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Naming, challenging and breaking the climate silence

By George Marshall on October 20, 2016

This is a guest post by George Marshall for an article by Andrew Revkin originally published in the New York Times blog

Photo credit: Astrid Westvang

Breaking the collective silence is, I am convinced, a key to making headway on climate change

I work for Climate Outreach, a British nonprofit group that specializes in generating public engagement with climate change. We published our first report on climate silence three years ago.

The recent research by Yale and George Mason Universities confirms that three quarters of Americans “rarely or never discuss global warming with family or friends.” The silence is just as strong in Britain. After our workshops, participants frequently tell us that this has been the first meaningful conversation that they have ever had on climate change.

The figures are worrying. Dig deeper and it gets even more curious.

For one thing, people hugely overestimate how much they talk about climate change. A survey in the U.S., U.K. and Canada in 2010 by Haddock Research also found that only 24 percent of people said that they talked frequently about climate change — in line with the Yale/George Mason findings.

However, when the survey went deeper and asked how often they spoke specifically with different kinds of people, the number of people answering “frequently” plunged to 17 percent for family, 13 percent for friends and only 4 percent for strangers. In other words, people thought they talked about climate change twice as much – or more — than they actually did with anyone.

Many people say in focus groups that they yearn to talk more about climate change. In real life they virtually never have substantial conversations. In a British survey nearly half of people said that their climate change conversations (when they actually had them) lasted fewer than five minutes. Observing these findings, the British academic Jonathan Rowson came up with a pithy new term for collective avoidance: “stealth denial.”

And this too may be an overestimate. When asked to describe previous conversations on climate change, most people struggle to recall any specific content, and a large majority say they are very uncomfortable talking about climate change at all. Our work finds that this awkwardness is especially marked among young people, who told us that climate change is “uncool,” “sounds preachy” and is “not something I feel comfortable talking about- like religion.” A surprising finding of Haddock’s research was that the social group that talked about climate change the least was young women under 30, even though they claim to be among the most concerned.

What is even more surprising is that this constructed silence extends even to people who are the recent victims of extreme and unprecedented weather. When I was researching my book, “Don’t Even Think About It”,  I conducted multiple interviews with people along the New Jersey sea shore and Bastrop County, Texas, which had been devastated by, respectively, Hurricane Sandy and the largest wildfires in Texan history. As was reported on Earthblog, no one I spoke to could recall a recent conversation about climate change. Even those who accepted that climate change had played a role admitted that raising the issue had felt uncomfortable and exploitative.

Such findings support our research, in line with a large and growing body of evidence, that finds that climate silence is not accidental but has been socially constructed to create distance and defend ourselves from uncomfortable truths. It is a process that has disturbing similarities with the collectives silences in countries suffering from human rights abuses in which entire societies reach unwritten compacts about what can and cannot be publicly recognized.

My view is that the climate change community (a deliberately all-embracing term that encompasses politicians, policy makers, scientists and  campaign organizations) have all underestimated the critical importance of social conversations in generating change. Peer-to-peer conversations provide a vital signal to us about the issues that are important and the opinions that are socially required for us to hold. And the conversation itself provides us with the forum within which we can then rehearse and negotiate our own views.

Such climate conversations are the essential underpinning for political change. If people do not mention climate change with friends, they do not mention it to pollsters either, which is why climate change never appears on the regular polls of key voter issues and is sidelined in elections. Politicians see it as a risky and divisive issue which will yield few votes so they too avoid mentioning climate change.

The news media in turn finds no place for this long-term crisis on a news agenda set by the daily political debates.  As our colleagues at Yale and George Mason say, there is a spiral of silence which, like climate change, is built on positive feedbacks that amplify that silence further.

However the reverse is equally true: when people start to engage with an issue with friends and family and beyond, we see an acceleration in attention as it becomes socially salient at all levels. This is why the Scottish government, now arguably the world’s most progressive government on climate change, has made conversations a core component of their engagement strategy.

Several weeks ago it launched a set of materials, designed by Climate Outreach, which will enable hundreds of groups across Scotland to engage their wider communities in local conversations.  In our forthcoming book, “Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement,” my colleagues Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke go further to make the detailed case for public conversations as a model of public engagement.

And it is not enough just to encourage people to talk: I believe we have to encourage people to recognize and name that silence, and to find the fire that can drive them to directly challenge it: “Damn  it all —  climate change is important and I AM going to talk about it.  For exactly these reasons the challenge of silence and the demand for visibility has long been a key component of social right campaigns- against racism, sexism, child abuse and homophobia. There is much to learn from these struggles.

These campaigns are strongly resonant with people of progressive, liberal and left wing values but I would stress that talking-out must be given a meaning that crosses the political spectrum. For people of faith, especially evangelicals, the principle of publicly living and witnessing your beliefs– of not “hiding your lamp under a bushel” as it says in the Matthew gospel – is a central tenet of faith.  And let us not forget that, even on this most politically polarized of issues, there are large numbers of conservatives who are deeply concerned about climate change and bravely hold onto this conviction despite the social pressure towards “stealth denial”. They are currently isolated and, polls find, hugely underestimate their own numbers.  If they could only see how many others with their politics and worldview share their concern, we might finally break the toxic political polarization that paralyses political action. And to do that we must name, challenge and break the climate silence.

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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