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‘The climate change movement must overcome political tribalism’

By Dominic Bates on May 20, 2015

How can we change the conversation about climate change? Activist and thinker George Marshall has an idea or two, and shared them with the Guardian’s George Monbiot at a Guardian Live event in London on 13th May.

We’re all hardwired to ignore climate change: the issue is impossibly slippery and open to bias, and political tribalism has been a catastrophe for those trying to tackle it, according to social change activist and leading climate change thinker, George Marshall.

Speaking to Guardian columnist George Monbiot at a Guardian Live event in London this week, Marshall said that while much of the world still denies or ignores the obvious impacts of climate change, there are some simple ways to go about changing public opinion.

Politicisation has been a catastrophe for climate change
“We will not win on this issue until we have equal representation and diversity of people demanding action,” he said. “What the election showed us is that half the British population is voting for conservative parties for whatever reason. Are we just going to disregard those people, pretend they don’t exist? Or are we going to reach across to them … and get them on board?”
Unlike Naomi Klein, Marshall is wary of framing the debate in terms of left and right; creating a potentially Manichean divide with climate activism on one side and Neoliberalism on the other. “We need to fight against some forms of the economy at the moment, but I’m not persuaded that there was some kind of golden age when we were so cooperative and socially minded,” he said. “It will always be a bad time to deal with climate change – part of the reason for that is that we’re all involved in it.”

Marshall believes the climate change movement must overcome political tribalism and find an inclusive narrative to build a collective identity for people, whatever their values. “It’s become part of people’s political identity whether they believe in climate change or not, but I don’t think there’s any fundamental reason why climate change should belong to one political worldview or another,” he said. “This is not an issue where we can have some kind of vanguardist approach – it’s far too big for that.”

Governments compartmentalise and obscure the issue
So why do so many governments have policies with the stated intention of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time encouraging – through subsidies and favourable tax regimes – the further exploration and development of fossil fuels. Marshall said this was due to people’s ability to compartmentalise and shape the issue of climate change according to their own biases.

“I interviewed Sir John Houghton, the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who said that if we talked about oil and gas, that’s a policy, and we don’t do policy as scientists,” he said.

“We lost track of the wider issue, which is why the divestment campaign is extremely important,” he said, adding that the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris needed to introduce a legal cap on fossil fuel extraction to really challenge vested interests.

Our signals on climate change don’t line up

Marshall said his research showed that people were concerned about climate change when asked about it, but wouldn’t mention it at all if unprompted. “There’s something peculiar there.” This can, he said, be explained by cognitive science. Our affective reasoning or decision making, “is driven by cues, signals, and above all by bias”.

“It’s the process of dis-attention that’s more important to our functioning than attention,” said Marshall. “We willingly dis-attend everything, but some things have signals that say ‘listen to me’”. The most important of these signals are proximity, which is in Marshall’s words, “something that’s here and now,” along with social cues from people within our circle, or an identifiable external threat.

“So for us to pay attention to something on the scale of climate change, that requires us to shift everything, we need a string of these signals to all line up,” said Marshall, comparing it to a New York street with all the traffic lights on green.

For the majority of people, Marshall says, these signals aren’t lined up on climate change and the overwhelming scientific evidence isn’t enough to prevent them from continuing to ignore it.

Climate change is a shape shifting issue

“The best metaphor I could find as to what I thought was happening to public opinion was rather like the climate models themselves: that there’s a set of feedbacks,” said Marshall. “People in all countries hugely overestimate the level of disbelief in climate change. We misread the social cues, therefore we keep quiet because we think other people will disagree with us. It’s a positive feedback.”

Recounting a dispiriting conversation he’d had with the leading behavioural psychologist Professor Daniel Kahneman, Marshall said climate change constitutes “the impossible problem”, with the perfect combination of people’s natural biases against the future, costs, and uncertainty. “Here you have a situation which involves certain costs in the short-term in order to avoid potentially larger but uncertain costs at some point in the future.”

“What makes it challenging is it’s a shape-shifting issue very open to bias and interpretation, because it can be in the past, in the present, in the future, it can be you causing, or me causing it or the oil companies,” he said.

We need to start talking

So what can we do in the meantime? As well as recognising our differences and trying to cooperate positively on the issue, Marshall gave this advice: “We have to challenge this pervasive silence, which is comparable to the silence we’ve had on other progressive issues, like racism and gender equality. One of the first things that worked with those is a determination to talk about it – don’t silence us.”

“In the end, though, I think what shifts people is the expression of your personal commitment. The fact that you sincerely and utterly accept something that’s important to you is in itself a very much more powerful conveyor of change than hitting someone over the head with the IPCC report.”[/three_fifth_last]

George Monbiot was talking to George Marshall at a Guardian Live event in London.

This article was first published in the Guardian, Friday 15 May.

One response to ‘The climate change movement must overcome political tribalism’

  1. I strongly agree with COIN theory and their objectives and have read the recent advisory note on ‘Climate silence and how to break it’ . But while this provides another good introduction to the COIN concept and the need for new narratives, I was disappointed by the lack of actual practical examples of how to break the silence – in this case in dialogue with European leaders, on climate change.

    As an agricultural ‘extension’ (or advisory) agent, my special interests are in developing narratives with farmers and other groups in rural regions, that will enable discussions around climate change – without the usual emphasis on science or economic incentives that currently exists – but rather engaging with the particular concerns, fears and aspirations of groups. This concept is different to early principles of rural extension based on ‘transfer of technology’ and/or ‘innovation’ , but the concept of understanding local views and aspirations has been fundamental to extension practice too for decades.

    What I found missing for the COIN report on ‘Breaking the silence’ was real-world examples of breaking the silence on climate among real-world groups. If we could know of such examples in dealing with leaders and communities in Europe, this could be great inspiration for extension agents to seek analogies in their work with rural groups – i.e. of farmers and their leaders. Climate silence is a major feature among rural advisors worldwide – partly because agricultural advisors have a strong science training but also because we have been trained to be direct and to appeal to rational economic tendencies in the behaviour among farmer clients.

    So please – any advice on where to find examples of work in other spheres would greatly help to encourage extension agents and agencies to think differently and to develop the new narratives that we obviously badly need.

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