pro­hib­it­ed apple. Only this one is a car­bon apple, the black fruit from ancient trees in the pre­his­toric gar­dens.”

Dis­turbed by this psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den, we turn to the “ances­tral forces” that help us to de-pri­or­i­tize the issue, includ­ing self-inter­est (cli­mate change doesn’t affect us, it only affects them); sta­tus (mass con­sump­tion – need I say more?); imi­ta­tion (no one else is doing any­thing about it, and I wouldn’t want to seem like an out­sider); short-term think­ing (we were, after all, hunter-gath­er­ers long before we were farm­ers); and a skewed per­cep­tion of risk (we dis­re­gard the risks we can­not see and focus on those which are the most spec­tac­u­lar).

An instinct for self-preser­va­tion makes us blind to infor­ma­tion about threats we feel we can­not con­trol.
In most of us, the­se forces leave room only for mild con­cern or even apa­thy, but in their extremes lead to cli­mate-change denial. Faced with the uncom­fort­able pos­si­bil­i­ty that one is, in part, respon­si­ble for the weird­ing of the Earth, our instinct for self-preser­va­tion con­spires to resolve the result­ing inter­nal dis­so­nance. “Faced with the psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den of cli­mate infor­ma­tion, [peo­ple] decide the sci­ence itself must be false.” We are, after all, the pro­duct of a dif­fi­cult upbring­ing, some 200,000 years in the mak­ing.

On an indi­vid­u­al lev­el the­se “ances­tral forces” lead to an inter­nal dia­logue that gen­er­al­ly resem­bles the fol­low­ing script: I have a large car­bon foot­print yet at the same time I know that CO2 leads to glob­al warm­ing. This is vex­ing. For­tu­nate­ly for us (and unfor­tu­nate­ly for the plan­et), there are four gen­er­al strate­gies that we turn to in order to min­i­mize this dis­com­fort.

First: mod­i­fy your per­cep­tion of real­i­ty. My car­bon foot­print isn’t real­ly that big. Com­pared to Chi­na or oil com­pa­nies, my impact is insignif­i­cant! It’s not me, it’s them!

Sec­ond: ques­tion the impor­tance of the issue in gen­er­al. The sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ty is divid­ed, and the evi­dence is uncer­tain any­way. Lets not be alarmists here… This mind­set allows you to tell oth­ers that you’re con­cerned, sure, but that the whole thing real­ly is exag­ger­at­ed.

Third: add cog­ni­tions to make you feel bet­ter. I recy­cle and installed LED light­bulbs in my house, so it’s okay that I fly to Los Ange­les four times a year. This is the beau­ty of green-con­sump­tion: it gives us the moral license to stop wor­ry­ing about an issue because we’ve already done our part.

And final­ly: just dis­miss the whole thing. There’s no real evi­dence link­ing CO2 and cli­mate change. It’s all just a con­spir­a­cy and everyone’s bought into it because they can’t think for them­selves! The Earth hasn’t even been warm­ing since 1998 and besides- it’s total­ly nat­u­ral for the Earth to warm and cool. What BS!

So con­ve­nient a thing is it to be a ratio­nal crea­ture,” wrote Ben­jam­in Franklin some two hun­dred years ago, “since it enables us to find or make a rea­son for every­thing one has a mind to do.”

Only once we under­stand this under­ly­ing psy­chol­o­gy, argues Stok­nes, can we begin to move the cli­mate debate in a mean­ing­ful direc­tion. For starters, the mes­sag­ing of cli­mate-change data is fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed. Take sci­en­tific reports: exper­i­ment pro­ce­dures are out­lined so that they can be recre­at­ed, and data is pre­sent­ed so that it may be peer-reviewed. But what does this tell us, lay peo­ple? Will it rain more? Be hot­ter next year? In ten years? What will my friends think about this, and what should I say? What should I tweet? Instead, the authors of sci­en­tific papers “detach knowl­edge from mean­ing,” remov­ing all social con­text from the infor­ma­tion they seek to con­vey.

Rather than hop­ing that just num­bers and facts will speak for them­selves,” sug­gests Stok­nes, “we must inte­grate sci­ence with storytelling…In this work there must be room for humor, emo­tion, visu­al­iza­tion, point-of-view, cli­max, sur­prise, plot, dra­ma.”

Think in terms of how some­one can describe infor­ma­tion about the cli­mate to their friends.
Fur­ther­more, even when we under­stand – on an intel­lec­tu­al lev­el – the impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change research, the com­plete lack of atten­tion for the emo­tion­al com­po­nent of cli­mate-change mes­sag­ing means that the bleak mes­sage they con­vey is sub­con­scious­ly heard as accusato­ry, even sham­ing. And because it is so dif­fi­cult to change our own behav­ior (which means that our cog­ni­tive respon­se doesn’t align with our behav­ioral respon­se), we resolve the dis­com­fort by redefin­ing our think­ing so that it may bet­ter cor­re­spond with our behav­ior.

To illus­trate the pow­er of this cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, Stok­nes cites the work of psy­chol­o­gist Leon Fes­tinger, who in the 1950s infil­trat­ed a dooms-day reli­gious sect. When the fate­ful day of their reck­on­ing came and went the fol­low­ers of this sect “were bewil­dered, and felt a range of emo­tions: let down, con­fused, relieved, or even angry and embar­rassed (states of dis­so­nance). But then the sect lead­er chan­neled a new rev­e­la­tion: The world had been saved at the very last moment, exact­ly because of the sect’s stead­fast belief and strong ded­i­ca­tion. What more proof could they ask for?”

This isn’t helped, of course, by the treat­ment that cli­mate change often receives in the media. Accord­ing to Stok­nes’ book, the “dis­as­ter nar­ra­tive” char­ac­ter­izes more than 80% of cli­mate change news. Pre­dic­tions of envi­ron­men­tal doom haven’t moved us to change our behav­ior thus far, but it cer­tain­ly sells news­pa­pers. When, in the sum­mer of 2014, cli­mate sci­en­tist Jason Box tweet­ed, “If even a small frac­tion of Arc­tic sea floor car­bon is released to the atmos­phere, we’re f’d” the media pounced, inspir­ing the fol­low­ing head­li­nes:




A more recent sam­pling of head­li­nes gives the fol­low­ing:

Cli­mate Change Could Harm British But­ter­flies: Six species of but­ter­flies in Britain will face pop­u­la­tion extinc­tion by 2050 because of cli­mate change, a new study reports.” (New York Times, August 10, 2015)

Dry Days Bring Fero­cious Start to Fire Sea­son: Offi­cials are warn­ing about the poten­tial for more cat­a­stro­phe in the months ahead, as drought, heat and cli­mate change leave the land­scape even thirstier.” (New York Times, August 1, 2015)

Risk of Extreme Weath­er From Cli­mate Change to Rise Over Next Cen­tu­ry, Report Says: More peo­ple will be exposed to floods, droughts, heat waves and oth­er extreme weath­er asso­ci­at­ed with cli­mate change over the next cen­tu­ry than pre­vi­ous­ly thought, accord­ing to a new report in the British med­ical jour­nal The Lancet.” (New York Times, June 22, 2015)

Oppor­tu­ni­ty plays bet­ter than fear and doom mes­sag­ing, and sham­ing back­fires.
The­se head­li­nes evoke fear, guilt, and help­less­ness; they remind us that we’re not doing enough to save our plan­et. Each rein­forces the inter­nal dis­so­nance we feel regard­ing the issue, mak­ing it more and more appeal­ing sim­ply to dis­miss the top­ic once and for all, there­by absolv­ing us of any inter­nal con­flict. Rather than focus­ing on this “doom” frame, the media must shift to an “oppor­tu­ni­ty frame” by mea­sur­ing pro­gress and giv­ing peo­ple the oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve by being encour­ag­ing.

Sham­ing always back­fires (if it’s real­ly so bad, the prob­lem must be insur­mount­able – why even both­er?); “indi­ca­tors should mea­sure the suc­cess for solu­tions, not focus on glob­al prob­lems,” Stok­nes writes.

In the lead-up to the Unit­ed Nations Con­fer­ence on Cli­mate Change in Paris lat­er this year (COP21), per­haps no one has embraced and embod­ied this out­look as much as Chris­tiana Figueres, Exec­u­tive Sec­re­tary of the Unit­ed Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change. As pro­filed by Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert in The New York­er, Figueres has been tasked with what could be described as Her­cules’ thir­teen­th labor: “(to con­vince) a hun­dred and nine­ty-five coun­tries – many of which rely on sell­ing fos­sil fuels for their nation­al income and almost all of which depend on burn­ing them for the bulk of their ener­gy – that giv­ing up such fuels is a good idea. When Figueres took over the Sec­re­tari­at, in 2010, there were lots of peo­ple who thought the job so thank­less that it ought to be abol­ished.”

When describ­ing her approach to the upcom­ing nego­ti­a­tions, Figueres said: “I have not met a sin­gle human being who’s moti­vat­ed by bad news. Not a sin­gle one.” And then: “I don’t want to put peo­ple into a black box and say, ‘You’re the cul­prits,’ and point a blam­ing fin­ger. It just helps absolute­ly noth­ing.”

Instead, Figueres uses a more “con­struc­tive” approach to build con­sen­sus (in an exchange with Xie Zhen­hua, China’s lead cli­mate-change nego­tia­tor, who expressed con­fi­dence that under her lead­er­ship an inter­na­tion­al agree­ment would be reached, Figueres retort­ed, “Under everyone’s lead­er­ship.”) and gen­uine polit­i­cal good­will (when South Korea sub­mit­ted an emis­sions plan that ana­lysts lam­bast­ed as “essen­tial­ly mean­ing­less,” Figueres was nonethe­less sure to thank the coun­try pub­licly).

When deal­ing with nego­tia­tors from Saudi Ara­bia she is cau­tious of her mes­sag­ing: “‘They don’t like the term ‘decar­boniza­tion,’ because for them that points the fig­ure direct­ly at them. They would rather use the term ‘low emis­sions.’ … ‘Well, frankly, I some­times do talk about ‘decar­boniza­tion’ … But cer­tain­ly I won’t talk about ‘decar­boniza­tion’ when I’m in Saudi Ara­bia, because I under­stand that is very threat­en­ing to them. Why would I want to threat­en them? I need them on my side. The best thing that could hap­pen to me would be that Saudi Ara­bia says, ‘You know what? With all the mon­ey that we have, we’re going to invest in the best tech­nol­o­gy in con­cen­trat­ed solar pow­er.’ ‘” Indeed. (The del­i­ca­cy that Figueres uses is also sim­i­lar to rec­om­men­da­tions for the gen­er­al pub­lic devel­oped by com­mu­ni­ca­tions expert George Mar­shall.)

Stok­nes argues that cli­mate mes­sages should take advan­tage of our fun­da­men­tal­ly social nature: we do as oth­ers do, and we’re com­pet­i­tive about it. Fol­low­ing the oil crises of the 1970s, the res­i­dents of Copen­hagen made a moral com­mit­ment to bicy­cle to work. This hap­pened else­where too, but in Copen­hagen there was an out­pour­ing of social sup­port (and pres­sure); today 50% of res­i­dents com­mute to work by bicy­cle every day. We’re social ani­mals: we cut our lawns like our neigh­bors, we dress like our col­leagues, and we’ll even com­mute by bicy­cle if every­one else is doing so. Given a clear exam­ple and ample oppor­tu­ni­ty, mix in a touch of ide­al­ism, and we’ll sur­prise our­selves. (Econ­o­mist Eli­nor Ostrom stud­ied the human capac­i­ty for social self-man­age­ment across large sys­tems, like the preser­va­tion of forests and fish­eries, and lat­er applied that think­ing to cli­mate. In Ostrom’s find­ings, build­ing trust turns out to be the key step.)

An effec­tive cli­mate-change mes­sage could thus read as fol­lows: “’Atmos­pher­ic CO2 con­cen­tra­tions have fur­ther increased and just passed the unprece­dent­ed 410 ppm lev­el. This is wor­ry­ing. How­ev­er, the last two years we’re on track to achiev­ing a green econ­o­my by 2050. So if we keep this pace, we’ll turn around in time. But Ari­zona is slip­ping while Tex­as is lead­ing, so Ari­zona bet­ter shape up!’ This shifts the doom frame into an oppor­tu­ni­ty frame, strength­en­ing the sense of com­pet­ing for nation­wide effi­cien­cy and green growth.”

(Pro­vid­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show lead­er­ship is anoth­er key find­ing, accord­ing to an exten­sive, thought­ful British report, led by Jonathan Row­son.)

And final­ly, as any­one on Madis­on Avenue will tell you, every mes­sage must be craft­ed for the intend­ed audi­ence. There is no one-size-fits-all (read here about a gen­tle bit of out­reach on a com­muter train, tai­lored to the lis­ten­er).

Stok­nes points to the work of Katharine Hay­hoe – an evan­ge­list, a Tex­an, and a cli­mate sci­en­tist. Because of her cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, she’s able to engage locals on the issue of cli­mate change in a pro­duc­tive, mean­ing­ful way. Al Gore didn’t win Tex­as in 2000; he cer­tain­ly didn’t win Tex­as in 2006 with “An Incon­ve­nient Truth.”

Per­haps the most pro­found truth of Per Espen Stok­nes’ What We Think About When We Don’t Think About Glob­al Warm­ing is that one’s posi­tion on cli­mate change isn’t about intel­li­gence or sci­en­tific under­stand­ing: your posi­tion on cli­mate reflects your core iden­ti­ty. Con­ser­v­a­tives don’t deny cli­mate change because they’re igno­rant; they deny it because it’s a way of express­ing who they are. And because your friends are like­ly to have sim­i­lar atti­tudes, chang­ing those atti­tudes comes at a high social cost. To make his point, Stok­nes invites us to try a thought exper­i­ment first pro­posed by Ezra Klein, in his arti­cle, “How Pol­i­tics Makes us Stu­pid”:

Imag­ine what would hap­pen to, say, Sean Han­ni­ty, if he decid­ed tomor­row that cli­mate change was the cen­tral threat fac­ing the plan­et. Ini­tial­ly, his view­ers would think he was jok­ing. But soon, they’d begin call­ing in furi­ous­ly. Some would orga­nize boy­cotts of his pro­gram. Dozens, per­haps hun­dreds, of pro­fes­sion­al cli­mate skep­tics would begin angri­ly refut­ing Hannity’s new cru­sade. Many of Hannity’s friends in the con­ser­v­a­tive media would back away from him, and some would seek advan­tage by denounc­ing him. Some of the politi­cians he respects would be furi­ous at his betray­al of the cause. He would lose friend­ships, view­ers, and mon­ey. He could ulti­mate­ly lose his job. And along the way he would cause him­self immense per­son­al pain as he sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly alien­ates his clos­est polit­i­cal and pro­fes­sion­al allies… Chang­ing your iden­ti­ty is a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly bru­tal process.

Dan Kahan, pro­fes­sor at Yale Law School and direc­tor of the Cul­tur­al Cog­ni­tion Project, which stud­ies pub­lic beliefs and sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion, brings up the same point when writ­ing about “belief” in evo­lu­tion: “Amer­i­cans don’t dis­agree about evo­lu­tion because they have dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of or com­mit­ments to sci­ence. They dis­agree because they sub­scribe to com­pet­ing cul­tur­al world­views that invest posi­tions on evo­lu­tion with iden­ti­ty-expres­sive sig­nif­i­cance.” It’s no sur­prise then, that “peo­ple not only try to make their own atti­tudes inter­nal­ly con­sis­tent, but also try to align their atti­tudes with their friends’ atti­tudes, or at least ensure they con­trast with the atti­tudes of their out-group, their ene­mies.”

Col­in Woodard, author and reporter at the Port­land Press Her­ald, takes this argu­ment anoth­er step for­ward: “Our continent’s famed mobil­i­ty has been rein­forc­ing, not dis­solv­ing, region­al dif­fer­ences, as peo­ple increas­ing­ly sort them­selves into like-mind­ed com­mu­ni­ties.” The North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent, Woodard writes, could be divid­ed into eleven sep­a­rate nation-states, based on how it was orig­i­nal­ly set­tled by Euro­peans. Embed­ded region­al dis­tinc­tions include lin­guis­tic dialects, reli­gious beliefs, and atti­tudes about gov­ern­ment, which cre­ate hot-but­ton polit­i­cal issues (cli­mate change is one, along with oth­er famil­iar schisms like gun con­trol). And for any­one who’s ever argued with some­one from one of the­se oth­er “nations” (we all have that uncle who shows up every Thanks­giv­ing), Stok­nes writes: “Resist the temp­ta­tion to move to a ‘holier than thou’ stance, or throw a tantrum over the ‘idiots’ on the oth­er side, even if the out­spo­ken denial­ists and trolls ‘deserve’ it.

Per Espen Stok­nes’ book might strike you as a train­ing man­u­al for an unruly pet, but he does turn to a more reflex­ive tone. “What is need­ed, he writes, “is the work of a cul­tur­al move­ment sim­i­lar to the ones that dis­man­tled apartheid, abol­ished slav­ery, or took on nuclear arms.” Cli­mate change needs, in short, its own Uncle Tom’s Cab­in moment.

Take some­thing as mun­dane as the air: “we have long viewed the air only through the chem­i­cal, reduc­tion­ist view; now it’s time to con­sid­er oth­er ways of see­ing, feel­ing, and relat­ing to the air.”

Stok­nes con­tin­ues to phi­los­o­phize: we should embrace, hon­est­ly and with sin­cer­i­ty, the “The Great Grief” that comes from know­ing that the land­scapes and diver­si­ty of nature we knew as chil­dren won’t exist much longer. The depres­sion and sad­ness serve to remind us that we are both vul­ner­a­ble and depen­dent; they remind us that we rely on clean air and oceans, fer­tile soil and vibrant bio­di­ver­si­ty. We’re tempt­ed to right the wrongs with solu­tion-ori­ent­ed, quick fix­es. We’re tempt­ed to treat the symp­toms with quick fix­es, but to ignore the under­ly­ing ill­ness. Let’s be sad; let’s despair, writes Stok­nes. Let your­self be moved by Solastal­gia (“the pain or sick­ness caused by the loss of solace from one’s home­land), and then let’s do some­thing about it.

But let’s make sure that what we’re doing is effec­tive. Read this book and then let’s get to it.