‘GreenGrok’ Duke Dean Chameides on ‘Climate Conundrum’

Climate goals are ill-suited to ‘how our brains are wired,’ a Duke dean says in outlining the ‘huge task’ ahead on climate change communications.


A two-day retreat includes artists, scientists, students, and cognitive scientists in an effort to better understand climate change communications challenges.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Include a dean and several professors, most but not all from Duke University;
  • Sprinkle in a neuroscientist here and there and also, for good measure, a dabble from some other prestigious university’s psych department;
  • Add an artist, maybe of the photographer/filmmaker variety;
  • And, for good measure if nothing more, sprinkle with a few real live students.

So. What’s the dish being served up?

The dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Bill Chameides, says it’s all part of an effort to resolve what he describes as a “climate conundrum.” And what he sees as climate scientists’ frustrations over how their concerns are being heard, or not heard, by the public at large.

“We continue to make progress on the science front,” Chameides wrote in a recent post at his The GreenGrok blog. He points in particular to efforts to “unravel the relationship” between climate change and extreme weather.

“But the American public seems at best concerned but unwilling to do much about it, and at worst dismissive,” he wrote, borrowing the vernacular from the “Six Americas” studies. He bemoans the situation in which climate science and climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts “have pretty much disappeared from the national dialogue …. scant few Americans will go into the voting booth on November 6 with climate change high on their list of vote-determining issues.”

Chameides in his post explores the notion of redefining the issue entirely, including changing the fundamental terminology of climate change/global warming and environmental protection more broadly. Some of what Chameides characterizes as “amazing insights” from cognitive scientists taking part in the two-day retreat near Asheville, N.C.

  • People rarely make decisions based on information. Despite what most of us think, many a human decision is processed in the unconscious rather than the conscious.
  • Subliminal messaging is very powerful. How powerful? Check out this video (and paper) on how millisecond-long exposures to an Apple or IBM logo affected the level of creativity in test subjects. (And if you want to test how easily you can miss a “hidden” message, check this one out.)
  • People can receive messages in a defensive posture. For example, if someone has negative associations with environmentalists, a message containing the word “environment,” regardless of its content, can simply reinforce those negative associations, thus having the very opposite of the outcome intended. (That got me thinking about the term “clean coal.” Could it be a lose-lose phrase having the unintended effect of turning off both those with negative associations of dirty fossil fuels and those with negative associations of clean and green energy?)
  • When given a non-specific, long-term goal, people tend to lose focus on it even as they make progress toward it — kind of an “I’ve done enough, time to move on” mindset. When given short-term, specific goals, on the other hand, people tend to accelerate toward them as they approach them — a “we’re almost there” attitude.

Given the retreat presentations by cognitive scientists, Chameides wrote, “It was pretty clear why messaging on climate science has been and will continue to be its own challenge, a challenge that is strangely a part of and an addition to the challenge of addressing the actual problem of a warming world.”

Despite what he sees as the “diffuse and long-term” goals of addressing climate change issues, “they’re just not well-suited to the way our brains are wired,” Chameides wrote. He looks ahead to a “huge task” of effectively communicating on the climate issue.

Acknowledging that a number of points and questions raised during the two-day discussion remain unanswered, Chameides said he and his Duke University colleagues and others will press forward on a number of fronts.

“Stay tuned,” he advised his blog audience.

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