In a Wednesday afternoon lecture at the Yale Law School, Climate change activist George Marshall detailed the psychology of climate change denial.
Marshall serves as the director of the Oxford-based Climate Outreach and Information Network, an Oxford-based organization that works to deliver material about climate change that is accessible to all sectors of the general public. In the lecture, which was attended by about 50 students and faculty, Marshall explored the idea that people understand climate change through socially constructed narratives rather than coming to our own conclusions and taking action on these convictions. He attributed the lack of social emphasis on fighting climate change to the human psychological bias to avoid thinking or talking about uncertainty.
“The certainty of terrorism makes it more dangerous, while the uncertainty of climate change makes it less so,” he said. “Climate change is hard to accept.”
Over the course of the nearly two-hour talk, Marshall discussed why there has been a relative failure of dialogue and action about climate change. Humans respond very poorly to future uncertainty, and when they are presented with the option of forgoing some future loss, such as the rising sea levels, or accepting a current gain, such as a bigger car, individuals almost always choose the current gain, he said.
Time frame also has an impact on human’s responses to relevant issues like climate change: something that will happen tomorrow is much more salient in our minds than something that will happen a year from now, Marshall added.
Marshall played a video from the advocacy group Trócaire, in which people on the streets of Dublin were asked what they thought about the term climate change.
“No one [was] speaking in any way that was original, based on personal experience, or based on science,” he said. “Societies have contracts of what can and cannot be said. There’s not just the absence of a narrative. There’s the presence of a non-narrative.”
In order to combat the social narratives and human tendencies that prevent people from taking action against climate change, Marshall said he believes we must frame the issue depending on the audience. Rather than seek collaboration across disputing groups, such as democrats and republicans, advocates should frame climate change in a way that appeals to the values of each group.
“The climate change narrative is largely shaped by the values of liberal environmentalists, but climate change shouldn’t necessarily be environmental,” he said. “The framework should work well for the people who made it.”
For instance, Marshall showed an ad from a evangelical Christian group that described climate change in the context of biblical beliefs.
Aaron Goldzimer LAW ’15, who performed environmental advocacy work in Washington, D.C. before attending to law school, said that Marshall’s ultimate goal of getting conservatives to support climate change is important in a world of polarized political views.
For Dena Adler LAW ’16, the lecture suggested novel approaches to communicating climate change.
“I’ve heard about constructing appealing solutions in the classroom, but haven’t heard much about how to construct a social narrative in order to better communicate a particular issue,” she said. “I’m interested in talking to him more about that.”
Marshall’s most recent book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” was published on Aug. 19.