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Lowering the doom Add to ...

Changing our climate for the worse? That's the easy part. But changing human minds and behaviour - that turns out to be much, much harder.

No matter how much confidence scientists have in the truth of their global warnings, getting the message out to the folks who are actually wrecking the planet has proved to be a far more challenging proposition. Cars still jam the streets, energy consumption increases, polluters sow doubt and denial and, as the Copenhagen summit on climate change nears, politicians still prevaricate as if there were an endless succession of tomorrows.

While there may well be an apocalypse looming on the far horizon, dire prophecies just don't cut it in the here-and-now of consumer culture. So forget the grim 100-year predictions for a second. The crisis at this very moment seems more like a crisis of communication.

Even the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, James Hoggan, agrees: "Whether it's the scientific community, environmental groups, politicians, the media or business leaders, we haven't done a great job of conveying accurate scientific information to the public on the risks of climate change - or, indeed, of even conveying what climate change is."

Over the decades the climate-change war has been waged, many tactics used to soften up the masses have been unproductive at best and downright discouraging at worst. Even if you believe doomsday is coming, is it really such a good idea to talk it up and wallow in the death and destruction that will result if we don't change our awful ways and acknowledge Al Gore's inconvenient truth?

Such pessimistic predictions may have seemed effective as a way of winning attention (and the Nobel). But if the goal is to motivate people to useful action, say those who are experienced in environmental communication, it calls for something new.

"People have a finite capacity for worry," says Mr. Hoggan, the author of Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public . "When you overwhelm people with catastrophe, you don't actually engage them - you just produce an emotional numbness."

People have a finite capacity for worry. When you overwhelm people with catastrophe, you don't actually engage them - you just produce an emotional numbness. James Hoggan, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation

That's an intellectual evolution that Mr. Suzuki himself has gone through. His widely viewed TV series The Nature of Things once tended to depict nature as a beautiful pristine thing that bad humans habitually destroyed. Even now, his enemies feel able to undermine his mainstream scientific views by dismissing him as a merchant of doom.

Yet the current incarnation of Mr. Suzuki, in keeping with his foundation's communication techniques, has shifted from the dependable jeremiads of old to a message of everyday hope and more immediate usefulness. Last year, he co-wrote David Suzuki's Green Guide , a book that comes to grips with climate change through small-scale lifestyle adjustments such as biodegradable carpeting and energy-efficient appliances.

"I believe that one has to keep warning [that]the signs are there, the science is in," Mr. Suzuki said when the book came out. "But I realized years ago that you can get people to respond to fear, but you can't sustain it, because it's too soul-destroying."


So what will people respond to when fear doesn't do it? Mark van Vugt is a psychologist who teaches at VU University Amsterdam, and he's part of an emerging group of cognitive scientists studying the sometimes uneasy relationship between climate-change messaging and the workings of the brain.

He says the announcements to be made by global leaders in Copenhagen are of much less consequence than the decisions that are being shaped in the complex minds of ordinary human beings.

"It's very hard to look at a climate-change conference as a primary driver of individual behaviour," Dr. van Vugt says. "Copenhagen is about political solutions, but the environmental issues remain inherently uncertain for most people. So what we have to do is translate these issues into something meaningful at the individual level."

Acquiring information is the basic way the brain deals with uncertainty, and with a subject as complex and contested as long-term climate change, Dr. van Vugt believes the best approach is to localize the discussion: Make it less about far-off glaciers, because people find it hard to cope with a problem they can't easily influence, and more about local parks, forests or air quality.

Any kind of message for change, he believes, must focus on personal identity and our need to belong: "We're influenced by significant others and want to look good to our neighbours and friends."

So a good way to persuade people to reduce electrical consumption is to let them compare their rates with the rest of the community: Have utility bills award a smiley face to those whose consumption is lower than their neighbours and a frowning face to those who are profligate. People then will reduce without any other external motivator, Dr. van Vugt says.

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