When Pope Francis released his encyclical about climate change, I was reading a book called “Don’t Even Think About It.” This original and readable book by George Marshall is about the reasons why climate facts have not spurred action.
The pope’s assertion that climate change is “a global problem with grave implications” could lead to a moral awakening and move people who have been unmoved by facts. On Tuesday, a major scientific report will be released that should also get our attention: it connects climate change with a decline in human health.
We need a mass conversion experience, something that appeals to our deepest feelings rather than just to our intellect. Framing the issue in religious terms may help overcome the forces that profit from a fossil-fuel economy and their campaign of subtly creating doubt about the reality of the problem.
“We are — as never before — in a position to choose charity over greed and frugality over wastefulness in order to affirm our moral commitment to our neighbor and our respect for the Earth,” wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury and a leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a joint op-ed in the New York Times.
But, as Marshall’s book points out, there are powerful psychological, social and even semantic factors that make fundamental change difficult to achieve. Here are some:
* The framing of information about climate change is as polarized as our politics;
* The issue has become a marker of social identity, like guns, and facts lose out to compelling emotional stories that speak to people’s values;
* We tend to follow those around us, because of the “bystander effect,” and those who speak up are often bullied or ostracized;
* Deniers have associated climate action with government control, giving more power to technocratic elites, and a lower material standard of living;
* Climate change doesn’t feel threatening to our primitive brains, like nuclear plants or toxic chemicals do, and it has become accepted as part of normal life;
* Climate change lacks emotional triggers that move us, symbolized by the acronym PAIN: we react to what’s Personal, Abrupt, Immoral or Now;
* People become resigned if they regard climate change as an unavoidable condition;
* Scientists use the word “uncertain” to mean “not beyond argument,” but deniers and the media interpret it to mean there’s a genuine debate over the science;
* There’s a conspiracy of silence, largely because all of us contribute to and benefit from fossil fuel pollution;
* Governments shy away from focusing on climate change, using euphemisms like “energy independence” and “green jobs”;
* People will shoulder a burden and make sacrifices if they feel they’re sharing in a communal purpose and get a sense of social belonging, but that’s been lacking;
* The corporate media decision-makers avoid the subject because they know people don’t want to think about it (the ABC Nightly News didn’t even mention the encyclical Thursday);
* Climate change suggests that a way of life we associate with comfort and protection of our families is now a menace;
* There’s no compelling narrative of cause, effect, perpetrators and motive; and deniers have filled the gap with the bogeymen of government, taxes and control;
* The two main symbols of activism — Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change — are widely derided (perhaps the pope has changed this);
* Climate change has become associated with “environmentalists,” with their emphasis on saving, banning and stopping, and is detached from other issues, conveying a message of exclusivity.
For new readers of this blog, here’s an index/reference guide to over 100 past posts in 12 categories, including simple living, frugality, gardening and climate change.