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Your lethal aversion to discussing climate.

By Sadhbh O’ Neill.

With all the seemingly urgent messages in the media about climate change and need to reduce emissions, there is an astonishing cultural silence about the issue. Climate changes will affect us readers of Village magazine, no doubt in our lifetimes, never mind the lives of our children and grandchildren, as evidence mounts that even current extreme weather events can be attributed directly to climate change. Yet we don’t talk about it, we don’t discuss it, and according to a Royal Society for the Arts survey in 2013, only a fifth of the respondents were convinced there even was a problem. Only 60 percent of the sample had ever spoken about climate change and, of those 71 percent did so for less than ten minutes; 43 percent for less than 5 minutes. This poses the question whether, as Clive Hamilton puts it, climate denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.

I’ve tried this out on a few friends and it is true: the conversations fizzle out after a few minutes unless you can get people interested in talking the detail about energy policy or intergovernmental negotiations (this rarely happens). They definitely don’t want to get into the detail of how scary it might all get. But is this because they don’t want to know, or that they do know somehow, but are willing to invest a lot of emotion in denying the truth?

These are the questions George Marshall takes up in his new book ‘Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change’ (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). As a former Greenpeace activist, and now a ‘climate communications expert’ Marshall sets out to understand how it is that we are collectively in denial about the most serious problem of our time. Marshall is convinced there is a good psychological or evolutionary explanation for our inaction. He explains that essentially we are wired to act on the basis of primitive emotional responses, whilst we analyse information more slowly through the cognitive centres of the brain. The effect of this is to make some threats more real and immediate than others. The issues with the greatest salience are those that are here, now and contain a clear visible threat from an identifiable enemy. Social cues compel us to pay attention to some issues not others. Without salience or social cues, climate change sits outside the analytic frame that we apply to make sense of the world around us, he explains.

Added to all this, climate change and the vast science around it can make it easy to select truths on an à la carte basis through cognitive bias, confirmation bias and mis-categorisation – all of which helps keep the extent of the problem on the edge of what he terms a “pool of worry” that we all have anyway about the usual things (bills, jobs, elderly parents etc). Climate deniers in particular have misled the public by setting up false debates based on partial or incorrect information knowing that sowing the seeds of doubt and dissent leaving us both confused and worried, but unsure of what to do.

Marshall’s big ideas are for climate communicators and policy makers to zone in on the role of stories and myths (especially religious ones): the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain. When non-experts make sense of complex technical issues, they make their decisions on the basis of the quality of the ‘story’ or ‘narrative fidelity’ rather than on the quality of the information. Whilst the ‘good’ guys in this story get tangled up in complex and defensive explanations and talk about raising new taxes (always a bad communication strategy), the ‘bad’ guys win the argument by talking about the ‘American way of life’. Essentially deep community values, however conservative, are more persuasive and socially binding than bad, complicated news. Helpfully, Marshall quotes Frank Luntz, the US GOP pollster and strategist as saying that a compelling story has the following rules: “simplicity, brevity, credibility, comprehension [by which he may of course mean comprehensibility], consistency, repetition, repetition, repetition… “. Marshall explains also that a successful storyline contains simplicity of cause and effect, a focus on individuals or distinctly defined groups, and a positive outcome. When will Disney make a climate movie, I wonder. That is what is needed here.

In the meantime, other writers outside even  the science-fiction genre are beginning to do the work of telling us the story of our present, from the perspective of the future. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, famous for their devastating assault on climate deniers in ‘Merchants of Doubt’ (2010) have written a new book about what is happening to our climate and possible future scenarios if we fail to act on time. What is interesting about ‘The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View From the Future’ (Columbia University Press 2014) is that it is a piece of historical fiction, but written from the future, since this seems to be the most narrative-faithful way of joining the dots about what we are doing at the moment and how it will impact on the future. Written from 2393, 300 years after ‘The Great Collapse’ the authors retell the story of how civilisation collapsed first from inaction and then from desperate efforts to reduce global warming with failed geo-engineering experiments. It is telling that the story is written from inside China, whose centralised decision-making made recovery possible.

Oreskes and Conway are not eco-authoritarians but they do give voice to the desperation among climate activists that our democracies are simply failing to act effectively out of deference to fossil-fuel and other interests, even when public opinion is solidly behind abatement measures. What is missing from their history however, is real people: survivors, heros who have adjusted and re-organised communities to be resilient. Without real characters, we may well reluctantly have to apply Marshall: we need individual characters and a happy (not just barely-surviving) ending. I suspect that a decent work of science fiction would have done a better job at communicating such a history, and would be just as scary. Presumably they wrote the narrative deliberately to give the authoritarians the last word, as a chilling reminder to liberal progressives that if they don’t stand up and take this issue seriously, it will be left to militarised governments to take charge eventually.

Dr James Hansen of NASA whose book ‘Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity’ (London, Bloomsbury, 2009) points to the influence in US politics particularly of ‘special interests’ who seem to hold disproportionate favour with key politicians, and who frequently become appointed to key positions in administrations. As an astrophysicist working with a NASA Earth sciences team, Hansen was an important figure in developing explanations for the underlying global-warming mechanism from a scientific point of view. However vocal and courageous he was in his voicing of concerns, he got nowhere with the slippery Clinton-Gore administration, and during the Bush Presidency NASA press releases were effectively re-routed through the White House Press Office for censorship.

Hansen and his team have made enormous contributions to climate science through extrapolating from paleoclimate records the likely implications of a rapid temperature rise and loss of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. His work, often collaborated, since the early 1980s and as recently as last year offers an over-arching explanation of climate change, just at a time when controversies were threatening to undermine the public’s confidence in scientists, especially in the US. There is also something epic about anyone associated with NASA.

The news, I’m afraid, has worsened in the six years since his first book was published. There is no precedent for the rapid increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but there is good evidence from past climates that a rapid global warming may bring about irreversible feedbacks including the disintegration of the ice sheets. This is not only possible, but likely to be already underway.

Bear in mind that when the Earth was last ice-free sea levels were 120 metres higher than today. The loss of the albedo effect and many other feedback mechanisms mean that we cannot afford to consider even a 2 degree warming as less than extremely dangerous: Hansen even in 2009 made it clear that only a return to a 350ppm CO2 level could be considered ‘safe’. Since the beginning of human civilisation, our atmosphere contained about 275ppm but now we’re at 400ppm, and we’re adding 2ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.

When I first finished Hansen’s book, which is part memoir, part summary of the evolution of climate science, I will confess that I cried. I can compartmentalise bad climate news, which is necessary for all concerned activists, but this is bad news that I definitely don’t have any evolutionary programming to help me with. The picture he paints of runaway climate change is so frightening (imagine the Earth becoming uninhabitable to all life, much like Venus) and his scientific authority so compelling, denial is positively attractive as an alternative.

Hansen’s inclination now after decades of failing to get politicians from all major parties to listen is to join the growing civil disobedience movement (Naomi Klein calls it ‘Blockadia’ in her recent book). My favourite example is that of Tim DeChristopher, who successfully bid against fossil-fuel companies for gas and oil drilling leases at a public auction by the Bureau of Land Management. He successfully bid on 14 parcels of land totalling $1.8m but not having the money to pay for them, he was prosecuted and spent 21 months in jail. Now that’s climate justice for you! I’m trusting you’ll forgive me that I could not find a Disney ending to this article. •