On the basis of his very serious contention that “life is a focus group”, full of continuous conversation about what matters and what doesn’t, George Marshall’s talk in Sydney last week commenced with a video of a series of vox pops he undertook in the streets of Dublin in response to the question: what do you know about climate change? “The end of the world,” said one, all serious, who then gave a short laugh.

What is going on here? Why are our responses so often not commensurate with the threat?

Such questions have been fascinating George Marshall, a climate change activist who is trying to redesign the ways in which we communicate about climate change – to lift the climate change conversation to a level where we might actually and consciously do something about it. He heads an institute, the Climate Outreach Information Network; runs a website, Talking Climate; has a blog, Climate Denial; has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change; and has been in Australia talking about where he has got to. You can also hear him speak with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live on ABC Radio National.

His contention that a good part of the problem is that we – those who want to raise awareness of climate change and the need to do something about it, now – have failed to recognise what brain science is now telling us – that our brain consists of two parallel processing systems: the analytical, scientific left brain, which responds to numbers and data and logical arguments and is good at evaluating risk; and the more synthetic and emotive right brain, which responds to story and social signals and affective reasoning, and is good at prioritising threats.

And what we keep doing is to couch climate change in terms of the data, the science; without an accompanying affective story based on our needs, identities and values. We are appealing to our left brains only, and not to that part of the brain – the right side – that prioritises all this information in relation to all our other information about what is important to us and what is competing for our attention right now.

The stories – narratives if you like – that we do set up in our right brains are still based around the science – on purpose. Because, Marshall says, we intentionally set up a climate story that will fail because of another of our human characteristics that comes into play. Marshall calls it a cognitive bias to deny that which does not fit our comfort zones, our immediate needs and priorities, and our existing hopes and aspirations, leading to a propensity to keep problems at arm’s length and deal with them another day. Sound familiar? Others call it cognitive dissonance – our all-too-ready ability to change our personal justifying explanations so as to feel okay about maintaining ingrained and comfortable patterns of behavior, even when contrary evidence comes to light. And the scourge of all sorts of well-intentioned education programs designed to get us to break habits (like smoking, or speeding or over-consumption) that are not in our own long-term interest.

A good way to progress a debate is to have a provocateur. At the talk I attended in Sydney, held by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, this was usefully provided by someone from the floor who wanted to still put in a plug for prioritising left brain responses. We still need the numbers, the science, he argued, if there was to be any basis, any solid ground for a community’s concern and action.

George Marshall’s response was compelling. Yes, we do of course need to recognise and make whole-brain (left and right sides together) responses. But, he said, a little ironically, there is now also a substantial body of left-brain science that shows that the right side – the experiential, the social, the connective – actually dominates our decision-making.

He also described his own history in the field, where he originally thought all that was needed to tip the balance from inaction to action was to keep loading us up with more and more, supposedly indisputable, data until the weight became too much.  A lack of success with this approach now means that he spends his time talking with people – asking about their concerns and their values – to design a climate change story (no, stories, so that they apply to everyone) that actually fits with those concerns and values, and so induces response and action.

On the way he has made some key observations. They are diverse, but would seem to apply to any scale of action, whether you are dealing with a small group of colleagues or a committee, say, or your organisation or institution, perhaps a customer base, or larger society – and worth keeping in mind when devising any convincing, effective change program.

  1. It is the most compelling story that wins prime space in the larger pool of anxiety. Therefore address what people are most worried about.
  2. We seem to respond most to external threats. But the climate change story is different because there are no external threateners. We then try and make up external, unclear enemies/threats. But this just deflects attention from the reality – the enemy is us.
  3. So climate change becomes a “non-story”, a socially-constructed silence. A place we are not to go. So we need to make it acceptable to go there, like changing from a language of guilt and blame to one of forgiveness (for not acting) and coalition.
  4. Even entire institutions can make cognitive mistakes by building the wrong stories, and the wrong programs from those stories. There needs to be the ability to change course.
  5. Positively, there is a process by which we can form life-changing convictions, though we do not yet fully understand it in terms of the climate change narrative. We must be iterative and experiment and learn.
  6. Brain science and experience in other fields shows that we can build new stories, a new community of belief, based on increasing the proximity of the issue to each of us personally, on experience, and on metaphor. And so build an active climate change audience even in those areas where there currently is none.

Note: Hearing George Marshall speak reminded me of the very similar work by Les Robinson from Sydney, who has also explored, and is still exploring through practical ongoing work, the dynamics of not just attitudinal change, but actual behaviour change. His “5 Doors Model of Behaviour Change” is worth checking out.

Greg Paine is a Sydney-based urban planner.

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