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How climate scientists cut through a political log-jam of gigantic proportions

How climate scientists cut through a political log-jam of gigantic proportions
Published 15 Sep 2016 

When climate scientists first set out to convey their findings to the public and policy makers, they led with facts, backed up by volumes of scientific evidence. They changed tack after realising – with help from cognitive scientists – that their initial approach did not take into account how humans think and make decisions. This finding led to further research from a much wider body of disciplinary experts. Climate science communication is now a research field unto itself, one that helps us understand what is needed to engage people, and thus influence behaviour, rather than merely inform them.

The starting point is understanding how humans makes decisions, as Lakoff writes:

Real reason is: mostly unconscious (98%); requires emotion; uses the “logic” of frames, metaphors, and narratives; is physical (in brain circuitry); and varies considerably, as frames vary.

It is now understood that people’s values, identity, beliefs and worldviews exist as a wide network of interconnected neuron pathways, sometimes called ‘deep frames’, which influence behaviour at the subconscious level. The good news, as the work of David Eagleman and Norman Doige has demonstrated, is that the human mind is malleable: it can be re-wired.

People learn and perceive – and thus build new neuron pathways – through multi-layered processes. One of these involves the senses. Activating as many human senses as possible, ideally at the same time, fast-tracks the process. Another is the use of metaphor, as this means the neuron structure for an idea does not need to be rebuilt from scratch. Engaging the emotional realm is vital because emotion is intrinsic to human action and decision making. 

The power of story has been validated by science. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio coined the phrase ‘movie in the brain’ to describe the way in which the unconscious mind collects a range of images, emotions, and concepts and presents them to the conscious mind as a ‘story’. Thus, humans inherently conceive through narrative and story structures. Social identity is another large part of the puzzle, and research in this area suggests the need for group communication activities, which allow ample and easy dialogue and conversation.

Yet while the importance of a compelling narrative is easily and almost instinctively understood, finding one that can cut through is complicated by the ‘wicked problem’ nature of climate change and by denial counter-narratives. As Mike Hulme explains, climate change has collected so many meanings and associations, from endemic poverty to hyper-consumption, that it has created a 'political log-jam of gigantic proportions'. Thus, a successful narrative relies upon still more issues: such as its ability to unify many perspectives; its strength; sense of truthfulness; and the skill of whoever crafts it.

How are these insights influencing the way climate is discussed? The scientific community now more routinely incorporate these layered insights into its communication practices. For example, this Climate Dogs animation is tailored to connect with the agricultural community’s identity, using simple visuals and humour. Climate Café events use discourse methods. There is a surge in partnerships with artists, such as occurred on a massive scale in Paris last year. When it comes to a powerful new ‘grand narrative’, which helps to shift people’s worldviews on a mass scale, there are two with potential which I will highlight here. [fold]

Firstly, there is the eco-faith or eco-theological narrative emerging from the world’s religious bodies. In common, they portray Earth and its many life forms as sacred and they emphasise the need for humans to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. This includes Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si - On Care for our Common Home; the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, and Buddhist Monk Thích Nh?t H?nh’s approach which describes Earth as 'the most beautiful Bodhisattva' who now needs our help.

Secondly, and in stark contrast, comes a far darker vision by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton. Morton frames global warming as a 'Hyperobject'; something so large, pervasive and multi-dimensional, extending across such enormous timeframes that it overwhelms human cognitive and sensory capacities. In their inability to properly perceive or address Hyperobjects, humans are revealed as 'weak, lame and vulnerable'; they are existentially demoted, they are no longer architects and masters of Earth. Analysed in more detail here, the Hyperobject frame remains contentious, however, its strengths are its ability to engage people and provoke deeper reflection and discussion.

While very different, these two groups of narratives have common characteristics that aids their effectiveness. Both address the deeper issues which drive human behaviour, like values and identity. Both offer new ways of conceiving the human-nature relationship, thus challenging entrenched modern 'use and throw away’ worldviews and practices. They are written by people with profound expertise in theology or philosophy so they convey strength and authority and deal with issues expertly, not superficially. Both rely heavily upon the use of metaphor and also, when read closely, address underlying emotions such as fear, grief and guilt.

Although climate discourse may seem, at a superficial level, to be about 'facts', and thus different from violent extremism discourse, research shows there are significant psychological and cognitive aspects at play which drive decision-making and behaviour and this research might still usefully inform approaches to countering violent extremism. Specifically, it suggests that drawing upon expertise in cognitive and neuro science combined with greater harnessing of artistic, theological and philosophical expertise may enhance current approaches.  

Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

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