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

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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).

[pullquote align=”right”]An instinct for self-preservation makes us blind to information about threats we feel we cannot control.[/pullquote]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.”

[pullquote align=”left”]Think in terms of how someone can describe information about the climate to their friends.[/pullquote]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)

[pullquote align=”right”]Opportunity plays better than fear and doom messaging, and shaming backfires.[/pullquote]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.