Our cognitive machinery makes it easy to deny the evidence of impending trouble from climate change. We need better storytellers to help us understand — and respond to — the threat we face.
In Greek mythology, sirens were seductive women who sang irresistibly beautiful songs to lure sailors. Unsuspecting seafarers, mesmerized by the music of these femmes fatales, were enticed to sail ever closer to the rocky coasts of the sirens’ islands. Listening to the sirens’ songs ensured a horrible fate, as the sailors’ boats crashed upon the rocks. Climate denial is a kind of siren song. It’s seductive to believe climate disruption might not be true or be as bad as it’s made out to be, but following the siren song of denial takes us into very dangerous waters.
Nobody in their right mind wants climate disruption to be true. Only a sociopath would take any pleasure, schadenfreude, in being right on this one. Even people who work hard to seek the truth about climate disruption have trouble believing it’s quite as bad as the evidence would have it. That’s because it’s hard to believe and easy to deny. Our minds will play all sorts of tricks to keep us from absorbing that truth. It’s perfectly natural to heed the siren song of denial, which makes it even more dangerous.
Denial comes in many forms. You don’t have to think that climate disruption is a load of bunk to be in denial. Some accept it’s real but deny the consequences. Some ignore it altogether. Lots of people sit somewhere in between: the SUV driver who can’t admit he’s contributing to the problem, the captain of industry who wants to keep turning a profit the same old way, an anxious mother who turns her thoughts to something less worrisome. The most slippery form of denial is to acknowledge the problem but dismiss the consequences. Politicians who admit climate disruption is a threat yet speak of allowing carbon counts to rise to 550 parts per million (ppm) because it’s politically expedient are in denial. We are all in some degree of denial. It’s natural because climate disruption is scary.
Marketers have known for decades that we’re not rational creatures. A good advertisement doesn’t focus on facts but gets us to respond emotionally. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have mountains of evidence that thought is rarely logical, even without the influence of a good marketing campaign. All sorts of stuff — emotions, personal history, fear, desire — get in the way of making a logical decision. Star Trek fans have always known we have little in common with the Vulcans. Mostly, we humans believe what we want to believe.
Normally that’s not a problem. As long as we know how to pay the rent, feed our kids, drive our cars, and hold down a job, we’re pretty much free to believe whatever we want. Perhaps free trade will bring more jobs, perhaps it won’t. Maybe buying that new car really will make me happy. Blowing on the dice in Vegas will make them come up seven. Believing what we want sometimes comes at a price, but it’s one we can normally afford. But some beliefs matter a great deal and affect us all. It matters whether or not we believe DDT causes cancer because we need the political will to ban it. It matters if a politician tells the truth about the reasons for declaring war. And it matters that we believe our carbon emissions are warming the planet.
When Galileo discovered that the Earth orbited the sun and not the other way around, his idea was met with disbelief and anger. He was threatened with excommunication from the Church. His discovery ran counter to accepted wisdom. It ran head-on into other deeply held beliefs. It was important back then to believe humans were at the center of the universe. All sorts of religious, cultural, spiritual, and emotional systems depended on it. A threat to those beliefs caused negative emotions, like fear and anger. Brains soaked in medieval culture would not easily let in this new belief. Eventually, culture changed, and we now know Galileo was ahead of his time.
When belief in climate disruption comes knocking at your mind’s door, it runs up against all sorts of cognitive machinery working overtime to keep it out. It bumps into other deeply held, but incompatible, beliefs: the future is better than the past, economies grow forever, technology and markets solve all problems, humans can’t really bake the whole planet. Add to the mix an explicit campaign of disinformation and a growing awareness of how hard it’s going to be to stop, and it’s no wonder we’re all in some kind of denial! But avoiding difficult beliefs is no help. We teach our children to face up to their fears. We need to do the same ourselves…
Instead of fighting our shared cognitive biases, a smart communications strategy seeks to take advantage of them. Imagine a charming, telegenic champion of an era of renewed prosperity that is underwritten by a job-creating economic stimulus and powered by abundant low-carbon energy sources. Instead of fear or confusion, our first reaction to climate disruption is one of possibility — a brave new world of clean energy abundance and sustainable economic growth. Our default becomes acceptance. The charming spokesperson’s vision is boosted by the halo effect, and because we like the conclusion — climate action leads to economic stimulus — the affect heuristic works with us. When civic leaders of all stripes sing this tune, confirmation bias reinforces acceptance. And when that conversation spreads into our daily lives, peer group bias defends our new belief. An energy moon shot to an abundant, clean future speaks to our biases, not against them. Standard fare in professional marketing and pr campaigns.
It’s also possible to imagine a strategy that gets around those biases. In our culture, artists are the people best able to articulate truths in ways that skirt rational thinking. Storytellers, C.S. Lewis said, carry meaning in a way that rational truth-tellers cannot. “For me,” the novelist wrote, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
Cape Farewell taps into that renewable resource. Founded in the United Kingdom by photographer, artist, and all-around buccaneer David Buckland in 2003, Cape Farewell brings artists and scientists together on journeys to the front lines of the changing climate — often by boat to the Arctic. Over a number of weeks, those very different types of thinkers share stories, data points, and songs. Upon their return, new ways of thinking and communicating about climate disruption are unleashed into our culture. As Buckland is fond of saying, “Climate is culture, mate!” Cape Farewell’s Canadian opener was the art exhibit Carbon-14 at the Royal Ontario Museum in the fall of 2013. My own contribution (a collaboration with Buckland) was a bullet made of $180 worth of silver, representing a price on carbon that I see as the “silver bullet” solution.
Cape Farewell’s mission doesn’t lack ambition. They want nothing less than to change the zeitgeist and embed a response to climate disruption into the very genes of our culture. The idea is simple: scientists, brilliant as they may be in understanding the inner workings of the world, are terrible communicators. It’s the artists who tell the stories that linger, sing the songs that can lift our hearts, and make the pieces of culture that last through the centuries, so put artists and scientists together in an environment that makes them think, share, and interact. Let the scientists inform the artists, and have the artists inform the world. Cape Farewell’s global art projects — most recently Carbon-12 in Paris, Carbon-13 in Texas and Carbon-14 in Toronto — are the tip of the iceberg.
What really engages the broader public is the way participating artists — like singer-songwriter Feist and novelists Yann Martel and Ian McEwan — incorporate what they’ve learned into popular culture. “The pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs are generating a heat — the hot breath of our civilization. How can we begin to restrain ourselves?” wrote novelist McEwan after visiting the melting Arctic ice on a Cape Farewell voyage. “We resemble a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a fruit. We are fouling our nest, and we know we must act decisively, against our immediate inclinations. But can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species — in our public debates we can sound like a rookery in full throat. We are superstitious, hierarchical and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, even-handed and altruistic.”
Cape Farewell is a means to find a new conversation, a way of getting past cognitive biases. Information by itself is not enough. Telling people how bad things are getting just makes them more defensive and builds feelings of helplessness. We all have an emotional stake in disbelieving the worst, and as clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Todd Essig wrote in Forbes, “You can’t smash emotions with reason.” The paradox is that unless we understand how dire the situation is, we won’t react appropriately. But understanding how dire it is causes paralysis. The way out can only be through a new conversation. Artists quite naturally shoot for the heart and get past our biases, defences, and feelings of fear.
There are lots of other ways to start that new conversation. All civic leaders owe it to themselves to play a part. We can’t stand back and allow this conversation to be driven by the talking heads on Fox News, thinking that somewhere, somehow things will turn out all right. Our religious leaders can step up to the plate. Some are, but they can do more. A conversation around faith, and obligations to a larger purpose, might sneak past our mental defenses.
But where our defenses are most likely to come down is at home. When your kids ask at the family dinner, “What are we going to do when it gets hot?” or “What did you do when it started getting hot, mom?” don’t avoid the question. Use it as a starting point to engage them. Answering to the simple moral positions that only the young can really articulate is not easy, but if we’re listening, that moment can provide exactly the motivation we need to disengage our defenses and face the truth.
Excerpted from Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis (Toronto: ECW Press). © 2014 Tom Rand. Used with permission from the publisher.