Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall
260 pp., hardcover. Bloomsbury Publishing – Aug. 2014. $27.00.
That this book is categorized as psychology rather than environmental science is significant. It’s a measure of how intent the author and publisher are on distinguishing it from other books about climate change. The way they make it different is by turning the usual mode of climate change education on its head. Unlike most books on the subject, which try to convince people using science, Don’t Even Think About It examines why the science doesn’t convince people. It delves into psychological processes and even brain architecture that underlie humans’ compulsion to disregard, refute and skew evidence of difficult facts. Drawing on research across many disciplines and presenting it entertainingly, author George Marshall argues that these insights are critical to mobilizing public opinion on climate change.
Marshall says he’s seen a disconnect when it comes to public perceptions about the issue. He’s noticed that many people will agree it’s a serious threat when asked, but won’t mention it when prompted for a list of world crises. Another telling example of this disconnect is the way the Cato and Heartland institutes invest heavily in campaigns to deny climate change while also embracing geo-engineering as a solution to this allegedly nonexistent problem. For Marshall, the key to understanding such contradictions lies in a cognitive psychology phenomenon known as framing. Framing describes how we apply preexisting schemas of interpretation—or “frames” composed of our values, life experiences and social cues—to new information we encounter. This involuntary process gives us selective snapshots of phenomena, which we compartmentalize in ways that allow for much contradiction and dissonance.
At work in the framing process are innate biases that, in Marshall’s words, “distort rational decision-making.” We form and shape our mental frames using “confirmation bias,” the habit of cherry-picking evidence that supports our previous beliefs, knowledge and attitudes. When presented with a new idea, we modify it to fit into one of the frames thus created, a process known as “biased assimilation.” These two terms vary slightly in meaning, but for ease of reading Marshal calls them both confirmation bias.
What further compounds matters is that climate change lends itself especially well to confirmation bias because it’s multivalent, or susceptible to multiple meanings and interpretations. It lacks qualities we need in order to neatly categorize things, such as a clear beginning and end, definite deadlines for action and a specific geographic location. Moreover, it’s impossible to identify a single cause, solution, enemy or physical entity to boycott or blockade. Faced with these cognitive obstacles, we have no choice but to fill in the voids with material from our own frames. This resistance to straightforward interpretation has caused climate change to be labeled a “perfect problem” by many in the psychology profession. “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” Marshall quotes one expert as saying.
Perfect problems give people wide latitude to believe what they want and to justify their actions when they stray from their beliefs. In the case of climate change, this allows deniers to dismiss extreme weather as “natural variability.” Since it’s impossible to blame any particular weather event on climate change, such claims can’t be disproved. Nor are deniers alone in this sort of self-serving reasoning: Marshall has interviewed climate activists who do much the same thing in justifying their levels of fossil fuel usage. For example, among the most common rationalizations his interviewees give for flying frequently is that a single consumer choice means nothing without broader systemic and societal change. Again, because the complexity of the problem makes it difficult to sort out causality, it’s challenging to refute this claim.
Marshall’s work, together with that of others involved in communications research, shows that language is crucial to framing. The verbal, visual, narrative and metaphorical language used to describe an issue goes on to define that issue. For example, each of the names that climate change has gone by over the years has triggered different frames and associations that have shaped how we’ve viewed the crisis. “Global warming” became archaic not only because scientists realized the problem involves more than warming, but also because “warming” evokes “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day,” to quote activist James Lovelock. Marshall adds that Lovelock favors “global heating,” because “heating” more easily suggests unpleasantness and danger. Similarly, Marshall and many others use the term “deniers” rather than “skeptics” to describe those who dispute climate change despite the near-perfect consensus about it.
Because problems like climate change so thoroughly confound human cognitive processes, people come to ignore them without realizing it, in a process called “disattention.” Surveys reveal that two-thirds of Americans rarely or never discuss climate change even with close friends and family, and that one-quarter have never talked about it with anyone. The research also finds that women talk about climate change much less than men do, and that younger women talk about it the least (Marshall doesn’t mention possible reasons for this difference between the sexes). This last is especially true of young women with children. Indeed, polling by market research agency Haddock Research shows that parents as a group are less concerned than are non-parents. This, writes Marshall, is perhaps due to a general tendency to accept narratives that allow our children to live as well as we’ve lived.
The phenomenon of disattention is especially prevalent in communities struck by climate-related disasters. In his research Marshall spoke extensively with people in Bastrop, Texas, following record-breaking wildfires there in 2011, and Sea Bright, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It surprised him initially that no one could recall having talked with anyone about a possible link between climate change and either one of these extreme weather events. As he delved deeper, he learned of several reasons why this was so. He found, above all, that communities recovering from disasters tend to have a high spirit of cooperation and communal endeavor, and to be intolerant of divisive issues like climate change, which they see as a threat to the reestablishment of normalcy. The result is a “meta-silence,” or “a silence about the silence,” in the words of sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel. One potent reason for this meta-silence, besides grief over the tragedy just passed, is that nobody wants to consider the possibility of future calamities from climate change.
Thus it isn’t surprising that people unaffected by climate catastrophes are more likely to attribute them to human activity than are those who are affected by them. However, the explanation for this is more complicated than simply disaster victims’ aversion to thinking about a future of more disasters. Marshall cites a study by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research that found that people affected by severe flooding in the UK had multiple reasons for viewing flooding and climate change as separate things.1 Chief among these is “availability bias,” a predisposition to make up one’s mind based on the most readily accessible evidence. In the study, flood victims identified factors they observed in their everyday lives, such as local development and blocked ditches, rather than the abstract phenomenon of changing weather patterns, as the culprit. Also at play was communicator trust, with flood victims tending to believe information supplied to them by those who share their values and concerns.
And that brings us to one of this book’s main takeaway points: the importance of building trust with those still unconvinced about climate change. Since trust is essential to effective communications, Marshall asks climate communicators to focus on values shared by all people, regardless of political, cultural or religious differences, and to downplay the “eco-stuff.” He points to recent studies suggesting that respect for authority, reducing societal dysfunction, personal responsibility, avoiding intergenerational debt and loyalty to one’s community and nation could all be effective appeals for climate communicators. To be sure, climate change speaks as powerfully to these concerns as it does to the plight of dying polar bears. Its status as an environmental cause has alienated groups, notably right-wingers and religious conservatives, whose cooperation is crucial to any successful mitigation.
The author also wants climate experts to step out of their comfort zone as researchers and become passionate communicators and storytellers as well. In a chapter subtitled “Why Climate Science Does Not Move People,” he explains how the mind is wired to believe information presented in an engaging, narratively satisfying way—one appealing directly to the “emotional brain,” to use his term—over information presented unengagingly, even when the latter is accurate. Climate deniers certainly are no strangers to the importance of storytelling and emotional involvement, and Marshall encourages the adoption of some of their strategies, save for the deception. He cites an article by climatologists Andrew Dessler and John Abraham calling on their colleagues to emphasize “personal stories” in talking about their work. These stories, they argue, will help make climate scientists more relatable, and thus more trustworthy, to the public by answering questions like: “Why did they get into science? What are the things that concern them about the world? Why are they personally worried about climate change?”2
One fine example of this kind of personal story is that of scientist and nature photographer James Balog, whose stunning documentary Chasing Ice I reviewed here last May. Another good example is the journey of Scottish geologist Iain Stewart, as told in his narration of the BBC documentary series The Climate Wars. Stewart says his kids tease him that geology is nothing more than “boring old rocks.” What they don’t yet grasp, he says, is that “it’s really about how the planet works—and I don’t think you can be interested in that and not be worried about what kind of future they’re in for.”3
Marshall’s remaining suggestions are many and thoughtful. He advocates an end to doomsday proselytizing around climate change, since it wearies listeners (in this, he feels, the deniers do have a point). He also calls on everyone involved with climate change to act in accordance with his or her beliefs by not flying needlessly or otherwise wasting energy, as few things undermine communicator trust more than perceived hypocrisy (he says deniers also have a point about this). In the arena of government policy, he recommends a shift away from merely restricting tailpipe emissions and toward capping wellhead production as well. As for remedying the woeful charade that’s come to represent international climate negotiations, he lacks easy answers. He knows only that the vague, noncommittal language used during negotiations—satirized in the “Dr. Seuss at Copenhagen” poem by comedian Marcus Brigstocke—must be dispensed with if progress is to occur.
My one big beef with Marshall is that he’s wrong about the seminal Limits to Growth report released by the Club of Rome in 1972. Like many who haven’t carefully examined the report, he describes it as an example of eco-doom-mongering that “predicted imminent global collapse from ‘overshoot.’” It actually didn’t predict anything but merely outlined scenarios. What’s more, the “overshoot” of the human population is more of a threat than ever; and, according to a recent paper by the University of Melbourne,4 our civilization seems pretty much in line with the Club of Rome’s bleak business as usual scenario. It’s dismaying that Marshall, who’s right on so many other counts, parrots the standard vilification of this report. Yet this irritant is pardonable in light of how strong his book is on the whole.
Environmental philosopher Julian Darley once said of the world oil situation, “[W]e can ignore it for sure, but it will not ignore us.”5 This same statement applies equally to the climate. And while Marshall’s book may or may not fix widespread ignorance about climate change, it does an invaluable service by showing us why we ignore this greatest of all threats facing our species.
1 Lorraine E. Whitmarsh, “Are flood victims more concerned about climate change than other people? The role of direct experience in risk perception and behavioural response,” Journal of Risk Research 11, no. 3 (2008): 351-374.
2 John Abraham and Andrew Dessler, “What scientists should talk about: their personal stories,” Guardian, Sep. 20, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/sep/20/climate-change-scientists-personal-stories (accessed Dec. 19, 2014).
3 BBC Two, Earth: The Climate Wars, TV, produced by Jonathan Renouf; directed by Gaby Hornsby; presented by Dr. Iain Stewart (Sep. 7, 2008; London: BBC Productions), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuKzapuDbq8 (accessed Nov. 11, 2014).
4 Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander, "Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse," Guardian, Sep. 1, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/02/limits-to-growth-was-right-new-research-shows-were-nearing-collapse (accessed Dec. 10, 2104).
5 Julian Darley, High Noon For Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), 5.