Change Your Mind. The Climate Will Follow.
There is no action on climate change unless there is mass action. This is the problem and the promise of the commons: on one hand, mass effort could yield something that’s valuable to everyone, but a handful of spoilers could ruin things for everybody. Why try? The helplessness of the public in the face of climate change is initially baffling to activists and scientists. The threat is real and measurable. Most people agree that it is real, and some basic, non-challenging adjustments to our collective lifestyles - substituting beans for beef, for example - could nearly solve the problem. Yet the public fails to react. Why?
When it comes to persuading people to act on climate collapse, a slew of new research shows that multiple forms of engagement could offer keys to success.
Researcher Cameron Brick of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication advocates a strategy that is second nature to anyone who takes climate change seriously: provide evidence that climate change is a collective emergency. Edward Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, also believes education will empower people to act. Other experts believe that the facts of climate change can be overwhelming, causing otherwise rational people to retreat into states of denial. Renee Lertzman, author of Environmental Melancholia, argues that all of the knowledge in the world won’t just fail to convert climate deniers, but will further entrench people who are paralyzed by the scale of climate change. Mass behavioral change is necessary, but change is frightening.
It is tempting, says Lertzman, to wade into a climate change conversation with a strong front: demands for behavior changes, calls for immediate cessation of fuel burning, predictions about the end of the world. Extreme statements will provoke extreme reactions, but only in terms of emotional response. As rational as the fact of climate change is, its implications are primarily emotional. Fear is the principal emotion: fear of death, fear of loss, fear of punishment and judgment. Not least of these is the fear of being exiled from the comfortable majority. A listener who hears that they must stop burning fossil fuels immediately jumps to the question most likely to impact their lifestyle: how could I tell my family to take cold showers? They don’t want to be the strange neighbor who barbeques seitan instead of ribs.
The research of Alexa Spence, an environmental psychologist who incorporates economics into her work for the University of Nottingham, has noted that subjects in Great Britain tended to take climate change seriously once it directly affected their lives. In general, her research found that climate change threatened her subjects’ hierarchy of needs when their homes were flooded-- by threatening their shelter (a basic requirement on the hierarchy of needs) climate change became an immediate issue.
Issues of morality are further up on a person’s hierarchy of needs, a luxury relative to basic requirements like food and shelter or social interaction. When Spence’s subjects felt secure in their homes, there was no reason for them to rock the boat socially and speak out about climate change. When climate change destroyed their homes, it suddenly fell from a moral problem to one that directly impacted subjects’ basic needs. It became a priority.
If fear can paralyze people into inaction, Spence suggests, it can also motivate action. Here, research psychologists and clinicians start to diverge into two distinct groups: psychologists like Renee Lertzman believe that the anxiety of climate change must be mitigated, while researchers like Maibach and Spence lean toward the conclusion that anxiety could be a good motivator.
In either case, climate activists must engage people on an emotional level. Lertzman advocates a method called motivational interviewing, which she teaches to politically active groups. Motivational interviewing, also known as MI, is specifically used to help addicted people reach their “come to Jesus” moment, the point where they move past their anger, helplessness, and defeat and into a state of mind where they can make a change. It’s also been used as a treatment for other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, whose management doesn’t seem like an immediate issue to the person at risk.
The key to motivational interviewing is that empathic engagement precedes any call to action, and when that call comes, it does so in the guise of a plan that the subject of the interview makes themselves. This gives them control over the entire process - instead of being told how they should feel, they have told someone else how they do feel. Lertzman believes that this kind of non judgemental listening is the most effective way to discuss climate change, especially with someone who is hostile to the very idea.
Lertzman suggests that the heart will need to be healed before the average person can overcome the shame that is inevitable upon discovery of a personal responsibility for climate change. The anger, fear, and denial around climate change speaks to a wound of guilt in which we are all complicit, no matter how righteously we’ve tried to act. MI is a challenging technique for non-psychologists, especially activists whose sense of urgency can come across as sanctimoniousness or virtue-signalling. Lertzman encourages activists to set aside their preconceived notions about “the other side.” Indeed, the idea that there is another side at all belies the reality that all of us, believers, ambivalents, and deniers, are living in the same dire situation. The righteousness of the plant-based subculture particularly strikes her as unproductive. She points out that when the author of Meat Hooked, Marta Zaraska, has a conversation about diet, she starts out saying that she still craves bacon and sneaks it now and then. This admission of fallibility makes her interlocutor feel more comfortable. Lertzman says that she would love to see more of that from climate leadership. Self-aggrandizement is an oblique attack, a criticism guaranteed to start an argument. Compassion and humanization is the way to start a discussion.
But there is more to break down in a motivational climate change interview than just fear or lack of initiative. The tribal nature of climate change debate, policy, and public discussion has caused its own identity entrenchment that will be hard to overcome. Republicans are expected to group around denial, not just because of party ideology, but also thanks to a media and a public that feeds on drama to its own detriment. There are, in fact, many indications that Republicans from national leadership positions all the way to local government do believe in climate change. Some believe secretly and admit, in hurried whispers, their dread at a party whose momentum has long since left its good sense in the dust. Others, like Bob Inglis, Republican and former representative for South Carolina’s fourth congressional district, are outspoken. Edward Maibach believes that these brave conservatives are the key to the success of climate change resistance. He feels that Republicans may be our best chance at solving the crisis before it’s too late; entrenched and conservative-identified people won’t budge until they see a leader moving. Maibach’s career has focused on educating these community standard bearers. “They are the people most likely to open the eyes of other Republicans to this reality.”
Though there have been a few conservative leaders who have called for climate action (including John McCain and former Secretary of State George P. Schultz), the base hasn’t shifted in response to these otherwise respected voices, the GOP hasn’t budged in its positioning, and government hasn’t responded in any meaningful way. The presence of oil lobbyists in the halls of power could conceivably account for some of this inaction, but equally significant is the collective inability of voters to prioritize climate change as an issue. Where Maibach’s strategy could succeed is its ability to inject climate awareness into communities via local weathermen. But a means for getting concerned Republicans a platform, much less any traction, may lie closer to collective action than to leadership from the top.
The majority of Americans quietly live in a climate change closet, victims of the rancid partisan dialog. Global warming has migrated from the scientific sphere to the political one, and as such, has become a conversational third rail for moderates and people who seek peace at the Thanksgiving table. To believe openly in climate change is to identify with a broader agenda, one that also prioritizes healthcare and gun control, and discussion of climate change independent of that identification has become tricky. Such ideological identification might alienate Republicans and moderates from coming out in support of climate change policy.
For this reason, Winton Centre social researcher Brick cautions against identity politics as a cure. By contrast, Margaret Klein Salamon, who co-founded the nonprofit The Climate Mobilization and focuses on mental health in her blog, The Climate Psychologist, believes that the situation is too urgent not to leverage the power of identity politics. She advocates a “coming-out” event in line with the mass self-outing of the LGBTQ community in response to the Reagan administration's lack of action on AIDS. Her strategy advocates living in climate truth, internalizing the full, terrifying reality of the climate crisis, and framing it in the context of a national consensus. It starts with the individual taking climate change directly to heart and making it not just a voting concern or a reason to attend a march but part of their core political beliefs. Salamon urges integration of climate change knowledge into every level of social functioning, from day-to-day life to life plans. She likens this crisis to the moment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when, after years of isolationism, the U.S. came to an immediate resolution and national consensus. To do that, we need to, in her words, “level with people.” Focusing on “reasonable” goals, goals that avoid scaring people, is unproductive. Truth is transformative, no matter how harsh that truth may be, and after that transformation, mass protest can make demands on the scale of the crisis. It’s OK to upset people if that gets them to, eventually, “courageously and heroically engage.”
If there is safety in numbers, the mass identity strategy could yield fast results, especially if there are as many hidden climate change believers as polls indicate. But forging a new environmental identity is a risky endeavor. A mass coming-out could be the Hail Mary pass that shows the world that the fight against climate change has enough momentum for full investment. On the other hand, it could drive the conversation deeper into its current rancor.
That said, political identification itself is not always a motivation to act. Brick agrees with Salamon that climate reaction is intricately tied up with climate identity, and further points out that Democrats and Green Party climate change believers may absorb climate change information without processing it. This is what activists observe when they see believers shake their heads and sigh about climate change before proceeding onward with business as usual. This behavior is as harmful as any level of denial-based inaction, but it comes from people who, theoretically, are on the right side. Activating them would require the same level and type of work that is needed to convert deniers and closeted moderates. The fact that Lertzman’s motivational interviewing strategies could activate this group as well speaks highly in favor of MI.
But the future of action may be brighter now that the IPCC has set a harder deadline for climate action. Brick points out that uncertain deadlines tend to push negotiators into the dreaded prisoner’s dilemma. In this popular psychological thought experiment, two prisoners have the chance to endure minimal jail time as long as they both remain silent about their crime. However, if one rats out the other, then the rat will escape scot-free while their unfortunate accomplice serves a maximum sentence. It’s not in either prisoner’s self-interest to trust the other, even though they could both benefit by having faith. The climate change version of this problem casts every nation in the world, not to mention every family that could install solar on their house, in the role of prisoners. The effort one person or nation could expend trying to stop climate change will mean little if the other prisoners don’t hold the line. Policy negotiators are not immune to the psychological stress of the unknown, especially when it comes to the delicate interplay between economies. Why should the U.S. abandon coal if China intends to continue using it to fuel their economic rise? A tangible threat could skew a government’s sense of self-interest away from immediate economic satisfaction and toward a mode more likely to survive global climate catastrophe.
Lertzman asserts that leadership itself will need to become more compassionate and empathic for real change to occur. She advocates an approach similar to that which led to the formation of the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. “The intense rancor and polarization in our country right now is an expression of anxiety and fear. We need a process where leadership across sectors recognizes the need to demonstrate compassionate, emotionally intelligent ways of talking about these things.” Lertzman’s approach would focus on defusing and enabling dialog, and perhaps even forward motion. This is where climate change activists could model a new conversation, rising above the current trend of extremification to look like the adults in the room. This will be no simple task. Engagement at the individual level alone is an intense experience. The conversation that must happen now will be national in scope, not limited to deniers or moderates.
Meanwhile, activists face the continual challenge of exhaustion and despair. Salamon has one solution to this: conversation. Her current call-in group therapy program focuses on people who already believe in climate change and feel the terror of collective inaction bearing down upon them. There is a reason that Old Testament prophets so often resisted their fates as harbingers of divine retribution. The bearer of bad news is always an unwelcome guest, and people who believe in climate change are among the most unwelcome. Moderate liberals nod vacantly and ignore pleas to change, while conservatives across the red spectrum react with anger and denial.
Talking helps. Doing the work of dealing with grief and frustration helps. And, according to Lertzman, activism at all levels needs to cultivate a stronger culture of self-care. “When I look at people who are effective, I find that they’re only able to do that because they’re able to resource themselves.” Organizations dedicated to The Good Fight might be tempted to wring supporters dry, but that can’t happen. We will get in our own way with self-imposed extremism just as we’ll hamper the action of others. And the example of an exhausted, frantic person is a poor one to present to people who know that climate change is a problem, but fear becoming an example of that frazzled stereotype.
The conversation about climate change needs to be informed and compassionate, fact-based and emotionally intelligent. The time has passed to decide that we will talk about this. It is time to begin learning how we will talk about climate change. Lertzman strongly advocates cross-training climate activists in motivational interviewing, learning to speak reasonably and listen to people whose ideas repel us. Maibach continues to train weathermen, the reliable bastions of community trust, to speak up and lead their older, conservative viewers to Brick’s crisis, where they will finally feel that they must act, possibly by speaking to the identified activists that Salamon welcomes in her regular group therapy sessions.
Regardless of whose theory is most provably effective, all agree that it is time to start engaging people in new ways. The change that must happen is within our minds, and, yes, within our hearts. Activists know that saving the environment is a noble cause in its own right, that our species is just one of many that make this planet a wonderful place to live, and that we should all implicitly understand why environmentalism is the correct choice. But outside of this community, the moral high ground doesn’t sell well. If activists what to see real change, they will need to key into what the majority prioritizes: themselves, their outcomes, their families, their goals. The human cost of climate change will need to become the ground upon which we engage our non-activated neighbors and friends. Only by showing them that the climate will affect their lives in a way that is meaningful to them will we stand a chance of getting the results that we need to save the majority of life on the Earth we all share. It’s time to re-frame the discussion, not for scientific accuracy, of which we have a more than sufficient amount, nor in the context of passion for nature, of which the environmentalist movement has plenty, but for people who dread climate change and nevertheless embark every morning upon a 45-minute highway commute. The average Joe will start to care about the climate when he realizes that it can and will directly affect him, that everyone is scared, and that he’s allowed to talk about it. We don’t need to save the world only for the world’s sake. We need to save it for our neighbors. We want a good environment because we care about the people who live in it. If we frame environmental action like that, then maybe we have a chance of saving our relationships to one another along with our relationship to the planet.
Anna Gooding-Call is a writer and environmental activist living in Salem, Massachusetts. She tweets @annagoodingcall.