Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change—a book review

George Marshall has written a book that is essential reading for everyone interested in communicating the science of climate change and its urgent policy implications. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why  strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed.

There is no question that the problem is far from licked: the Keeling Curve continues its upward rise; American conservatives remain stuck in an intellectual dead end on climate; other countries pay lip service to the threat while making only token gestures to solve it; every year there is a big international get-together at COP meetings where thousands of delegates gather to push the policy boulder up Sisyphus’ hill, only to watch it roll down again. Opinion polls, it is true, show that there is broad public acceptance of the scientific basis of climate change, but the understanding of the problem is shallow. People say they care about climate change, but when it comes time to vote, other issues loom larger.

Marshall has worked for 25 years as a campaigner in environmental movements, including Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation. He is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, a UK based charity committed to ensuring that climate change and its impacts are understood and acted upon.

The final chapter of Don’t Even Think About It—the only one that deals with the actual science of climate change—reminds us why we should care: we are on a path to a world that will be, on average, four degrees Celsius warmer than humans have ever known. This is a future world of heat waves and extinctions; a world in which the challenge of feeding 10 billion mouths becomes more difficult; a world that is committed to the loss of its glaciers and ice sheets and the resulting rising seas that will put two-thirds of the major cities under water; and a world in which acidification of the oceans will wreak havoc with the ecosystem over two-thirds of its surface.

Most of us who do understand the problem and who are motivated enough to keep talking about it must have had a similar experience when broaching the subject of climate change with friends and family: we sense their unease and we notice that they soon try to switch the subject to more something more congenial. The majority of people really do not want to think about it. Hearing about the climate crisis is rather like a dismal and preachy TV show they’ve watched before, so they reach for the remote and change the channel. Marshall quotes sociologist Kari Norgaard from her study on attitudes to climate change in Norway:

“People gave an initial reaction of concern, and then we hit a dead zone where there was suddenly not much to be said, ‘nothing to talk about.'”

 Why is it so hard to talk about, so hard even to think about? There is no simple answer to this big question, but there are better answers to a host of smaller questions. Here’s a list of some of them from Marshall’s opening chapter (pdf):

  • Why do the victims of flooding, drought, and severe storms become less willing to talk about climate change or even accept that it is real?
  • Why are people who say that climate change is too uncertain to believe more easily convinced of the imminent dangers of terrorist attacks, asteroid strikes, or an alien invasion?
  • Why have scientists, normally the most trusted professionals in our society, become distrusted, hated, and the targets for violent abuse?
  • Why is America’s most prestigious science museum telling more than a million people a year that climate change is a natural cycle and that we can grow new organs to adapt to it?
  • Why are science fiction fans, of all people, so unwilling to imagine what the future might really be like?
  • Why does having children make people less concerned about climate change?
  • How did a rational policy negotiation become a debating slam to be won by the wittiest and most aggressive player?
  • Why can stories based on myths and lies become so compelling that a president prefers to take his climate science advice from a bestselling thriller writer rather than the National Academy of Sciences?
  • And why is an oil company so much more worried about the threats posed by its slippery floors than the threats posed by its products?

Part of the problem with climate communication is that we instinctively reach for the framing and metaphors that work for us. We appeal to images and values that are effective in stirring us to action and stiffening our spines, but which often have the opposite effect on others.

For example: polar bears are too remote from everyday concerns to motivate action; severe weather just happens and if it happens more often, we get used to dealing with it as the new normal; everyone loves their children and they recoil when they are told that they don’t. Most of all, appeals for restraint and sacrifice backfire badly, especially when combined with pessimism: it comes over as bleak and judgemental. As the former Republican congressman, Bob Inglis—one of the very few politicians on the American right to accept the problem of climate change— put it to Marshall:

“We conservatives tend to regard greens as gray-ponytail bed-wetters who’ve got their panties all in a wad,” he tells me, laughing cheekily with the pleasure of saying this to a real-life panty-wadded bed-wetter. “And,” he adds, “we think they are complainers, worrywarts. Listening to greens is like seeing a doctor who says, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the biggest melanoma I have ever seen!'”

Warning people that they might be provoking disaster because of their everyday behavior unsurprisingly doesn’t sit well with those who believe that, in a just world, bad things only happen to bad people. Moral instincts squelch mere technical arguments, especially when the warnings come from people they never much cared for in the first place.

Activists spend a great deal of time arguing with dissenters/contrarians/deniers—the other minority group who at least share an interest with activists in talking about climate change. But the majority of people who are not involved in this fight look on at it with disinterest and dismay. The best ally of inaction is not obstruction, but apathy.

Marshall has interviewed many communications experts, psychologists, scientists, and some dissenters for the material in the book. He draws heavily on the insights of Yale’s Dan Kahan and is no fan of the information-deficit model of climate communication (although I would argue that almost nobody anymore believes that providing more information is a sufficient communication solution).  Marshall writes:

Ironically, one of the best proofs that information does not change people’s attitudes is that science communicators continue to ignore the extensive research evidence that shows that information does not change people’s attitudes.

 And, quoting Clive Hamilton:

“Denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.”

 Marshall also is influenced by the divided-brain model of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the author of the masterpiece on human thought processes: Thinking, Fast and Slow, whom he quotes:

“This is not what you might want to hear,” says Professor Daniel Kahneman. “I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

 and

“To mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have the immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.”

 The main emotion we provoke when talking about climate change is anxiety, rooted in feelings of helplessness. But because of the insidious nature of the threat—and the deep changes required for its solution—we instead construct socialy agreed-upon narratives to remain silent on the issue.

Yet Marshall has not lost hope (pdf of Chapter 41). Despite everything, humans do have an ability to foresee the future and we are not mere puppets of our instincts. Sometimes our lazy-but-logical slow brains prevail. We also have a capacity towards altruism and for being kind and supportive, even to non-kin strangers and even when no person or God is watching us. History shows that once enough of us share a conviction, our cooperative instincts kick in and then everything can change.

For example, Steven Pinker’s book Better Angels of our Nature (not cited by Marshall) tells the story with copious evidence of how humans have reduced violence over the centuries, with violent deaths per capita declining steadily through history. Despite the horrors that we see on the news, the data show that we are now more civilized than ever and we are getting steadily better at it with practice. Moreover, in the past several decades, social attitudes that once looked innate and impossible to budge, like racism and sexism, suddenly changed for the better.

In his penultimate chapter (summarized here), Marshall runs through a long list of things that we can do better. I can’t cover them all here, but let me summarize a few.

  • Emphasize that climate change is happening in the here and now.
  • Create symbols to rally around: the Keystone XL pipeline may be one such example. Perhaps future historians may look back on it as a turning point, like the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins during the US civil rights struggle.
  • Make the narrative positive: it’s not just about reducing CO2, but about building a cleaner, better and more just world.
  • Keep a wide range of solutions on the table: it’s unlikely that a there’s a single magic solution and nobody knows how technology will evolve. The future will not be like anyone imagines it to be and we need to be flexible and humble about what we know.
  • We need to find a common purpose, respecting and welcoming diversity of opinion. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves and we need to co-opt rather than conquer those we might instinctively define as the opposition.
  • Frame climate change as an informed choice between desirable and catastrophic outcomes.
  • We need to recognize that people will feel anxious and will grieve the past. We need to be honest that we will lose as well as gain as the fossil-fuel era comes to an end.
  • The tough part is staying honest about the difficulty of the path ahead while remaining optimistic and enthusiastic about the coming struggle.

I have two main criticisms of the book. First, the references and endnotes are not to included in the text, but on a separate website. The Kindle version does not have page numbers and it’s awkward to connect the references and sources on the website with the text. Second, a rule of successful communication is show, don’t tell. Marshall does an excellent job in Chapters 1-41, providing us with examples of failed communication efforts that illustrate the theory. However, in Chapter 42 he just tells us what to do, without showing us examples of how it can be or has been done.

Maybe that would require a whole new book—let’s hope he writes it soon. Marshall has obviously thought deeply about how to address different audiences and, for such a difficult subject, he has produced a surprisingly accessible read. That takes a lot of wit, work and wisdom and it proves that at least that he knows how to communicate. We should pay attention.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change—a book review

  1. Pingback: Energy Bookshelf: Even though we must think about, “Don’t Even Think About It”

  2. Pingback: Energy Bookshelf: Even though we must think about Climate, “Don’t Even Think About It”

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