talking about climate change

Should we even be talking about it? People obviously don’t want to talk about it so maybe we should respect their wishes. Why force them to talk about something they don’t want to talk about? Everyone’s in favour of green stuff anyway so what is there to talk about? Climate change is really bad! Who wants to hear that? What’s the point?

That’s the standard politician’s argument. There is no political capital to be gained from talking about climate change. Not unless you have a solution to climate change. If you had that then talking about climate change would be easy. The fact that not only do we have no solution to it, we can’t even imagine what a solution might look like. Global international agreement on a scale the world has never seen before. (Except perhaps the MontrĂ©al Protocol to ban CFCs causing ozone depletion, but CFCs weren’t an integral part of our economy the way fossil fuels are.)

If someone was to put forward a viable solution, one that didn’t involve us going back to living like our grandparents did, that let us keep our mod cons and most of the things we like about our modern lives. A solution that didn’t ask for superhuman levels of personal sacrifice as far as most of us are concerned is something that many of us would pay attention to.

We like stories and we particularly like success stories. Tragedies are OK, when they’re happening to someone else. If the tragedy is the story of our own civilisation then you’re not going to get many people tuning in.

Daniel Kahneman talks about System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is what we do most of the time. It’s intuitive, associative, it likes stories and anecdotes, it listens to the people it likes, it looks for coherence. System 2 on the other hand is the logical and rational evidence-based thinking. We tend not to use System 2 so much as it takes a lot of effort.

Here’s a video of him talking about such things – he starts after a pretty long introduction, about six minutes in. You have to talk to people’s System 1, he says. That means telling them stories.

Ask people what is more likely, a flood killing 1000 people or an earthquake in California leading to a flood that kills 1000 people? People tend to rate the second as being more likely than the first, even though the first scenario includes the second and therefore has to be more likely. The thing is, the second one is a believable story. The first is too general. It sounds like a statistic. The second sounds like the plot for a disaster movie, and probably a pretty bad disaster movie. (If you wanted a happy ending then the movie would have to revolve around a heroic bunch of geeks trying to convince the authorities and the public that an earthquake is on its way and the consequences are likely to be devastating.)

George Marshall asks whether our brains are wired to ignore things like climate change:

If our brains are wired to ignore climate change, what can we do about it? Do we need to rewire our brains?


Comments 5

  1. Interesting post and will watch the video in the evening…

    The way I see it, the receptiveness and acceptance of climate change is somewhat linked to the prevalence of right-wing media. It might well be the case that Australians, Americans and many of English might not want to hear about climate change, but this is not necessarily true of other parts of the world:-

    Culture plays a part too. In the western world, there’s this concept of the ‘do-gooder’ or ‘bleeding heart liberals’. In India ‘doing good’ or talking about peace and harmony is not viewed with as much cynicism – this may change, however, as the innocence of poverty is overtaken by rapacious capitalism. Hope not!

    I’ve also found comedy and children’s cartoons to be a useful for ‘positive’ indoctrination. John Oliver’s climate change sketch clinched it for me:-

    • George Marshall talks about climate deniers being more accepting of climate change than most people because at least deniers are talking about it and accepting there’s an issue there that needs to be addressed. Most people, he suggests, are more in denial than the deniers. Ask them directly whether they accept the science and they’ll say yes of course, but ask them what issues matter to them when there’s an election coming up and climate change is unlikely to be on their list.

    • Interestingly, front page of the Independent today (08/06/15):-

      What is striking is the difference between France and the UK. Just the English channel and a tunnel that stands between them, but in this YouGov poll, 26% of the British thought climate change was not a serious issue, while only around 10% thought the same in France or Germany.

      Moreover, as you say, there must be so many of whom claiming climate change to be a serious issue, but don’t act on it or ask much of the ruling parties.

  2. One possibility is that you simply go on and on about it until people are fed up. Then they will give you whatever you want just to make you go away and stop talking about it.

    We should absolutely not do what’s being done at the moment which is to say that there is green fatigue, therefore we can’t do anything more about it since people are no longer listening, so we might as well give up.

    • Yes, I don’t think there’s any need for defeatism just yet. The UK climate mitigation strategy has been rubbish at the national level, but at the local level, it’s been pretty successful in many most places. We’ve also seen recycling rates climb ever higher and transportation schemes have been at the central to regenerating towns and cities.

      Moreover, many of the ‘green’ schemes have been EU funded and the result of EU directives.

      So, there is hope at the local level and EU level. It’s just the national level that’s the main obstacle as our big state cosies up to big business.

      So how do we accelerate things? Well, behaviour, needs to be influenced and taxation is probably the best chance we’ve got. We can only hope that some sort of robust carbon tax is ‘imposed’ on us in the form of EU directives.

      So, our first priority is to ensure that Britain does not leave the EU. Once we vote to stay in, then I imagine things moving much more quickly as the threat of leaving recedes.

      At the moment, things are looking pretty grim though:-

      I’m not sure what actually happened to this EU ‘Energy Taxation Directive? I suppose it is still to be properly discussed and voted on? Here’s more details:-

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