Friday 21 November 2014

Rewiring the Brain - George Marshall speaks to UCL

Last night the UCL school of Public Policy hosted a talk by George Marshall, author of Don’t even think about it: Are our brains wired to ignore climate change, and founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN). His role is not as a climate scientist but to explore the way Climate Change is communicated. He raised a number of interesting points all of which can be found in his book; whether climate change needs an enemy, the moral license of companies and individuals, and the social narratives through which climate change exists and should/will continue to prevail.

The section that most stood out for me was how the balance of our left and right brain, a deep survival instinct, plays against action to mitigate climate change. The left side of our brains is where we evaluate risk using rationale and analytic reasoning. The right draws on proximity, social values and past experience to then prioritize threats. This explains why when people are asked ‘are you concerned about climate change’ they answer predominantly yes (Leiserowitz et al 2014), but when asked ‘list your top 5 concerns’ climate change very rarely takes centre stage. The left side recognizes climate change as a risk but the right gives it low prioritization. Marshall explains this is why threats such as ISIS or Ebola are much more prominent, they are immediate, they play into cultural fears and are easily identifiable.

So how do we change our narrative to combat this in the climate sphere. Firstly climate change impacts do exist here, rather than narratives of stranded polar bears western countries need to be shown evidence of flooding, storms, heatwaves and so on, which while not necessarily directly attributable to anthropogenic warming can elucidate on the impacts. Whilst impacts are hitting the developed world more power needs to be given to the voices of those worst hit in places such as the Pacific Isles. Recent contributions from to the Green Climate Fund by major nations is a great way to start this, I worry though about the rhetoric of people seeing this as protecting others ahead of themselves. The public (and even parliament) need to be shown that reducing emissions worldwide is self-preservation as well as aid. Prioritization makes the human race naturally cost averse, and from an economics point of view discounting prevents ever seeing climate change as worth paying for now. The idea of insurance, and insurance companies, need to get on board and get the message to the public of certainty. People insure their homes and cars for massively more uncertain odds and it’s this risk that needs to be demonstrated in clear numbers to the public.

Marshall presents climate change as the perfect problem from wherever you view it, be economics and market failure, cognitive and self-preservation or cultural and racial. He notes though that often we reframe climate change to make it the perfect problem, putting it in the distance and future to avoid it. The talk, and book, are truly fascinating and I’d urge all interested in how we communicate climate science to take heed.

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