By guest contributor Ed Gillespie, Creative Director and Owner of Futerra
|HUB Eco Series: Scrutinising how to engage sceptics
Last Thursday I was invited to Chair a great session at the HUB, Islington in London, UK, as part of their HUB Eco Series of environmental dialogues, discussions and debates. Entitled ‘Weapons Down! Tackling scepticism; How can we most effectively communicate climate change?’the event sought to take the rambunctious and righteous rage out of the climate debate and seek more empathic, nuanced ways of engaging sceptics. It was an intriguing evening…
I kicked things off with a bit of context-setting, sharing some insights from Futerra’s near decade-long track record in communicating climate change, from ‘The Rules of the Game’, to ‘New Rules, New Game’ and ‘Sizzle’, emphasising Futerra’s framing of climate change solutions as positive opportunities, our need to tackle the challenge as humanity’s rite of passage, our ‘growing pains’.
Public acceptance of climate change and concern about it remains high, but the priority and severity of the threat, the perception that it happens to ‘someone else, somewhere else, tomorrow’ or the powerlessness of the individual in the face of it ‘too big, too ugly, too scary, too late’, are still problematic in galvanising real action.
We collectively listed different types of climate scepticism we’d encountered (see image). There was an entertaining range:
- The ‘Pig-headed’ or those of unshakeable conviction – i.e. those whom when asked the question ‘What evidence would you need to make you change your mind?’ have no answer i.e. their minds are made up. (Interestingly this question could also be used on climate activists!)
- The ‘Make-believers’ or ‘Fantasists’ who rely on heresy, pseudo-science or outright wackery to bolster their case.
- The ‘Naturalists’ who maintain the Earth is in a ‘warm period’.
- The ‘Economists’ who argue that business priorities come first, that the cost of action is too high, and whom discount the risks.
- The ‘Guilty’ i.e. those for whom the cognitive dissonance of high carbon lifestyles and the reality of climate change is too much, so they disregard climate change. Exemplified by the slightly self-conscious binge-flyers in the room.
- The ‘Powerless’ and ‘Insignificant’ who believe they can’t make a difference.
- The ‘So What?’, ‘Techno-fixers’ and ‘Singularitarians’ who believe we’ll find a way through, innovate and cyborg our way out of this mess.
- The ‘Lawson-esque’ ridiculers and innuendo insinuators who dismiss climate concern with a snide remark, or a sarcastic sneer.
- The ‘Western/Developed World Conspiracy Theorists’ in India who believe climate change is a ruse to arrest their development.
- The ‘Chindians’ or ‘Populists’ who deride action in the face of Chinese and Indian carbon emissions or identify population growth as the real problem.
- The ‘Apocalypse Myth-ers’ who think climate change, like nuclear Armageddon, is our generation’s cultural Doomsday myth.
- The ‘Realists’ who believe that if climate change was REALLY, really important then we’d already be doing something about it, right?
- The ‘Cultists’…does exactly what is says on the tin. It’s a cult!
- The ‘Contradictorians’ who feel the mix of conflicting and incoherent scientific stories proves the uncertainty.
…to name but a few! I’m sure we could have come up with more as well, but we had three brilliant panelists to hear from too, so I had to move things on:
Philosopher Marianne Talbot, with 4M+ podcast views to her name, suggested that whilst both business and government had huge potential to make a difference, neither would so without public pressure or the threat of lost votes and custom. She identified scientists, whom the public generally believe and trust (the ‘white coat’ effect), had failed to get their ‘hands dirty’. They need to engage people as humans not just as scientists, offer opinionsas well as facts and walk the talk by video-conferencing, not flying and lobbying government, business and institutions with action plans not just information.
Guinness World Record Holder sociologist Dr Alice Bell from Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit followed by urging us to ramp up the conversation around climate change and action, especially around a sense of hope, solutions and prioritisation. Alice warned that ‘lukewarmist’ sceptics were no longer challenging the science but were unraveling policy responses to it. She also urged us not to stereotype sceptics as somehow always in hoc to ‘Big Oil, suggesting many were from the grassroots and recommended we all personally reflect about the complexity of the climate change challenge and our own individual roles in it.
This theme was continued by our final speaker UCL Professor of Climate Science and deadly sharp-shooter Chris Rapley, who argued we’re all culpable in contributing carbon to climate change from every morsel we eat to every flight we take. Therefore we need collective humility not sabre-rattling and blame-gaming. Unlike the emotionally neutral Higgs Boson, science communication around climate change raises strong, automatic and often unconscious emotional reactions in people’s minds. These are often very powerful including fear, guilt, despair, hopelessness or loss as we start to perceive our modern world as a stranded asset in an environment no longer fit for it.
Chris’s best point for me was around our ‘Mark One’ brains, the relatively limiting processing of our grey matter that leads climate activists and sceptics to digest the same information and come to startlingly different conclusions. Our personal assimilation and confirmation biases, subsequent cognitive reasoning and concluding convictions mean that once established our beliefs are repeatedly self-justified and consolidated. Neither side in the climate debate is necessarily ‘sad, mad or bad’, although that is how both sides often pigeon-hole each other, but we are in disagreement.
A very lively debate then ensued around the extent to which climate change is simply an inherent part of an inexorable capitalist system or if it’s actually about a, correctable, market failure within it. It was also noted that once the science argument is ‘won’, another simply replaces it – around cost, benefits, priorities etc. For me this is precisely the point and summed up the mood of the whole evening. Whilst both sides continue to seek to ‘win’ we are left with the frothing, feisty impasse we’re still in.
However as the broad thrust of the science and all its potentially catastrophic implications irresistibly embeds itself into our collective consciousness, THAT is where the real debate begins. How we respond to the challenge, at what scale and pace, which technologies or behavioural changes and adaptations we deploy and it is in this territory that the elites and ideologues are now grappling. We, as climate activists, need to continue to put more and better policy options and solutions on the table.
The invaluable fine art destroyed in bonded warehouses in New York by the superstorm surge of Sandy has apparently galvanised Manhattan’s elite and driven Mayor Bloomberg’s massive climate change action and adaptation plan. Similarly ‘Climate Hawks’ in the Senate and the Pentagon are pushing for national energy security in the context of oil geo-politics, fuel efficiency and renewable energy potential.
In this sense the reality on the ground is rapidly overtaking the quibbling over scientific projections. Practically, psychologically and philosophically what we do as individuals still matters. We need to personify the positive changes we are all making in leading better low carbon lives, re-emotionalising the solutions around behaviours such as slow travel or community renewable energy not hyper-emotionalising the very real threat of the problem. I’ve always maintained we’ll subvert the dominant paradigm by having more fun than they are…and letting them know while we’re doing it.
As Chris Rapley concluded it’s time for ‘dark optimism, not active fatalism’. The fact is we’re already dealing with the accelerating impacts of climate change whether you ‘believe’ the science or not. Tackling the causes of climate change also solves other problems, around air quality, green jobs, liveable cities, clean energy, etc whether it’s a hoax, wildly exaggerated or not. So let’s have a richer debate around ‘what next?’ rather than ‘why?’. By listening to each other across the climate debate, the better world that from our different perspectives we hopefully believe we’re all striving for, becomes a little more likely…