Why dealing with climate change is difficult (spinach tarts and ice cream)

By Gareth Renowden 20/01/2011

Let’s be clear about this: the failure to take adequate action to reduce emissions is not because of any weakness in our understanding of the science of climate. It has its roots instead in human psychology and sociology, as George Marshall explains in this series of three videos — The Ingenious Ways We Avoid Believing In Climate Change — a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference in 2009. Marshall is a good presenter — he illustrates his points well (spinach tarts and ice cream feature prominently) — and provides a very good and concise overview of why many people prefer to ignore the climate problem. Whatever your views on the seriousness of the climate problem or how we should act to deal with it, you’ll find something in his talk to challenge your preconceptions. Parts two and three are below the fold…

Part Two:

Part Three:

I won’t attempt to paraphrase Marshall’s talk, but I will assume that if you’re reading this you have taken the time to watch it. Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about what I usually call the “carefully constructed campaign” to delay action to reduce emissions. That there’s been a very clever, well-funded campaign to create an illusion of uncertainty about the need to take action is well documented, but why has it been so successful? Marshall’s analysis suggests that is because it has worked with the grain of human psychology and social interaction. The “top down” effort to delay action has been so successful for so long because it has been picked up by people who are not themselves going to directly benefit from the delay. Most of the people shouting in the denial echo chamber are not in the pay of oil companies, even if the people directing them, in one way or another, are. Here’s a screen grab of Marshall’s first slide:


Climate change is pretty much perfectly designed to fool our normal risk assessment systems. It’s not surprising then that many find it hard to take seriously. Marshall also points out that beliefs are not decided on the basis of rational assessment — we tend to believe what we hear people around us saying, and therefore beliefs are at least partially socially constructed. I’d add that they are also socially reinforced — and this goes a long way to explain the plethora of blogs and web sites devoted to climate denial. The big boys (µWatts) and the minnows (Treadgold) provide venues where the like-minded can go to have their worldview confirmed. It’s not what’s being said that’s important (it can be, and often is, complete nonsense) — it’s the fact that it’s being said at all, and being reinforced by lots of positive feedback. [That same effect works in reverse for sites like Hot Topic, of course, but at least we have reality on our side ;-) ].

Marshall’s comments on narratives and storylines also provide an interesting perspective on how the denial campaign operates. There has been a conscious effort to construct storylines that fit with the attitudes of the people being targeted. To begin with there was an attempt to create doubt, to make uncertainty an excuse for inaction, aimed primarily at policy makers, but that has since morphed into a parallel universe littered with broken hockey sticks, where basics physics no longer operates and where corrupt scientists are colluding with socialist billionaires to bring about the end of capitalism as we know it. The aim is not now to persuade politicians, but to create the appearance of a public not persuaded of the need for action, which will in turn provide politicians with an excuse to avoid doing difficult things. It’s incoherent denial, not grounded in logic or rationality (a sort of climate Tea Party?), much of it keyed into the avoidance strategies Marshall describes:


Messengers are being repudiated, messages rejected, and issues reframed, all in the cause of inaction.

Marshall’s conclusion, in which he briefly ponders how we will socially filter the accumulating evidence of climate change, is especially interesting. Two years on from his talk, after a hot year littered with extreme weather events (that show no signs of letting up), are we seeing the “aberrant behaviours” arrive? In the face of the undeniable, the deniers seem to become ever more desperate, ever more shrill and incoherent.

The obvious corollary to all this is to ask how can we build the local, national and global consensus necessary to ensure that adequate action is taken? Railing against Exxon whilst wearing a polar bear suit is clearly not going to cut it. Now there’s a climate conversation worth having…

[The Norwegian study to which Marshall refers is: Norgaard. “We Don’t Really Want to Know”: Environmental Justice and Socially Organized Denial of Global Warming in Norway. Organization & Environment (2006) vol. 19 (3) pp. 347-370 (pdf).]