“The world is sleepwalking into catastrophe [with climate change].”
World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2019
It’s been nearly 50 years since scientists began to ring the alarm about man-made climate change. Yet, we seem closer to collapse now than ever before. I think it’s obvious that our current approach is a total failure. We will not be able to do anything about climate until we admit this fact.
One of the things we advocate for at Failosophy is an honest accounting of mistakes made. Only once we acknowledge and embrace failure itself can we develop successful solutions to our most vexing problems. And there is no problem more important to humanity than addressing climate change.
At its core, the failure rests with the scientific community, its lack of understanding of human factors, and terrible reporting by the media. The other way you know this has been an abject failure is that there is a high degree of consumer awareness and concern about the environment, but little concrete evidence that behavior patterns are adapting to this. That is to say, there is a large gap between stated intent and actual action.
Here are some of the obvious mistakes we can correct if we want to start making a difference.
Shrill Often Backfires
One of the basic messages scientists love to deliver is something like “We only have 12 years to change our carbon use or the world will be irretrievably damaged.” This approach is born of a noble idea – that by raising the alarm you will prompt people to take more decisive action. However, taking this path reflects a marked lack of insight about how human beings work.
If an impending crisis is large enough that an individual does not believe they can effect change, the most likely response will be fatalism. This takes the form of something like “Well, I guess we’re screwed, so there’s nothing I can do about it.” Or, its corollary, “If you can’t beat em, join em.”
Once the fatalism loop is engaged in people, it can be very hard to counteract.
I remember once being at a scientific symposium seated beside a gentleman who was a climate engineer. We got to talking about engineering solutions to climate change, and I posited the hopeful view that we could make a serious dent in it by changing behavior. His response was chilling: “If we stopped all industrial production right now, the world would continue to warm for the next 50 years anyway.”
While this may be a fact – as is the acceleration of extinction and irreversible climate harms – it is categorically not helpful. It would be a much better strategy to propose easy, digestible behavior changes that people can make to have an impact and showcase the brighter side of impact making a difference.
The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
Many of the most strident environmentalists respond to the increasingly shrill scientific consensus with a rigid dogma that alienates the people who most need to get involved.
Everyone is not going to become a vegan. We cannot expect people to stop traveling to work or for vacation overnight. Disposable plastics are inextricably forged into consumerism. Gasoline vehicles and coal-burning stoves are an integral part of many cultures. Shaming people for not adhering to a rigid set of ideal behaviors is counter-productive.
The key to unlocking positive behavior change in defense of the environment is to deliver messages that are digestible, achievable, concrete and framed positively. So rather than tell people to give up meat because it’s bad for the environment, encourage them to remove it from one meal or one day of the week to start. This will require thinking about the consumer a bit differently.
Behavior Change is a Herd Thing
The most powerful behavior change efforts over the past 100 years have all involved the use of external social cues and social pressure.
The most obvious example was smoking. As fewer people smoked, fewer people took up smoking. Eventually, the spread of the “disease” was significantly retarded by the changing social dynamics that people saw around them. This was far more effective than the shame, guilt and advertising promoting a non-smoking culture.
A strategy for achieving this in climate change might be to start by figuring out some core groups that are most attuned to the specific opportunities (electrification, pedestrianization, meat-reduction, plastics-reduction, etc) and treating them like an early-adopter audience. Foster their connections with each other and the broader culture. Teach these people how to be positive role models (rather than just virtue signal) and they will help ideas spread beyond the original group.
People are bad at Predicting the Future
Humans are notoriously bad at predicting their own long-term future. There are many factors behind this issue, but the bottom line is that people usually view long-term risks as less significant than short-term gains. It’s not a knowledge gap, but rather the hedonism or consequential gap.
For example, most people know that eating too much cake might lead them to get diabetes. But right now they want that piece of cake, and – besides – diabetes is something that happens to other (old) people, and they’ll be able to stop themselves anyway. Worst case scenario, there’s Metformin and Insulin to fall back on – diabetes is manageable.
In environmental activism, messaging often attempts to bridge this gap by showing people what the future might look like. For example, which cities will be underwater when the polar ice caps melt. But asking people to act now on a long-term problem without any positive short-term reinforcement is a fool’s errand.
The emphasis on the future should be removed entirely. A better approach would be to focus people on the here and now, building capacity for short-term behavior change with positive reinforcement. Clearly connect it with risks for their own short-term wellbeing and opportunities for positive reinforcement, and make it possible for them to make a different choice in the moment.
Science is Inherently Ambiguous
I don’t believe there is much ambiguity around the core facts of climate change, but there definitely are some major questions at the margin that need finesse. In the simplest form, people are fundamentally confused about how the total carbon footprint of an electric car using coal-fired power plants compares to a gas powered vehicle. Hint: it’s not even a close contest.
Ambiguity always exists in science, but it needs to be explained clearly and transparently. Scientists seem unable to do this in a “consumer-friendly” way, leaving people to interpret the lack of, or over-emphasis on, ambiguity as a cover-up. This is how the suspicious and conspiratorial mind works: an attempt to paper over complexity only feeds into the cycle.
In order to combat this, scientists must communicate with more precision and humility. Admitting that some of the facts are unknown but that the core idea remains true is a difficult thing for scientists (and science reporters) to deal with.
The Tragedy of the Commons
Guilt and shame are a mixed bag for motivating behavior change, as any parent can tell you. They can be effective motivators when applied judiciously, but also can backfire and lead people to act in secret. Moreover, when guilt and shame are working, they can be undermined easily through the tragedy of the commons.
Consider the person who’s considering whether or not to invest in buying an electric car. While sitting on the highway one day in traffic, they are struck by the number of trucks around them, belching out fumes. In response, they could take one of two different approaches – either this will motivate them to do more, or it will cause them to say “why should I bother if these people are allowed to pollute.” The latter condition, the tragedy of the commons, makes it difficult to motivate behavior change.
To combat this we must move focus away from the actions of others onto the actions of the individual. The social actions we seek to drive in environmentalism work best when they are not comparative, but interdependent. If you put a million solar panels on roofs, it will naturally drive the market to put millions more (providing they are geographically distributed). If you are giving people feedback on their environmental behaviors, make those community-based (e.g. your power use relative to your community).
Story > Textbook
Everything works better when communicated in story form. This was the brilliance of Al Gore in an Inconvenient Truth. The whole package told a story, and that is an easier way for people to absorb new ideas. Instead of talking about carbon footprints or sea-level rise, we’d be better off modelling for people what their lives will be like in a future with unchecked climate change, and telling personal, relatable stories that express that.
At the core of this dilemma is that we must do something, and scientists have been on the front lines of the effort to raise awareness among laypeople of the risk of climate change. But the problem isn’t awareness, it’s action. And because we are not using the lessons of behavioral science to our advantage in telling the story, we are missing the core opportunity to change behavior. That is, our current climate change strategy has been a failure, and it needs to be rebooted.
Perhaps the only workable solution will be a technological one. Some kind of deus ex machina (probably invented by Elon Musk) that will magically fix everything overnight. If this were possible, we could just keep doing what we’re doing and not work on the hard part. But until we know such a solution is possible – even probable – this is the extreme version of magical thinking.
We need to find a different way to sell climate change to those that need to act the most aggressively (consumers in the western world). By telling stories, avoiding shame/guilt, being tangible, exposing ambiguity and being careful of fatalism, we can move the needle and hopefully build lasting behavior change.
For starters, let’s acknowledge that the way we’ve been doing it is not working and start again.