If we can get over some basic hurdles we can move forward with a new climate narrative. There are a number of reasons why our
current narratives keep us from acting on climate change, not the
least of which is the fact that we spend far too much time debating the
veracity of the science rather than tackling important policy issues.
The science is settled, it is time to stop delaying action and move
beyond the illegitimate concerns of climate deniers. Another reason we
have failed to craft effective narratives is the fact that we fall
victim to dichotomous thinking. We must not allow the conversation to
devolve into the false choice between economic growth and climate
action. We know that the costs will increase the longer we wait and it
is an economic certainty that the costs of mitigation are a tiny
fraction of the costs of runaway climate change. We must move away from
this false polemic as this way of framing the issue is a road to
nowhere. A new narrative must address much more than the problems or the
material benefits of action. A new narrative must exude warmth and highlight the
societal value of social variables.
Narratives fail for a number of reasons including the fact that they
are often cold and unappealing. This is a point made by Clara Changxin
Fang in a February, 15, 2014 article titled,”Charming Your Way to Sustainability.”
In this article Fang compares fostering action on climate change to the
art of seduction. She makes the point that we need to know who we are
talking to and what we are talking about but even more importantly we
need to engage in a human dialogue which is both approachable and
responsive. We must relate personally to the people we are speaking to
and make points that are relevant to them. We need to show warmth and
hospitality with the aim of building a relationship premised on
trustworthiness and open-mindedness.
We need to be aware of a number of variables including the way we
present ourselves. Above all, we need to be taken seriously and this
involves both physical attributes (e.g. facial express, gestures and
dress) and communication style (e.g. tone of voice and content).
Finally, to facilitate agreement, we must strive to communicate in an
appropriate setting that is conducive to an intimate discussion.
Once there is agreement on the nature of the problem, we need to
foster shared approaches to addressing the issues. This is often where
climate activism breaks down, we need to ask people to act (in
marketing-speak it’s known as the “call to action”). However, you
must make this effort as easy as possible. One very effective technique
is to get them to make suggestions which can then give the appearance
that the solutions come from them rather than you.
The importance of the human element in crafting a new narrative
cannot be overstated. We need to show appreciation, give credit, be
thankful, and acknowledge the parties you are speaking to. Be courteous
and helpful and in most instances they will in turn be courteous and
helpful to you. It is important to assume responsibility in the
conversation and model constructive communication.
It is also very important to make your exchanges about more than just
sustainability. However, do not shy away from difficult discussions
that strike at the heart of the issue. Deal with any perceived annoyance
or discomfort. Make a point of rebutting resistance as it arises. Deal
with these issues in a straightforward fashion without being accusatory.
People are inherently selfish and this impedes progress on climate change. As reviewed in Time, a new study shows that human beings are too selfish to sacrifice for future generations.
A new narrative must cultivate a greater sense of communality and
altrusim. The climate crisis demands that we look beyond the narrow
specificity of a group of skill sets that makes us employable or even
the myopic preoccupation with our own survival. We must look beyond
ourselves, beyond our tribe, beyond our nation. Ultimately we must
inculcate an understanding that embraces the entire globe.
The desire to help others without consideration for ourselves is far
more than just a noble ideal, our very survival may depend on it.
Selflessness raises the quality and elevates the meaning of our lives,
however we need to be realistic about our tendency towards self
While we need to think long term, our brains tend to be more focused
on short term impacts. We tend not to look at the distant horizon and we
tend to plan only a few steps ahead. Even natural disasters garner our
attention in the short term, but then they quickly fade from view. We
will need to develop narratives that address our tendency towards
selfishness rather than hope to change this deeply engrained
Short term thinking
People think about the short term and because climate change will
take generations to fully unfold, people do not grasp its gravity. To
overcome the obstacle of time we must frame the problems in the here and
now, rather than an abstract and distant future.
A new study in Nature Climate Change indicates that the kind
of long-term cooperation demanded by effective climate policy is going
to be challenging. People are unwilling to endure present pain so that
future generations won’t have to endure an unlivable climate. The study
also underscores the need for “win-win” climate policies. One of the
implications of this study is that rather than talk about the cost of
dirty energy, we need to communicate the savings associated with clean
The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy. This is the view expressed in a Ted Talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast,
a monk and interfaith scholar. He suggests that happiness is born from
gratitude. He argues that the way to happiness involves slowing down,
looking where you’re going, and above all, being grateful. This view has
implications for a new climate narrative.
This view has been incorporated into the national vision espoused by
the government of Bhutan. This nation is currently measuring its
success through a dedicated focus on wellbeing.
Cooperation and Collaboration
Cooperation and collaboration are essential to designing solutions to
any effort to combat climate change. The concepts of cooperation and
collaboration can be promoted by publishing indices of personal
well-being and environmental preservation, alongside standard GDP data.
The government of Bhutan already accounts for the “social wealth” and
“natural wealth” of its people in addition to its GDP figures. According
to Harvard University biologist Martin Nowak, “to solve new, global
challenges, we must also find new ways to cooperate. The basis for this
cooperation must be altruism.”
Despite research in the fields of psychology, economics, and
evolutionary biology, which claim we are inherently selfish, other
research indicates that true altruism does exist. There is also a train
of thought which suggests that individuals can learn to be altruistic.
Neuroscientists have identified three components of altruism
that anyone can develop as acquired skills: empathy (understanding and
sharing the feelings of another), loving kindness (the wish to spread
happiness), and compassion (a desire to relieve the suffering of
As the value of altruism becomes increasingly obvious, the new
approach will spread through the economy, benefiting all of society,
future generations, and the planet.
While we are called to look at the big picture, we cannot do this
unless we understand the psychological obstacles that keep us from
caring about our own happiness and prevent us from cooperating and
focusing on the wellbeing of others.
The vision required to overcome the threats we face is both
multi-faceted and complex. However with the help of a new narrative, we
can move beyond the limitations of our current world view.
Source: Global Warming is Real
© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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