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Here and now – not there and then! Cabot Institute lecture

By George Marshall on November 19, 2015

How we conspire to ignore climate change and how we can work together to create faster action.

Founding Director, George Marshall speaking at the Cabot Institute
Photo credit: Climate Outreach

These are the notes prepared by George Marshall for the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute 5th Annual Lecture on 11 November 2015.

I was sitting in a park two weekends ago. It was a lovely day with children playing, people eating ice-cream – all the images that appeared in the newspapers the next day. And we were miserable. ‘What a bunch of miserable gits we are,’ we said, ‘that we can’t even enjoy a warm afternoon.’ But of course we can’t – we’ve been infected by the climate change bug. We see the world through the lens of climate apocalypse. We know that this is the hottest November day since records began, and the freaky warm weather is continuing. There is a particularly disturbing feeling associated with experiences that we know are not quite genuine.

Freud was alert to this feeling, naming it the unheimlich, or ‘un-homely’. We translate that as uncanny. Climate change is now well underway and accelerating. October was the 367th consecutive month with global temperatures above the 20th century average. This is still called ‘normal’ on weather forecasts but, in truth, there is no longer any normal in this uncanny world.

I could talk a great length about where this is taking us. I could wax lyrical about the worst predictions of climate change: the collapse of agricultural production in the main grain areas, the death of oceans, the submersion of most of the world’s great cities, millions of people on the move, the annihilation of Sub-Saharan Africa. But already, I suspect, even after this brief summary your attention may be drifting away. Not because you don’t care, but because you would prefer not to care – and that is an important distinction because it contains within it the choice as to what to heed, and what to ignore.

Just as I do. Like many people who work on this issue, I keep myself sane by never looking at more than I need to. Climate change appears as a huge collective secret where we all memorise one line but never put it all together. And furthermore, because we are all directly implicated in climate change, listening to the science and acknowledging the problem means swallowing that poisoned apple of knowledge: accepting that all of our actions, however well-intentioned, however pleasurable, can be directly linked to a wider crime.
Is it any surprise that most people want to play ball and eat ice cream rather than join us on the grumpy bench? In Harry Met Sally the lady at the next table overhearing Meg Ryan’s orgasm while eating a Reuben sandwich said ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. Who would have overheard our miserable complaints on that warm November day without thinking ‘I’ll give that a miss!’

So we are in a collective state of knowing yet not believing.
Maybe it is the thought of having a Reuben sandwich at Katz’s deli, opposite my old tenement apartment on the Lower East side of New York that reminds me of the story of Jan Karski. Karski was a Polish resistance fighter who had witnessed the murder of Polish Jews in Belzec concentration camp, who travelled to Washington in 1942 and desperately tried to raise awareness of the Nazi genocide. To his dismay few people believed him. Felix Frankfurter, a judge on the Supreme Court and a Jew himself simply refused to accept the testimony. How was it that Frankfurter was unwilling to accept an eyewitness account? ‘I did not say this young man is lying,’ he explained, ‘I said I’m unable to believe him – there is a difference’.
Despite the clear differences between the Holocaust and climate change, they do have this much in common: they are both almost beyond the imagination. And as I will explain, if anything kills us it will not be a lack of rationality, but a lack of imagination. And so, like Justice Frankfurter we find that we can hold a state of knowledge detached from a state of belief.

In a US poll published last week two thirds of people agreed that climate change is happening, but scarcely 10% expressed any great concern. In Britain things are less polarised, but the vast bulk of people, around 70%, describe themselves as ‘somewhat concerned’. Or, to read between the lines: ‘Well, as you happen to mention it, when I think about it, hmmm, I suppose that is a bit concerning… Sorry what was the question again?’
Here’s the strange thing – if you don’t ask specifically about climate change, no one seems to remember it at all. In dozens of focus groups and polls across Britain in the run up to the national elections no one mentioned climate change as a major issue. Even when people were prompted it never rose above the bottom of the heap. Politicians duly responded by saying nothing whatsoever about it – except for Natalie Bennett, but then that’s rather what you would expect.
We have lots of terms for mass concern – mania, panic, terror, hysteria but no real term for mass indifference in the face of a threat. Rampant mass wisteria perhaps? Raging flannel. Cerebral dilletantia. Chronic Distractivitis. Suggestions are welcome: the reality is that we live under a massive conjuring sleight of hand that we are all so busy tapping into our little electronic toys we don’t notice the trapdoor opening under our feet.

It’s a fact that humans are very good at ignoring things. And this is a useful trait, a key part of our intelligence. It’s how we survive in information-saturated society. It’s how I’m able to look at and read hundreds of faces in a crowded room without my cortex exploding, and yet, I would still be able to look at a crowd and recognise an old friend because my brain will disregard the rest. Ignoring things is our default mode. We seek to avoid anxiety and stress and so we do everything we can to ignore the things that might cause it. But total ignorance is clearly not enough. If we truly did that we could be blissful… and dead. So we depend, for our survival, on safety mechanisms that alert us to issues that we really do have to pay attention to, to cut through and demand our action. And here is one of the problems with climate change, because it is singularly poorly constructed for engaging those innate mechanisms.

We respond most strongly to threats that are here, now, visible, with clear cause, can be dealt with readily through simple actions, that threaten violent and personal impacts and especially come from a familiar enemy. To these we might add additional cultural components – things that cause disgust, break social convention or threaten social disapproval, like eating puppies for example, which, despite many years of trying, I have never managed to argue will be a likely outcome of climate change.
Climate change scores poorly on every single one of these points, which is why our newspapers are full of stories about Ebola, which has not killed a single person in Britain. Or indeed whether or not Jeremy Corbyn will kneel to the Queen or nod at the cenotaph. Our cognition is dictated by biases – ingrained systems that direct our attention towards these more salient triggers. Professor Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the identification of cognitive biases. When I met him, he told me that climate change contains a toxic combination of biases. Not only is it uncertain, in the future, and requiring substantial costs to mitigate, but it is the worst possible combination of these three in requiring certain current costs to avoid larger yet uncertain costs at some time in the future. Politely, and with profuse apology, he told me that he sees no hope. Well that was a cheery conversation. All I can say is there’s always room for him on our park bench. But that is what cognitive psychology experiments tell us, and it’s important to remember that the vast majority of these experiments are conducted on undergraduates. This is not a group from which one can necessarily infer universal truths. Considering that I chain-smoked my way through my years at University (at least when I wasn’t in alcohol induced coma) I wouldn’t trust anything much that I might have said then about my attitudes to future costs. And when I consider how many of my friends would subsidise their drinking with visits to the sperm donor clinic – it’s enough to give any eugenicist nightmares. And we also know that this is only one part of the story. We invest billions in defence and insurance in anticipation of uncertain future threats. Humans also have an astonishing capacity for altruism, long-term thinking, and can tolerate any cost including the risk of their own life providing if it is sufficiently endorsed and condoned and rewarded by wider society.

Let’s just repeat that point – if it is sufficiently endorsed and condoned and rewarded by wider society.

This is critical when it comes to climate change: our attitudes are mediated through the lens of our cultural values and the stories we tell. Clearly there is nothing impossible in this issue. The fact that many people are deeply concerned, active, and engaged is surely proof that this issue is comprehensible and engaging. But that is not to say that we find it easy to deal with issues of this kind that involve long-term uncertainty and cost, and we know that all too well. Even those of us who fully accept that still need to construct narratives around it that make it comprehensible, imaginable, immediate, certain, and affordable. What is curious about climate change is that most people show a remarkable capacity to do the opposite – having decided not to take action, they construct climate change into a shape that deliberately creates distance, to put it as far away as possible in time and space.

It’s a remarkably consistent quality of attitude surveys that people’s concern is directly proportional to distance. When asked whether climate change will affect them the vast majority people say no, but they are strangely more willing to think that it will affect their family (there may be some wishful thinking in this), yet more willing to agree that it will affect their community, and even more so their country. And when it comes to other countries, other species and the future it is far greater still, so that in British opinion polls more people will answer yes to the question: ‘Is climate change is a major threat to future generations’ than will answer yes to the question: ‘Is climate change a major threat?’

So what a stroke of genius when struggling to communicate to people a message that extreme overheating is going to affect them, their family and their daily life, to brand it with a bear that lives in the frozen arctic, a thousand miles away sitting on its iceberg eating seals! (Or to add somewhat cynically, sitting in a thousand gift shops, because the sad truth is that in the world of global conservation organisations, one is never too far from the mail order catalogue.) I mean, how many people have seen a polar bear in its natural environment? And how many have seen an environmental activist in a polar bear outfit in their natural environment?

I take huge pride in being a part of the environmental movement that has done so much to make this issue strong, to keep it alive, and to maintain political momentum through some very quiet periods. But I think we need to recognise that we have gone too far with claiming this issue as our own. That this is not an environmental issue at all – even though it might in some ways superficially resemble one because it appears to be concerned with pollution and consumption. It can equally well be considered as an economic issue, an international policy issue, an issue of military defence, immigration, community, faith, parenthood or social justice. When environmental organisations adopted this issue they sought an iconic natural symbol that speaks to their values – if it had been human rights or women’s organisations, trades unions, aid, development, or health organisations who got there first, there wouldn’t be a bear in sight. Lazy editors, always looking for a stock image for an article or a bit of B-roll footage the stick over a voice-over, follow suit.

And here once again, we can see the mechanism of public conspiracy – or shall we say cultural cooperation – working together to ensure that this issue is placed as far as possible on the periphery of our daily concerns. Everybody wants it to be environmental. Of course environmentalists made this to be an environmental issue, understood through their world view and solution. The media kept it an environmental issue covered by environmental correspondents, TV relegated it to the wildlife documentary department, business incorporated it as it part of their ‘social responsibility’ branding along with litter and work safety. And politicians were very happy to keep it as environmental, a footnote pitch for some marketer segment, detoxifying their brand. David Cameron has still, in five years, not made a single speech to the British people or his own party about the greatest threat in human history.

This is uncannily similar to the silence that crosses societies around human rights abuse – not just during the abuses (when silence is self-preservation) but after, when for a generation, certain topics become out of bounds. Stanley Cohen said ‘Without being told what to think about (or what not to think about), and without being punished for “knowing” the wrong things, societies arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.’
And so we are floating in our isolation tanks, coping with what we know, or actively suppressing it. It is lonely here, knowing what we know, but never having a chance to share our anxiety despair or our hope.

Maybe there is something more that leads to this. Perhaps the configuration of climate change, a steady deterioration leading with the destruction of the entire world as we know it, has a strong similarity, an almost uncanny similarity, to our own process of ageing and death.

We have a remarkable ability to suppress this fear. Every year the Chapman University in California asks Americans to rate their fear level on a scale for a wide range of issues. As we would expect it is the box-ticking salient issues that top the list; terrorist attacks, pandemics, nuclear attack and so forth. Climate change is way down the list. But even further down is the fear of death. Only 20% report that they are frightened of dying, somewhere between needles and artificial intelligence. As I come to my fifties I am increasingly able to denying the warning signs of my own ageing, looking in only certain mirrors from certain angles under controlled light conditions like Greta Garbo. Only with great reluctance, after years of itching did I finally bite the bullet and buy a battery-powered nasal hair trimmer.

Is it any surprise, given our own capacity to ignore the evidence of steadily progressing decay and the finiteness of our own lives that we are so skilled in ignoring the evidence of the steady collapse of stable climate patterns? And it is any surprise that the demographic group most inclined to deny climate science is the one that I belong to; white, educated, middle-aged men? Extensive research and terror management theory shows that when people are reminded of their own mortality, even obliquely or subliminally, they tend to become far more defensive of their values and conservative in their attitudes. Is it any surprise that people respond to climate change, with its uncanny mortality salience, with an intense and angry defence of their values?

I spent much of last month in focus groups listening to grassroots conservatives. I love listening to people, though many people’s impression of me is that I just won’t shut up, I wish we spent a lot more time sitting, listening and understanding people because we have so very much in common. My environmental colleagues express concern about the lack of diversity in our movement – providing it’s diversity of people they like – but they never spend any time listening to ordinary people with conservative values. I sat in these groups and I listened to the same clichéd denial tropes: how climate change was the invention of self-interested academics seeking university grants, environmental extremists; that action was in any case pointless because China is putting in a new coal-fired power plant every 4 days; or that climate change – even if there was such a thing – has stopped, or retreated, or was caused by volcanoes, and that Antarctica is expanding. My overwhelming feeling was one of intense anger towards the small handful of professional deniers, and especially the compliant and self-serving cynics in the media who allow them the soapbox and have reneged on the responsibility to inform.

Because these stories did not appear from nowhere, they had been deliberately planted and decent, intelligent and thoughtful people, confused and bewildered by the range of messages they had received, had fallen by default on the ones which are most appealing or spoke best to their conservative values. The absence of a clear and distinctive conservative narrative on climate change has been a disaster for policy and public mobilisation. We make dangerous mistakes when we fail to recognise that people’s values lead them to define the world in different ways. My own area of Mid-Wales had the most inspiring community campaign I’ve ever seen, defending their environment against the depredations of global corporations. Except, in this case, the corporations were wind farm companies.

At the heart of his argument was a fundamental difference in the way that people perceive the environment. For environmentalists, and the Welsh government, the argument for wind farms was that they would be a response to the environmental threat of climate change. The language was very much couched in terms of our global responsibility, making a contribution, to reducing emissions of the global threat. We like to think global. But for my community, which is conservative in both values and politics, likes to act local. The environment is much more associated with the landscape and its historic cultural associations, and the close interpersonal connections within a tight community.

This landscape has been scarred by two hundred years of lead and slate mining. The nearby village of Tryweryn was drowned by huge dam to supply water to Liverpool. In each and every case foreign businesses came to our land, removed our resources, and left us with a hole in the ground. There was even public outcry when Powys Council outsourced the contract for domestic waste recycling to a company in England – what! They’re going to take our rotting scraps too!
Well, all I can say to the conservatives is just be glad that you don’t have a far-left Corbyn government. Next thing you know, he’d be blowing billions of pounds of taxpayer money subsidising uneconomic centralised nuclear power projects, no doubt handing over British sovereignty to his buddies in a communist dictatorship!

So here is the cognitive landscape of climate change: We know it is happening, but it struggles to find the necessary qualities to demand our attention. Climate change is a shape shifting issue that exists for us in a culturally constructed format. Although we understand the data, it does not compel us to action. What we require are compelling storylines.

Any answers and solutions therefore require us to respect these ground rules: People are primarily motivated by culturally-formed narratives that speak to their values, so a first step must be to find language around climate change that actually does this.

For the past ten years my own charity Climate Outreach has been developing and testing climate change language with different audiences. We found that young people crave authenticity in their communicators but find it very hard to overcome the perception that climate change might be ‘uncool.’ Trade unionists are repelled by talk about lifestyles, but energised by language around solidarity. People can share a pride in their national identity, crossing boundaries of class and politics. Health is a far stronger motivator than ecology, and all people of faith share a view of the world as a precious gift to be cherished. Conservatives are actually surprisingly cynical of the motives of big businesses, and people of all ages and politics yearn for strong, honest, authentic leadership.

Above all, it is vital that we start to talk about it. To take heed of climate change people need the social signal that this is something that they can and should talk about. The only signal conveyed by silence is an endorsement of further silence. The most inspiring and dramatic social change of my lifetime has been in areas where people decided to challenge collective silence, on gay rights, disabled rights, gender inequality, racism and sexual abuse. Where people became prepared to hold their views publicly, and, if necessary, to challenge their friends and family. I urge you to take this to heart and doggedly, quietly, without lecturing, hold your commitment and share it.

When I was interviewing people for my book, I was very surprised (as I had never expected this) that the most interesting and persuasive ideas came from evangelical Christians. There is normally a strict dividing line between religion and science, but it is just as false as the dividing line between rationality and emotion – these are all parts of the human psyche. Evangelicals understand more than anyone the power of personal conviction, and how people’s lives can change through a single encounter, an epiphany, and then deepen in a supportive community of shared beliefs.

Climate change is not a religion. It is not about the spirit, and it is grounded in empirical evidence. However there is an enormous amount to learn from people who are, after all, inheritors of two thousand years experimentation in ways to energise and empower people around shared and life changing conviction.

In my own life I seek to have a conversation every day with a stranger about climate change. It’s not always possible – I live in a small community of 2,500 people and they’ve already heard it. They already cross the road to avoid me! I don’t force it, but I drop it into conversations. Most of the time people change the subject but just occasionally they really want to keep talking, and you can feel the relief to have to talked about it. For some I feel I may have started the first real conversation that have ever had about on the subject.

In particular we have to find better ways to speak to the vast bulk of the population that have moderate centre-right values. Many of them are already deeply concerned but think they are in a small minority. When asked about the views of their fellow conservatives, they hugely underestimate their concern. It is in fact an act of bravery and strong independence that they still maintain their concern under such social pressure. And If you are in this group, especially if you are in the most sceptical group of older, affluent, white conservative men, it is vitally important that you make your concern known to your friends. Never mind insulating your loft and unplugging your nasal hair trimmer when it has recharged – generating a social proof is without question the single most important action you can take. Remember that the critical components of the communicators who we trust is that they have integrity, share our values and care about us. Attitudes are not going to shift because of a clever advertising campaign or an online video. They will change through millions upon millions of conversations.

But we need far far more. We need to find new and inspiring ways to think about ourselves, each other, and the journey we are on. We do not think or dream in facts, figures, reports graphs or spreadsheets. We do not dream in poems, or couplets, or iambic pentameter or epic novels. We dream in film. As the film critic David Thomson says: ‘The influence of movies is not just a cultural sidebar, like an evening a week set aside for our fun. It was the engine of our time, it is a model for how we look and decide, participate or spectate.’

First love, marriage, success, death all came to be seen through the filter of the filmic narrative. So engaging with climate change will, I predict, depend on finding an epic filmic narrative of challenge, struggle and triumph in which we can all place ourselves as participants and heroes. And if we do not, I guarantee that other mythic enemy narratives will take over, narratives of attack, defence, or a nihilism and despair. I am convinced that that these compelling narratives need to be based on completeness – on the values and humanity we all share – on finding a unifying purpose.

This is also a model for change. In my own experience from 30 years of environmental campaigning, and drawing back through the struggles of history I cannot see successful change that occurred without a very wide range of participants, perspectives and politics. In terms of tactics too – deep social change never comes from any one place. We need the radicals, the protesters, the visionaries, and the theorists, the policy wonks, the engineers.
There are those in the business world and on the political right who see this as being an issue that they alone can solve and disregard others. And to a far greater extent there are those on the political left who adopted climate change as a frontline issue for their concerns around social justice. My friends and colleagues on the left (and, let’s face it, that sums up the vast majority of the green movement) who refuse to recognise this maintain belief in a vanguard model, in which they alone can sweep away social injustice and false consciousness. They are wrong. Regardless of one’s politics, it is utter folly to think that this is an issue that can be overcome without broad-based commitment to action that crosses political boundaries.

That’s why we need to recognise that the greatest wisdom is the wisdom of crowds, which brings me back to the point of diversity. To my mind the great argument for diversity, for ethnic and gender equality, is not just social justice (although I believe strongly in that) but because we all benefit from the shared learning that comes from different approaches. We learn from being around people not like ourselves. When it comes to climate change, diversity is key. We all need to learn and gain from each other, because all of us carry part of the wisdom of the solution. This does not mean that we need to like each other, but it does mean we need to understand each other a bit better.

We won’t agree about many things. There will be intense arguments about means and solutions and the world we want to see coming from it. In the last world war there was unity behind a common purpose but very different visions about the world people wished to see. Conservatives wanted to defend the social order and empire, socialists wanted equality and a transformation of power. Try for a moment to connect or reconnect with our common humanity. Our love and loss, our lives, death, childhood, aging, grief and hope. If we are able to carry that energy out into the world and apply it to this wicked but all-too-solvable problem, imagine what we might achieve.

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By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

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