Despair is understandable. So is shouting about the facts. But to effect real change we need to appeal to values, to deploy effective story-telling and psychological techniques, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw
The latest report for the IPCC is out and the singular message is we need to pull finger on climate action. For many people the immediate feeling will be one of fear. Fear of the worst. Fear of inaction. Fear it is true, even. Misinformation and inaction thrives in climates heavy with fear. Fear doesn’t motivate complex conversations or transformative change. But what can motivate the necessary large-scale climate change action?
Depending on where you sit on the whole warming planet scenario, you might: (a) Assume the foetal position, then after rocking back and forward muttering “we are totally buggered”, continue to shout about the evidence; or (b) wave the data away as the work of hysterical scientists and media, before denouncing a tidal wave of misinformation put about by those with vested interests, and doing nothing.
Neither response is well suited for working towards collective wellbeing. What might we try instead?
Using magical thinking to our collective advantage
Professor Bronwyn Hayward is our own super star in the climate change action world. She noted that this IPCC report was the end of magical thinking about climate change. Yet, magical thinking may also work in our favour. Well, thinking more deeply about people’s thinking.
we've fucked the planet so much and we're not going to do anything about it because the culture war somehow means that for right-wingers acknowledging climate change exists is the same as saying you love gay marriage
— thomas violence (@thomas_violence) October 8, 2018
Climate change beliefs and action are about the values that people prioritise. That is not new. People have not got dumber or changed how they think and act. We have always been motivated by our values. They are guiding principles in our lives. Whether that be achievement, innovation, power, helpfulness, care for the environment, tradition, manaaki, keeping our families safe; these are the things that motivate us.
All information we receive gets pushed through the filter of our values. Our emotional response (fear, for example) signals whether this is information we should discard or keep – depending on how it fits with what we value and believe.
Even logical thinkers use emotion to judge if information fits with beliefs and supports their values. If I value small government, lack of regulation, individual success, and you tell me that the government needs to make massive changes to private industry to combat climate change, it is not something I will respond well to. I’d get a bit angry, and fearful if people amplify the story, and further manipulate my emotional response to it.
Helpful values– can we find them and engage them?
Where I am going here is that we can use values to influence beliefs and action. But not any old values. There are some values that are more helpful to getting people to act on collective problems. Of which climate change is one of the biggest.
But how do you get people to value and believe the things they never have? To have a useful emotional response? Especially in the face of misinformation by people who want to keep industry making big profits off the back of the planet’s health?
We don’t actually need to change people’s beliefs
Most of us are not that rigid in our beliefs. We can move between quite contradictory ideas depending on what is happening around us. We do this because we also hold a mixed bag of values. The trick is to engage the values people already hold (but might be a bit shy about prioritising) to help them act.
The blue-green vote exists because plenty of people value taking care of the environment. Values are more predictive of beliefs about science and evidence than politics. Many people are guided by the principle of taking care of our environment. We need to engage with that and focus less on the fact rage.
The types of stories matter
One problem with pursuing the facts with people not inclined to believe them, is that the solutions presented don’t make contextual sense. Problems and solutions are often presented framed in expert understanding of climate change. These stories make sense to people who already believe we need to act (scientists, climate activists). They don’t to others.
Researchers in the US found experts in climate change tell a story about the role of carbon emissions in ocean warming. Yet there is a more powerful cultural model (a story that exist in the public to explain big issues) in operation. In this story it is the dumping of solid pollutants that cause most harm to the ocean. Discuss the need for people to reduce carbon dioxide and prevent damage to oceans, and the evidence falls down the gap between the two stories. More facts won’t correct it (because of values, and emotions).
But, it is possible to shift beliefs. By framing the carbon dioxide story in values that make sense to the particular group who don’t currently feel the need to act.
Annoyingly it is not as simple as bunging some nice sounding values into a bit of comms. In fact it requires a pretty deep understanding of cultural narratives and different groups’ values. Just as we need a deep understanding of climate science itself.
The Frameworks Institute in the US found that in the US the values of innovation, interconnection and stewardship helped to connect people to the issue of climate change generally (why they should care). Meanwhile the metaphors of “Heat Trapping Blanket” and “Regular vs Rampant Carbon Dioxide” helped people understand the problem and solutions better. Using values, effective narrative and psychological techniques can help people see the issue and act. It has been called the science of story. The effective components of which can be used by scientists, writers, artists, the media (a critical group), and politicians to overcome misinformation and motivate action on climate change.
It is not all that is needed. And it is a damn sight better than shouting about facts or assuming the foetal position each time the ICCP says we are melting faster than we thought. It is imperative we help people feel (as well as understand) that together we can act and it will change the outcomes for the better.
Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of The Workshop and author of A Matter of Fact. Talking Truth in a Post Truth World
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