What Makes the “Climate Conversation” So Frustrating and Difficult?

Malcolm Burson

Let’s face it: for all the fact that CLF has identified climate change as the key issue for the coming decade, and even though we all want to speak out on the issue, bring our advocacy into public view, and make the changes we know have to be made in order to reverse the threat to our planet…we as a society and a country aren’t doing any of this very well. But why not? What’s going on that gets in the way of our best intentions?

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The British climate advisor George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network in the U.K., has a compelling answer. In his recently published book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), Marshall provides the best summary to date of the psychology of climate change. He proposes that climate change exists in the form of socially constructed narratives based on values, community identities, and worldviews that are only marginally linked to the science we tend to think should be at the heart of any discussion.

This is the book for everyone who wants to move beyond the finger-pointing and trash talk that dominates the current climate conversation. Many of the themes in the brief and accessible chapters will be familiar to CLF friends: the fact that a changing climate doesn’t feel immediately threatening to many; the lack of a distinct “enemy” to oppose; our “innate disposition to select or adapt information so that it confirms our pre-existing assumptions.”

Some of Marshall’s assertions may ask us to re-think how we address these issues. For example, he suggests we avoid too much emphasis on the substance of climate science, and drop what he calls the “eco-stuff”: framing climate change as an environmental problem with accompanying images of polar bears on melting ice caps. And he notes that by framing climate change as an emissions [tailpipe] issue, we have made it almost impossible to get at the root cause: our continuing production and use of fossil fuels.

Why should you read this book? Because this is the most readable, non-technical discussion I’ve found that can inform CLF collectively, and all our members and supporters, on the best ways to initiate and sustain a conversation on climate change. Marshall invites us to create communities of shared conviction (not “belief”) that he defines as “the critical process by which we incorporate climate change into our moral framework and accept the need for action.”

His specific suggestions for us as climate communicators are down-to-earth and positive. Instead of deluging people with science facts, we can emphasize that the independence, values, and accountability of science make it trustworthy. This is especially crucial now that a key committee chair in the US Senate has publically denied the existence of climate change. When we engage others, we can tell our own stories, talk about our own convictions, and be emotionally honest about our fears and hopes. We need to understand and validate other peoples’ values first, and then identify the ways to engage those values in the climate conversation. We can emphasize the cooperative values needed to assure a better life for our children, and build resilience for thriving communities.

There’s a lot more than I can summarize here, but you can hear more from George Marshall in this interview. And then we can take the next steps to make CLF the New England leader in the climate discussion.

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