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Elizabeth Renzetti

Elizabeth Renzetti

ELIZABETH RENZETTI

The perfect storm of climate denial Add to ...

What we’ve got here, if I may quote Strother Martin’s immortal line in Cool Hand Luke, is failure to communicate. Or perhaps it’s a failure of math. How else to explain this discrepancy: Almost 100 per cent of climate scientists believe that human behaviour will have a long-term effect on the planet’s temperature. Only half the people in the United States, Canada and Britain think the same.

That number varies within a small margin, depending on the question being asked. An Angus Reid poll in May, 2013, found that 58 per cent of Canadians “believe that global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.” That figure is 47 per cent for America and 45 per cent for Britain. So, somewhere between 42 and 55 per cent of people in these rational, educated countries believe that the weight of scientific evidence collected over decades is bunkum and hooey, and that these scientists are at best misguided and at worst actively engaged in conspiracies to mislead the public.

This will not be news to anyone who has slogged through the comments section on a story about climate change, dodging shrapnel from either side, but it is still quite something. It’s also kind of important. We’re not talking about a disagreement over who’s the best soccer player, or which country has the nicest beaches. The future of the planet is at stake.

Wait a minute – that’s a terrible phrase, “the future of the planet.” It’s exactly the kind of overcooked rhetoric that would make George Marshall cringe (even if it is true.) Mr. Marshall is a British environmentalist and author of the wonderfully clear-eyed new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

The answer, as he discovers through talking to neuroscientists, psychologists, climate deniers and cultural theorists, is that in terms of existential threats, climate change is a bit of a perfect storm. (That bad pun was required for levity.) It’s a noise we hear far off in the dark, not an immediate danger, and as a species we’re wired to respond to threats that leap at us with teeth and claws.

As Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells Mr. Marshall, “A distant, abstract and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.” Prof. Kahneman apologizes as he eats a bowl of tomato soup: “I really see no path to success on climate change.”

So that’s a bit depressing. Mr. Marshall continues to map the other hurdles, behavioural and cultural that stand in the way of understanding: We are biased toward the existing beliefs of our communities, so tend to believe deniers if we’re surrounded by them. We overestimate our ability to fend off future danger. We will take the bird in the hand over two that might or might not still live in the bush. Even the increasing number of extreme weather events can reinforce skepticism, as people survive, rebuild and think: “Hey, that wasn’t so bad.”

Fundamentally, there has been a failure to frame the climate-change story in a way that people understand and believe. Stories are what sway opinion, Mr. Marshall writes, and a lie powerfully told will outsell a dull truth. “It is extremely hard for a deeply unengaging narrative based in fact to compete with a compelling narrative based on falsehood. ‘The balance of evidence leads many scientists to suggest that our emissions may be damaging the climate’ is, unfortunately, less compelling than ‘Rogue scientists are conspiring to fake evidence in order to secure larger research grants.’ ”

Part of the fault, he writes, lies with the campaigners and scientists, who have either failed to latch onto a successful narrative or retreated to their offices in despair. Why, for example, do political messages about climate change always talk about the future, rather than the present? How has the polar bear become the symbol of climate catastrophe? How many people can relate to polar bears? A spectacularly failed awareness campaign, featuring a dad reading a carbon-emission scary story to his child, comes in for particular contempt from other activists: “It was about as useful as a marzipan dildo.”

Okay, so doom, gloom, rain of fire, etc. Is there no hope for global understanding, a concerted realization that the next door is marked “Time’s up”? On the contrary, Mr. Marshall has much hope, arguing that global threats have been met with global efforts before, that small symbolic acts have great power, and most importantly, that behaviour can change on a large scale.

Otherwise you end up like Strother Martin, saying, “Some men you just can’t reach.” And that can’t be the end of the story.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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