An Eclectic Group of Thinkers and Scholars Tackles Global Warming

How can insights from social scientists and cognitive researchers inform climate communication?

GARRISON, N.Y. — A growing number of scholars has been arguing that the greatest impediment to action on climate change is not Big Oil, the Tea Party, libertarian/conservative think tanks, or climate skeptics. Rather, they say, it is the human brain.

Simply put, the argument goes, evolution has hardwired us to respond to immediate dangers (think tigers and bears), not slow-moving, hard to grasp threats like melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

As one UK-based researcher explains, psychological research shows that most people “don’t feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract, and difficult to visualize.”

Additionally, for most of us, more pressing concerns grab our attention, like car payments, school loans, an ailing child, and health insurance. Those crowd-out space for future threats. Cognitive scientists have referred here to the “finite pool of worry.” In other words, our brains can handle only so many problems at a time.

So how exactly can insights from social scientists and evolutionary psychologists help move the ball on climate change? Making sense of this convergence has been the mission of a multidisciplinary initiative called the “Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project (CMB).” The Garrison Institute in New York is the seat of the Project. Its objective is to apply emerging research on human behavior to climate solutions, and come up with new approaches. (Not a bad idea, given the paralyzed and increasingly rancorous state of affairs on the climate front.) Since 2010, the Institute each year has hosted a symposium bringing together a mix of cognitive researchers, policy wonks, communication experts, climate activists, and environmental writers.

Along with other journalists, I attended last year’s event and wrote up an overview of a number of the sessions. As Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times noted in her coverage of the 2011 symposium, the larger goal of the annual CMB gatherings “is to discuss ways of effecting wholesale changes in people’s energy consumption to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and help stave off climate change.”

This year’s conference┬áhas continued with that aim, but with a bigger-picture view of climate communication and outreach. A number of speakers recommended pursuing efforts to broaden the audience for environmental issues, particularly climate change. For example, George Marshall, director of the UK’s Climate Outreach and Information Network noted that “major constituencies have been absent from the climate change discussion.”

Similarly, Mary Evelyn Tucker, who oversees the Yale Forum on Ecology and Religion, said in her plenary session that scientists should strive to engage with religious faiths, many of which have expressed strong concern about climate change, she noted. Tucker also pointed out that “religions are drivers of behavior and values,” underscoring the need for faith communities (see Yale Forum articles here and here) to be taken into account by social scientists and climate communicators.

Others, such as Paul Hawken, emphasized the importance of cities as a uniting force in the larger quest for sustainability. Urban centers, he said, “can be the seedbed of innovation and action.”

A seedbed is also a good way to describe the work of the Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project. Its annual eclectic gatherings infuse a wave of fresh ideas and optimism into a normally stale and unproductive conversation. More on this year’s symposium in an upcoming post.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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6 Responses to An Eclectic Group of Thinkers and Scholars Tackles Global Warming

  1. Jon Flatley says:

    That might be all well and good, but who better to communicate their own findings than the scientists themselves?

    Communication by scientists of their work to the lay person is one of the biggest challenges facing getting the ‘global warming’ message out.

  2. RickA says:

    An even bigger problem is the lack of an economically viable technology solution.

    Non-carbon energy production will not happen until it can be done cheaper than current carbon based energy production.

    Until we actually invent cheaper energy production, which also achieves the desired goal of non-carbon production, we will not switch.

    Research about the brain, or conservatives, or the like, is besides the point.

    Even if all 7 billion people on the planet agreed to take action – there is nothing we could all switch to that would provide enough baseload energy (not intermittent), without carbon, which is economically viable.

    It seems to me that we first need to invent the cheaper non-carbon energy production technology.

    Then it will deploy itself, driven by market force (i.e. human nature).

  3. Dave H says:

    In all honesty, I don’t think there is anything that can be done.

    I think that no amount of education can feasibly counteract the simple message that a controversy exists, therefore it is better to do nothing until the controversy is “settled”. I believe it will be a decade or more before popular opinion starts to turn against the machine of inaction in the face of simply undeniable increases in global temperature – in stark contrast to the predictions of naysayers – and another five years after that before self-interested politicians feel that there is enough popular support to begin political dealings in earnest.

    I don’t expect any meaningful cut in emissions for three decades, at least, and I expect costs of stalling action out this far will far exceed the costs of acting now.

    Finally, I expect scientists will be blamed for not producing “sound science” earlier, and no efforts to counteract that particular message will be successful either.

    • RickA says:

      Dave H:

      What do you recommend?

      What will it cost?

      What will the benefit be?

      These are questions which I cannot really get a good answer to.

      Here is an idea:

      Lets get everybody in the world to turn off their air conditioner (forever).

      Cost – $0 if you don’t have one.
      Probably some people will die during heat waves – not sure
      how to score that.
      Pretty uncomfortable when it is hot.

      Benefit – No idea – I wonder how you would even calculate this? I bet the decrease in the rate of increase of the temperature would be so close to zero we couldn’t even measure it.

      This is the problem with this issue.

      There is nothing concrete that the average person can do.

      All we can do is wait for our electricity provider to switch over to a non-carbon form of energy production (or turn off the heat or air conditioner).

      Or buy an electric car. I wonder how much electricity it takes to make the battery packs for an electric car? I wonder if disposing of all those used up batteries will be bad for the environment. I wonder how long the battery packs will really last (as long as my laptop battery?). It would be interesting to look at the issues, if all cars in the world were to switch over to electric (over a 10 year phase over period) – how many other issues would this create and how much carbon would really be prevented from going into the atmosphere.

      A lot of the solutions are worse than the problem.

      Like – lets turn food into fuel.

      Like – lets prevent poor people worldwide from raising their standard of living.

      Anyway – sorry for the rant – but this is a lot bigger problem than a simple communication issue.

      • Dave H says:

        I agree that individual actions are pretty well meaningless.

        I remember a couple of years ago seeing an interactive flash demonstration of the difference that various actions would have on CO2 emissions here in the UK, and even large-sclae and grossly unrealistic efforts (100% renewable power, 100% electric transport) only had a small impact on our total CO2 footprint simply because of the amount of consumption of offshore goods, and the offshoring of industry.

        I believe that there are huge wins to be had in fostering renewable sources in developing economies that *don’t* have the inertia of the grid generation we have in developed countries.

        My personal wishlist of action would be something like:

        All future power stations should be nuclear or renewable, with an aim of phasing out coal ones after 2050. Invest in distributed microgeneration in all new building projects. Remove subsidies on fossil fuels and use emissions trading + subsidising of alternatives to rebalance the market in favour of cleaner tech. Stop treating fracking as a viable way forward for mass power generation. Transfer all transportation to electric – aside from air travel, which we don’t have a viable solution for – by 2050. Wish really, really, really hard that fusion comes along and saves us in the next 40 years.

        This is all stuff that we could have made a start on 20 years ago. The later we start, the more painful it is.

        The cost? I haven’t sat down and worked it out, so no idea. Probably trillions, globally. More than we can spare right now. Less than the cost of *not* doing it.

        I don’t see any of these things realistically happening. Capitalism is simply not structured to encourage this sort of deep change without forcing the issue by pricing externalities and subsidising desirable alternatives, and that requires global political will that’s likely to be absent for 15 years or more.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    Keith is this another parody?