You’ve been lied to. We all have.
I’ve been working with environmental management since 2007’ish. Almost a decade now.
A lot has changed, thankfully. Though it might seem gloomy, we are making progress as a whole.
Throughout the years, however, there are key subjects that keep resurfacing in my work with climate change communication.
There are lies that echo in communities working with climate change. Again, and again.
Writing, late one night, I felt I was suffocating. I felt like the untold truths about how we approached climate change, were clawing at me like a wild beast, and that my only escape was to talk about them honestly.
The following is a confession, and an explanation as to why we continue these lies. I hope it’s also the first step to breaking the cycle.
The 1st lie – We know about all of the dangers of climate change
We don’t. No one has the right answer. We like to believe, that the dangers of climate change have been mapped our by scientist, and if we simply follow their advice, we’ll pull through.
But scientists do not have the complete answer, because the climate on this little globe, is far more complex and delicate than we imagined.
It seems almost every week a new climate record is broken. Warmest month in recorded history, most severe drought, strongest hurricane, etc.
Scientists are continuously altering their models and climate predictions because the effects of climate change are happening faster than anyone anticipated.
Why do we keep insisting that the consequences of global climate change are known?
Short answer: The truth is fucking scary.
We are facing a monster, and we don’t even know how big or how dangerous it is. Worse, we don’t want to know, that we don’t know.
Our brains, though capable of dreaming up books and symphonies, does not cope well with uncertainty. Dealing with uncertainty requires a lot of energy.
Hence, when a big, scary uncertainty shows up, we tend to either simplify it to something we can deal with, or reject the idea altogether.
So our brain switches to autopilot and tells us not to listen.
Furthermore, scientists are reluctant to stand up and say they are 100% certain because that’s not the scientific way. There is almost always a small margin of error.
In itself, this is not a problem, but people are built to avoid uncertainties. We hate it. It forces our energy demanding part of the brain to activate, which is a drag. Your brain likes energy conservation. That’s why sitting on the couch feels nicer than going for a run, even though you know running is better for you.
‘You fancy scientist don’t know S***t’
Let’s say we are faced with two people. They are in a debate. The first one of them starts saying;
‘There is a lot of statistical evidence supporting this theory, and only a small margin of error, which can be accounted for in the regression of…’
You’ve stopped paying attention, haven’t you? That’s because your brain had to work. Let’s look at the other person in the debate and hear his argument:
‘You’re not even sure of what you’re saying! You only have a theory, you don’t have proof. It could be a lot of other things. It could be a natural fluctuation. Why should I get worried if this is nothing? You scientist, all high and mighty, always think you know things, but then 5 years later you turn out to be wrong so why should I trust you?’
Sound familiar? The brain prefers confidence over doubt, and science seems like doubt if you don’t work in science.
Theories, uncertainties, and margins aren’t things our brains want to deal with. So unless we put energy into understanding what climate change is, we are likely to disregard it.
And we have seen many people disregard it. It’s just easier. The cognitive energy we have to apply to both understanding climate change and reacting to it is overwhelming for many people.
It’s easier to accept that it isn’t happening … for some people at least.
The 2nd lie – Do it for the children
We’re not doing it for the children. We shouldn’t be. We should be doing it for ourselves.
The effects of climate change are happening as we speak. It’s not going to be something we will see 50 or 100 years from now. We are in it. Droughts, melting glaciers, coral bleaching, floods, storms.
You’ve seen the news, you know we’re already experiencing the first of the effects. We are consuming far more natural resources than the globe is producing, and we cannot sustain the current population growth and resource demand.
We are running out of things to make more things.
Even if we combat climate change, we’re still going to end up with a scarcity problem unless we address our global overconsumption.
It’s easy to say do it for the children because then you still sound like you care and want to make a wholehearted effort. Instead, saying that you are doing it for you, and for your future self, makes the problem more immediate and urgent. This scares the brain.
People don’t really give a damn about the children
If you think this is going to affect your great-grandchildren, then you’ve delayed the need for action because mentally, it’s much less energy-consuming to think of the problem in terms of future strangers. That’s what our distant relatives are to us, future strangers. We have difficulty relating to them.
How do you react when I tell you, that the people living at the time of Shakespeare had the same general thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns as you?
Your instinct is not to believe it. People from the past are less knowledgeable, right? They could not possibly be having the same thoughts or emotions, could they? They were less developed than you and me, right?
Nope. We have more technology now, and of course, we know more about the world, but our IQ and the way we interact with others is the same. But we can’t relate to people in the distant past or distant future.
We had no evolutionary need to, because either they would be dead, or we would.
The same thing happens with our future relatives. We can’t relate. Their lives and problems have nothing to do with me -even if I am the source of their problems.
This is why we should stop doing it for the kids.
The 3rd lie – We can solve it
Climate change is not 1 problem that we need to address and there is no quick fix.
It’s all complex, intertwined, interconnected problems. One is making the other worse. You have to allocate time and energy to understand it, and the hard truth is the most brilliant minds in the world don’t have the full scope. It is of the utmost importance, to invest that time and energy into understanding the broader dimensions of the problem.
We need to take the time and energy to really learn about these intertwined issues. In order to unravel them and solve them.
Thinking long and hard.
Unfortunately, not many people do this. Time is a scares resource, and in our busy lives who takes the time and energy to really dig into a subject? As a consequence, the way to direct attention to the subject is:
‘3 simple ways to…’
‘Scared of climate change? Do these easy things to avoid…’
‘What to vote? 5 questions to ask yourself before the next election.’
An English teacher had the brilliant idea to mask classic poems as click-bait. I think my favorite is, “5 Ways To Complicate Your Decision-Making Process” by Robert Frost.
Why do we do it? Substitution
For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong -H. L. Mencken
So instead we substitute the hard questions, and the tough subject, with easy ones. That way, we only receive answers that can be digested in 5 minutes or less.
This is also why we keep reading these click bait articles.
Do these 10 things to make you happy!
This easy trick helped me lose 5 pounds in one week! And so on..
The comedian Jim Gaffigan put it nicely… ‘It’s all McDonald’s. It’s fast literary garbage with little nutrition and only serves you the purpose of feeling full, temporarily ending your craving, and avoiding starvation. It has little to no nutritional value.’
… and it makes me feel like a whore
I find myself using it. Not because I like it, not because I think it’s the right thing to do, but because I know it works. It’s something I can do to get your attention. And it makes me feel like a whore.
There are things about your immediate future that you need to be aware of if you want to enjoy your retirement. There are things you need to think about, and make choices about, and act on, even though it’s time-consuming, and requires energy.
You’ve done things like this before. You’ve taken out a mortgage, got insurance, maybe even had a kid. You thought long and hard about your life and the consequences of certain actions.
Climate change is one of those things. It will affect you. Not your kids, not some distant stranger in the future. You.
Your money, your health, your comfort level in life, your retirement.
If you are still reading, you are more than halfway there. I congratulate you. For whatever reason, you have the willpower, and mental capability to do this.
Just like figuring out your retirement plan, it’s gonna feel complicated as hell, but I promise you, you’re gonna get there.
This is where you start. Open your eyes, accept that this is scary as hell, and then buckle up, cause we’ve got work to do.