As world leaders met on Tuesday at the UN headquarters in New York, they faced intense pressure to act. The discovery that North Korea has been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US has sparked an international crisis.
That is not true, of course. There was indeed a summit this week, called by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to discuss dangerous climatic disruption. It is a disruption that might in fact lead to the collapse of many of the world’s main agricultural regions. However, since it is only dull old global warming, a subject swaths of the public seem to find less interesting than watching paint dry, the politicians did not have to worry too much about being held to account.
So, why can the public be confident that the North Korean scenario is set to lead to rapid political mobilization, while the huge threat they really do face is bound to generate mere empty promises? This raises a larger question about psychology: Why do most people understand that climate change is a major threat, yet when asked to name the greatest dangers to civilization, still seem unable to bring it to mind?
The primary reason is that people’s innate sense of social competition has made them acutely alert to any threat posed by external enemies. In experiments, children as young as three can tell the difference between an accident and a deliberate attack. Climate change confounds this core moral formula: It is a perfect and undetectable crime that everyone contributes to, but for which no one has a motive.
There is no outsider to blame. People are just living their lives — driving the kids to school, heating their homes, putting food on the table. Only once people accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention — so they readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.
Even worse, climate change appears to contain a royal flush of other qualities that are notoriously hard for people’s brains to engage with: It requires immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses far in the future.
Cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally we respond to such issues, sighed deeply when I asked him to assess humanity’s chances: “Sorry,” he said, “I am deeply pessimistic. I see no path to success.”
I would agree with him if indeed climate change really were uncertain, impossibly expensive to combat and located in the far future. It can easily seem so, if that is how people are determined to frame it.
However, many economists, such as Nicholas Stern and Hank Paulson, former US president George W. Bush’s former treasury secretary, see it differently. So do the 310,000 protesters who jammed 30 blocks of Manhattan, and the tens of thousands more in London on Sunday shouting with heartfelt conviction that climate change is real, happening now and entirely actionable. For them the real obstacle — memorably represented on one float in New York as a 15m-long octopus — is the oil and gas industry and its tentacles of political influence.
Herein lies the real challenge. Climate change can be anything people want it to be. It can be here or there, in the present or the future, certain and uncertain. It seems that people see climate change as a threat — and are therefore able to harness that innate reaction to an external enemy — only once it is poured into the mold of familiar stories, with heroes and villains.
My fellow advocates for action create this enemy narrative with dramatis personae from past struggles — corrupt politicians, malignant corporate executives, fat bankers, lazy journalists, slippery lawyers and an apathetic public.
However, all the while, opponents are mirroring these actions. During a raucous evening with the Texan Tea Party, I was told in predictably blunt language that liberal environmentalists are the real enemy, and that we have invented this scam to extend government control. Like most conservatives, they failed to see that it is climate change itself that poses a threat to their values, freedoms and property.
This tendency to confuse the facts of climate change with the narratives constructed from them is just as common among politicians. I expected the leaders who gathered in New York to stress the urgent need to control greenhouse gases, but remain mute about the US$1 trillion a year spent bringing yet more fossil fuel reserves into production. In 25 years of negotiations, no measure to control fossil fuel production has ever been discussed. It does not exist anywhere in the official narrative.
For the general public, too, there are gaps and blind spots. Most people have never discussed climate change with anyone outside their immediate family. A third cannot recall having talked about it with anyone at all.
Also, counter-intuitively, climate-related trauma seems to make people even more reticent. Speaking to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Texan drought and wildfires, I could not find anyone who could recall a recent conversation with their neighbors about climate change. Battered communities, it seems, find strength in the hope of recovery, and actively suppress any disheartening discussion of underlying causes or future threat.
If the public is to really mobilize action on climate change, it is vital that it recognizes that it exists in two forms: the scientific facts, and the far more potent social facts of constructed narratives or deliberate silence. It is the latter that provides the basis on which people accept, deny or ignore the issue, reinforced by their innate need to conform to the norm within their social group.
Seen in this light, the situation is far from hopeless. Like the cycles that govern global energy and carbon systems, public attitudes are subject to positive feedback effects that can amplify small changes and result in rapid shifts. Strong visible protest and increased media coverage can break the climate silence and create wider engagement.
Above all, though, people need to recognize that the narrative they choose will shape what happens from now on. Society may continue to fall back on its need for an enemy. However, the very best story would be one of common purpose, based around our shared humanity.
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