Monday, 16 August 2010

How to be less maladaptive

Or, what are the messages we should be sending out about climate change?

Most of us are somewhere on the ‘maladaptive’ scale according to professor of public ethics and author of Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton, meaning that our actions don’t correspond to what we know about climate change. This is a form of denial. 

So how do we get our “actions and principles to dance together”, paraphrasing  climate change communications expert George Marshall, author of Carbon Detox. Apparently it’s a psychological precept that we humans seek a close balance between our beliefs and behaviour.

Let's dance.
Pic: Wikimedia/
We’ve got far to go. While a recent YouGov survey showed Brit’s interest in climate change has significantly decreased from 80 per cent in 2006 to 62 per cent in 2010, the evidence for an average temperature rise of 4 degrees Celcius mounts.

A poll last year showed that only 41 per cent of Brits believe that climate change is manmade. Compare this to the fact that the UN’s IPPC have called the evidence for manmade climate change “unequivocal”.

Apathy. Denial. It’s clear that the attitudes of people need to be shifted. And possibly, they could be influenced on the basis of what is known about the psychology of getting people to act on climate change. An argument for this is that the media has been part of the reason most people are still not acting in a significant way on climate change, so it must consciously be part of the solution.

It’s a big challenge because there are many barriers to acting on climate change – so says my mate Morgan Phillip’s PhD thesis.  There are many things in our lives competing with it for our headspace, our consideration and our aspirations as well as our time. Things such as: celebrity culture, consumerism, sports, our televisions (four hours a day!) – not to mention our jobs, home lives and our families and social life.

Another big issue is the distance factor. Yes, it might be a crime if there are already climate refugees and conflicts are already fuelled by lack of resources. But, writes George Marshall in Yes Magazine:

“… [P]eople have decided that they can keep climate change outside their “norms of attention” through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. In opinion poll research the majority of people will define it as far away (“it’s a global problem, not a local problem”) or far in the future (“it’s a huge problem for future generations”),”

Another issue is that predicting climate change is done via the seemingly abstract science of climate modelling, and also the numbers themselves are hard to wrap our heads around.

Act now or forever hold your peace
So, all in all, it doesn’t seem like something we need to act on now. But it is. Luckily, there are some psychologists that have been looking at how to remedy this. I wonder what campaigning but upfront and objective journalists can learn from them. What kinds of messages should we be putting out if we care about informing and truth-telling but also the consequences of what we write?

The take-home message of the big American Psychological Association report on climate change psychology that was published last year was: climate change doom creates inaction. This makes sense: tell people enough bad stuff regularly enough and it’s all too tempting to put fingers in ears.

This could be a reason, taken in its purest form, not to write (or listen to) sensationalist stories that warn of an environmental apocalypse. But the truth can be pretty grim itself. So how can you write about it an not leave people feeling disempowered?

A solution could be balance out news pieces – and let’s be honest, most news tends to be about bad things that happen – with some positive news. This could be about inspiring stuff that people are already doing to take the reins on climate change and might get people energised to do something or solutions-based or adaptation stories. It sounds pretty bland in black and white, but it is uplifting to read about people who are innovating, campaigning and are leading the way. I recommend Positive News, Lucy Siegle’s Innovators column – and I will be writing something on grassroots green heroes shortly.

Sell it or shake it
Sustainability consultancy Futerra argue for communicating climate change in a way that works. They write in their report Sell the Sizzle that “We wish that understanding climate change would automatically lead to lifestyles [sic] changes. But it doesn’t.”

Instead, they propose selling a vision of a sustainable future. The sizzle of a sausage sells. Heaven sells. Hell does not. In an article on Solitaire Townsend says:

'For years we've tried to 'sell' climate change, but a lot of people aren't buying… Threats of climate hell haven't seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it. We must build a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven. And this vision must be desirable. If [it] isn't more desirable than what we've got now then why bother reaching for it?'

This line of thinking seems to be a logical conclusion to the APA’s findings (although the APA were more focused on identifying issues to overcome rather than solutions – so far).

However, Hamilton disagrees. He tells me “We need to belt people over the head with the facts at this point in the debate.” He thinks that if the public goes through the process of feeling anxious, afraid or sad about the extent of climate change, they will go through transformation – that elusive bridge between values and actions that Futerra dismisses in their report New Rules New Game

Is deep reflection the bridge between our values and action?

What is needed for this, Hamilton argues, is deep reflection on the truth of climate change – it’s only when people touch upon it superficially that they fail to be affected. And once you’ve been shaken to the core – the ‘burning embers’ diagram does a pretty good job – there is no way you can fail to act. Even the licensing ‘green halo’ effect can be reduced “if people see those activities as necessary,” says Toronto University researcher Chen-Bo Zong.

But I wonder about whether this approach is *too* terrifying. Where does emotional support for this process come from? “People heal and make change when they feel supported, understood and challenged.” Writes Renée Lertzman in

So I ask Hamilton whether positive communications had a role to play in lifting deep-thinking people out of their climate depression and into action. He responded that positive stories are okay in the context of the reality of how bad it is.

I don't know if I agree - that still sounds a bit depressing. Surely we must get the balance right between informing and offering hope? A dash of requiem and a dollop of sizzle, if you like.

Except possibly neither of these approaches is right. In a Twitter natter on the topic with 10:10-er @Cian he said:

“Maybe one of the issues of the past 20 years is that we've tried various forms of 1 message”.

Sauce not sizzle?
Malcolm Gladwell’s talk on spaghetti sauce (see below) gets at the point that you can reach many more people if you offer them options – chunky, Italian style and so on rather than just one generic sauce.

George Marshall recognises we are not all just one generic public and so he organises his book Carbon Detox around a handful of marketing types. One set of instructions for the goal-orientated ‘Winner’ and one for the make-a-difference ‘Striver.’ I’m pretty sure this kind of approach has a sound basis in a meta-analysis of behaviour change literature (paywall. Or check out p222-223 on constellations of behaviours if you can).

On the surface, this looks good. People can chose what action to take based on their personality and preferences. But even when you add nuance, not all of the problems are resolved. We’re still in a sauce. For instance, if you go about telling winners that it’s okay to have the occasional high-carbon treat (in lieu of a habitually high-carbon lifestyle) and strivers that they have to lead the way forwards for the environmental movement by being activists – isn’t the disparity kind of unfair?

I don’t know what the solutions to this are. Maybe we just have to accept people have to do what works for them – as long as they are engaging in significant behaviour change. Some people might be more ahead of the curve than others, and maybe they won’t resent the winners all their materialistic desires. Humphf.

Back to the journalism
I think I’ve shown that there is some contention over the best ways to communicate climate change to get people be interested again and act. And I’m not sure this really helps us as campaigning journalists apart from that we should keep all bases covered: belt people with the truth; sell them an alternative, utopian vision by writing about solutions; and give lots of variety in green lifestyle stories.

It seems an uncomfortable that this approach is full of contradictions and we don’t yet know the right formula to give people the ‘right’ amount of information about the science and despair, and the ‘right’ amount of inspiration and multi-faceted practical advice to pull them out of it to get them off their bums to do something about their behaviour. There is a lot at stake. 

Perhaps what’s needed is a more individually-tailored news and features site that plugs in to where you are on your psychological process of dealing with climate change. Will there be a point in the future where the internet will interact with our belief systems? Discuss.


Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”PNAS March 17, 2009 vol. 106 no. 11 4133-4137, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812355106

Heimlich, J. & Ardoin, N.M. (2008) Understanding Behaviour to understand behaviour change: a literature review, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 215-237, DOI: 10.1080/13504620802148881


  1. Really interesting blog post thanks for that. We have been working through a lot of these ideas during our environmental education project. Our project Atlantic Rising is based on the idea that by putting young people in touch with others who are experiencing the effects of climate change now it will encourage action. We have been trying to convince young people in the UK and US that climate change is a problem now not for the future. Something that the young people we have been meeting in Africa and South America already experience. Sometimes this works well other times not so much - so I was fascinated to read your thoughts on the matter.
    Have a look at what we are up to here


  2. So Doom and Gloom don't work too well. What might? Competitive spirit? Out-do your neighbours?

    What can we do to turn environmentalism into something that makes you wealthy, or happy, or successful, or popular - an aspiration for everyone. Not just for the middle classes, because lets face it we like being smug so will do it anyway, but if you're poor and on the breadline, too, or rich and extravagant and used to it.

    And there must be more ways to make it easy to do, too? As easy as to pick up as a £3.50 6-pack of beer in the supermarket. As easy as tying your shoes. As easy as chips on a Friday night.

    There must be a way.

  3. Excellent post - those stats you mentioned right at the start show journalism has a lot to answer for (or, if you're feeling more generous, a lot of catching up to do).

    Misunderstanding of science and an inability to show why stories at the other side of the world matter have something to do with it for sure...

  4. I think an article I wrote may possibly be related?:

    Its a difficult ole line to walk, of how to keep people interested enough without bombarding them. Im writing a show at the moment all about climate change called "Carbonholics Anonymous" which shows how our need for carbon is like an addiction, and we need to move through the stages to ween ourselves off it.

    But like you say, there must be a way, I'm quite proud of how far we've come in the last 15 years. And especially compared to other countries. In Spain for example, Climate Change is hardly heard of.

    We can do more and we must do more, but we must recognise we cant go cold turkey, I'm sure with people like Christine pushing us, we'll do alright.

    Now, where do I get this £3.50 pack of beer?


  5. Excellent discussion starting here!

    I've blogged a response on Becoming Green:

  6. Fundamentally, people are motivated by happiness. the problem is that currently people conflate wealth and consumption with happiness.

    we must build the case that creativity is the solution to climate change and the result is increased happiness...

    green and happy baby! yeah!