Why climate change experts fail to convince anyone


David Wallace-Wells’ recent essay on climate change in the New York Times, published as part of the advertisement for his new book “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”, is, unfortunately, like a lot of climate change writing these days: It’s right about the risk , but wrongly about how he tries to achieve the essential objective of arousing public concern. Like other essays that have sounded the alarm on global warming – articles from Bill McKibben, James hansen, and George monbiot come to mind – Wallace-Wells offers a simple message: I’m scared. People should be afraid. Here are the facts. You should be scared too.

Certainly Wallace-Wells and these other writers are thoughtful, intelligent, and knowledgeable people. And this is precisely how they try to arouse concern: with thought, intelligence and information, framed in the most dramatic terms on the largest scale possible. Wallace-Wells invokes broad concepts such as “global warming”, “human history” and global emissions; remote places like the Arctic; general geographic and geopolitical terms such as “coral reefs”, “inlandsis” and “climate refugees”; and distant timeframes like 2030, 2050 and 2100.

This is a common approach to communicating risk issues, known as the deficit model: assuming your audience lacks facts – that is, they have a deficit. – all you have to do is give it the facts, in pretty dramatic terms, and you can make them feel like you want them to feel, how they should feel, how you Feel. But research into the practice of risk communication has found that this approach typically fails and often backfires. The deficit model may work well in physics class, but it’s an ineffective way of trying to change people’s attitudes. This is because it appeals to reason, and reason is not what drives human behavior.

For over 50 years, cognitive science has amassed a mountainous body of knowledge about why we think, choose, and act the way we do. And what they found is that facts alone literally make no sense. We interpret each cold objective piece of information through a thick set of affective filters that determine how those facts Feel – and what they feel is what determines what these facts mean and how we behave. As a 17th century French mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal observed, “We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by heart.”

Yet much of the commentary on climate change rejects these social science findings. In his article for the New York Times, Wallace-Wells mentions a few cognitive biases that fall under behavioral economics, including the optimism bias (things will be better for me than the next one) and the status quo bias (c it’s easier to keep things as they are). But he describes them in language dripping with condescension and frustration:

How can we fool ourselves? One answer comes from behavioral economics. The scrolling through the cognitive biases identified by psychologists and travel companions over the past half century can seem, like a social media stream, to be bottomless. And they distort and distort our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form a whole library of climatic illusions.

Additionally, behavioral economics is only part of what shapes our perception of risk. Another part of our cognition that has received far too little attention, but plays a bigger role in how we feel about climate change, is the psychology of risk perception. Pioneering research by Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, Sarah Lichtenstein and many others have identified more than a dozen distinct psychological characteristics that make us worry more than necessary about some threats and less than we need about others, such as climate change. .

For example, we don’t worry so much about risks that don’t feel personally threatening to us. Surveys suggest that even people alarmed by climate change are not particularly alarmed by the threat to themselves. the most recent poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while 70% of Americans think climate change is happening, only around 40% think “it will hurt me personally.”

We are also more worried about the risks that threaten us soon than the risks that threaten us later. Evolution has given us a risk alert system designed to get us to tomorrow first – and only then, perhaps, do we worry about what will happen later. So even those who think climate change is already happening believe, with precision, that the worst is yet to come. Risk communication that talks about the havoc climate change is going to wreak in 2030, 2050, or “this century” contributes to this feeling “we don’t really have to worry about it now”.

Research on risk perception also suggests that we worry less about risky behaviors if those behaviors also have tangible benefits. So far, this has been the case with climate change: For many people living in the developed world, the harms of climate change are more than offset by the modern comforts of a carbon-intensive lifestyle. Even those who install solar panels on their rooftops or change their lifestyle in the name of reducing their carbon footprint often continue with other bad behaviors: shopping and buying unsustainably, stealing, having your regular burger. .

Interestingly, Wallace-Wells admits it’s even true for him:

I know the science is true, I know the threat is global, and I know the effects, if the broadcasts continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life in three decades, or the life of my daughter in five decades, I have to admit that I do not imagine a world on fire but like the one we have now.

Yet he writes that “the era of climate panic has arrived,” and he expects presenting all the facts and evidence in scare-mongering language will make others see it differently. This is perhaps Wallace-Wells’ biggest failure: By dramatizing the facts and suggesting that people who don’t share his level of concern are irrational and delusional, he is far more likely to offend readers than to convince them. Adopting the attitude that “my feelings are good and yours are wrong” – that “I can see the problem and something is wrong with you if you can’t” – is a sure-fire way to turn off a reader, not doing it, what you want them to believe.

Compare all these deficit model climate experts with the effective message of the growing youth revolt against climate change. Last August 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg skipped school and organized a protest of a person outside his country’s parliament to demand action on climate change. Over the next six months, there were #FridaysforFuture school walkouts across the country. at least nine countries, and more are planned.

Thunberg addressed the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos, frankly and from the bottom of his heart a message it’s not just about facts, but his very real and personal fear:

Adults keep saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear that I feel every day. And then I want you to take action.

Speaking to our hearts and not just our heads – and framing the question in terms of personal and immediate fear of a future that promises more harm than benefits – Thunberg has launched an international protest movement.

The lesson is clear. Wallace-Wells’ essay in The New York Times will attract a lot of intelligentsia’s attention, but it is unlikely to garner serious new support for action on climate change. Risk communication that recognizes and respects the emotions and psychology of the people it is trying to reach is likely to have a much greater impact – and that’s exactly what the climate change effort has. need at the moment.


David Ropeik is a consultant in risk communication and the psychology of risk perception, and author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” Why our fears don’t always match the facts. “



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