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
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
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
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
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.
Source: Global Warming is Real
Overcoming Obstacles in the Creation of a New Climate Narratives
Crafting a Positive Environmental Narrative
Pessimism is Impeding Environmental Advocacy
A New Environmental Movement Breeds Hope for the Future
Environmental Success Stories: Mercury, SLCPs and Many More
Forging a New Climate Change Narrative: Addressing 5 Psychological Realities
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