The 5 psychological barriers to climate action
What we think about when we try not to think about global warming, and what to do about it.
It's all too easy to distance and doubt ourselves away from climate facts. Particularly since they are sometimes presented in abstract, doom-laden, fear-mongering, guilt-inducing, and polarizing ways. We seem to have a rich repertoire of ways to avoid changing the behaviors that belong to our sense of self. We’re clever at guarding ourselves against messages that we don’t really want to hear.
Scan any given day’s media and Internet coverage of climate, and you’ll see all those modes of distancing and self-defense on display. For more than three decades a host of messages from well-meaning scientists, advocates, and others have tried to not only bring the facts about climate change home but also break through the wall that separates what we know from what we do and how we live.
But the messages are not working, sometimes not even for the most receptive audiences. This qualifies as the greatest science communication failure in history: The more facts, the less concern. Over the last twenty years, the messengers have encountered not only vicious counterattacks but also what seem to be impenetrable walls of psychological backlash or indifference. And in response to a sense of futility the messengers are, understandably, growing despondent and exasperated.
First, we need to see through the mind-and-message clutter that has gotten us where we are today. If that seems a big task, consider this: Everything you see on the Internet or in your own friends’ and neighbors’ reactions to climate change can be condensed into five main defense barriers that keep climate messages away. They work as invisible defense walls inside that block the messages from leading to meaningful response and action.
Let’s call them, for easy reference, the five D’s.
1. Distance. The climate issue remains remote for the majority of us, in a number of ways. We can’t see climate change. Melting glaciers are usually far away, as are the spots on earth now experiencing sea level rise, more severe floods, droughts, fires, and other climate disruptions. It may hit foreign others, not me or my kin. And the heaviest impacts are far off in time—in the coming century or farther. Despite some people stating that global warming is here now, it still feels distant from everyday concerns.
2. Doom. When climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost, and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helplessness grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that “the end is nigh” so many times, it no longer really registers.
3. Dissonance. If what we know (for instance, our fossil energy use contributes to global warming), conflicts with what we do (drive, fly, eat beef, or heat with fossil fuels), then dissonance sets in. The same happens if my attitudes conflict with those of people important to me. In both cases, the lack of convenient behaviors and social support weaken climate attitudes over time. But by doubting or downplaying what we know (the facts), we can feel better about how we live. Thus, actual behavior and social relations determine the attitude in the long run.
4. Denial. When we negate, ignore, or otherwise avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change, we find refuge from fear and guilt. By joining outspoken denialism and mockery, we can get back at those whom we feel criticize our lifestyles, think they know better, and try to tell us how to live. Denial is based in self-defense, not ignorance, intelligence, or lack of information.
5. iDentity. We filter news through our professional and cultural identity. We look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away what challenges them. If people who hold conservative values, for instance, hear from a liberal that the climate is changing, they are less likely to believe the message. Cultural identity overrides the facts. If new information requires us to change our selves, then the information is likely to lose. We experience resistance to calls for change in self-identity.
These five barriers, or Five D’s if you will, are all substantial and unyielding. Taken together they may seem invincible. They are interrelated, but still distinct. Think of them as concentric circles around the citadel of the self, with distance as the first line of defense and identity as the final, innermost defense.
The anti-climate movement has been successful in triggering each of these barriers in its battle against climate science. But inadvertently, climate communicators have activated them, too, for instance by conveying climate facts through abstract graphs and long time lines, using framing that backfires, not linking risks to opportunities for action, relying on bad storytelling, and provoking self-protective and cultural cognition by unnecessary polarization.
Knowing what the barriers are, though, and deciding what to do about them are two very different things. We’ve already tried breaking through them with ever more facts and eight-hundred-plus-page reports. We’ve gone down that road, and repeatedly found ourselves in a hole. The combined effect of the five D’s guarantees failure. If we find ourselves in a hole, it may be time to stop digging. It may be time, too, to leave behind attempts to hammer angrily away at the defenses, and stop blaming the other side of denial altogether. Something has to change. A different story is starting to be told. A different result is waiting to happen.
There may be ways to simply get around and beyond the Five D’s. Good coaches rarely attack the habitual defenses head-on, but look for opportunities to do something else. Remember the infamous Maginot Line? The French created this heavily fortified line of defense along their border with Germany prior to World War II, hoping it would keep them safe from German invasion. But the mobile German army simply evaded the defense and went around it. They invaded France through Belgium instead.
What can anyone concerned with climate, but frustrated with the progress, learn from this? That perhaps sometimes it is better to evade defenses than attack them outright. It’s futile to believe that it’s possible to run right through defenses with ever more pointed and grim rational-information campaigns. But communicators can outflank the fortifications behind which many protect themselves from climate reality. To regain momentum, it is better to find territory that lets us move more freely around the Five D’s. I propose we abandon linear antagonism, us versus them. Instead, let’s move more with the flow of the human psyche. People have to want to live in a climate-friendly society because they see it as better, not because they get scared or instructed into it.
GIFs and art courtesy of Iona Fox
Main Image: Shutterstock
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