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:

CLIMATOLOGIST SAYS ARCTIC CARBON RELEASE COULD MEANWERE FUCKED.”

CLIMATE SCIENTIST DROPS THE F-BOMB AFTER STARTLING ARCTIC DISCOVERTY.

CLIMATOLOGIST: METHANE PLUMES FROM THE ARCTIC MEANS WERE SCREWED.

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.