Jonathan Atkinson reports.
We’ve all been there. An engaging dinner party, a warm family event. Conversation ranges from what you’re driving these days to the fortunes of Spurs Utd football team. Inevitably the topic turns to summer holidays, “We’re going to Bali, an amazingly cheap flight, what a bargain, you should too!”
You face the choice: a shrug, a smile, a fudged ‘not this year’. But no, you say it: “I haven’t flown for 14 years for environmental reasons and as a result I am not going to Bali this year.”
So, what’s the response? An engaging debate on the pros and cons of flying? Discussion on the inevitable sacrifices of climate change. A counter argument on the validity of climate science?
Nope, more often that not you get silence, awkward looks and the inevitable change of subject, ‘lovely quiche we’re eating’. As a society we do not talk comfortably about climate change, in fact we do not talk at all about climate change.
Which is where George Marshall’s new book comes in, ‘Why We Ignore Climate Change‘. During an engaging hour long talk as part of the Manchester Science Festival, George takes us on a roller coaster tour. Interdisciplinary, George’s subject matter ranges from cognitive psychology to marketing theory to politics to brain science and everything in between.
His talk covers many aspects of his new book, starting with some of the traditional theories around our uncomfortableness: uncertainty, impacts distant from the present day, the lack of an identifiable and defeatable ‘enemy’.
He contends the problem now is not around acceptance of the science or appreciation of the facts. When prompted most people readily agree that climate change is one of the greatest threats we face. But, unprompted in focus groups, climate change very rarely appears high on our list of fears and worries.
It’s not that we don’t know the facts, it’s that for many, climate change does not register as a part of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, not a part of our personal narrative or the things we discuss with others.
Ultimately, George concludes that much of this dissonance relates to our contrasting brain areas, facts, figures and logic on the one hand, emotions, stories and habits on the other. Whilst facts and figures influence our opinions, emotions and narratives dictate behaviour, what we actually do.
The talk is peppered with anecdotes drawn from the book, the most compelling gathered from a research tour of the United States. He meets Tea Party advocates who have found engaging and passionate narratives to tell around climate change – albeit from a denier perspective – but at least they are talking about it!
He meets the mayor of a town on the front line, battered and destroyed by the effects of climate change but unwilling to engage in debate on a ‘negative and pessimistic’ issue.
An evangelical Christian experiences an ‘epiphany’ around climate change talks in terms of ‘bearing witness’, and forgiveness.
Much of George’s current work centres on right wing politics and creating new climate change narratives. “Doesn’t this challenge their commitment to neo-liberalism?” asks one questioner, “Exactly” counters George, in doing so the possibility of change is created. For him the politics of left and right should be alive to the challenges and opportunities of climate change, an issue of jobs, poverty and justice for the left, individual liberties, property rights and the preservation of the landscape for the right. Instead the ‘party politics’ of climate change in the UK is limited to technocratic arguments on emission reductions and grid balancing.
The talk was followed by a short discussion session before attendees decamped to the pub for more debate.
The thing that struck me was that as climate change activists we urgently need to find new ways to talk about climate change. With friends and family in ways that involve and engage rather induce guilt and exclude, with political opponents in ways that offer common terms for debate and establish common, shared values across left and right. George rightly points out that rationing was only possible when left and right accepted its need.
As activists we need to move on from the tactics of information and awareness raising – most people understand and accept climate change – and on to an understanding of the emotional impact this knowledge creates.
In doing this an appreciation of cultural production is essential, unless the ideas and concepts around climate change and taking action on climate change become incorporated in to a wider cultural discourse the issue will continue to be something we simply do not talk about.