Climate Change Denial

March 26, 2014


George Marshall @ 1:30 pm

The Ukrainian crisis is not just about geographic territory- it is about consolidating control over linguistic territory. It is not often that you can see narratives, fuelled by confirmation bias, forming in front of your eyes. Speaking to journalists after the Ukrainian Nuclear Security Summit, yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron mobilised the Ukrainian crisis as a security frame to justify increased fracking for oil and gas. He appealed to patriotic values, saying that it was “our duty” to support “energy security” and said that “I think something positive should come out of this for Europe which is to take a long hard look at its energy resilience, and its energy independence.”

Security and independence are powerful identity markers for conservatives. Research work on communicating climate change, such as the excellent report by my colleague Dr. Adam Corner, identifies security as a leading frame for conservatives.  Republican communications guru Frank Luntz, argues that it trumps all other arguments for a transition to renewables. However it is deeply problematic and prone to backfire when mobilised around fossil fuels. Adam Corner suggests that it should be seen “through the lens of increasing resilience“- but Cameron’s application of this normally environmental word suggests a form of linguistic annexation. Watch out for more territorial gains and a lot more talk about sustainable energy supplies.

The Ukrainian debacle is exactly the kind of crisis that induces shifts in the political discourse- described by Joseph P. Overton as a swinging ‘window’ that defines what is politically possible to say or do. Or, as Naomi Klein argues in her book the Shock Doctrine, we could see these crises as deliberately stoked in order to justify radical measures. Fracking was already on the political agenda and well within the window, but the Ukraine is being used to move it up the agenda- as Cameron says from “tier five” to “tier one”.

It is no coincidence that the former American ambassador to Ukraine , Carlos Pascual, now leads the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources which, according to the NYT, was created with “the purpose of channelling the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool”.  Now America asserts power through its eagerness to export its surplus frack gas and Robert McNally, former energy adviser to George W. Bush, talks about how America has grown from being the “arsenal of democracy in World War II, into “the arsenal of energy.”

It is always tempting to see the manipulations of oil and gas interests behind these arguments (and they are, indeed, very keen to push gas exports so that they can sell their US production on the more lucrative world market). But I don’t think we should underestimate the role of status struggles, social norms and confirmation bias among senior politicians and their policy advisors. It is no coincidence that Cameron was speaking in this way after he emerged from intense (and, no doubt, for him intoxicating) session of geo-political power broking.

So these are big boy conversations in which the dominant narratives have already been set by in-group culture. The consensus building process itself will also lead to a concentration of values and intense pressure to conform. It would be interesting to know what would happen if one of the “world leaders” started arguing in these negotiations for a massive programme of energy conservation to reduce gas dependence (which, in truth, could generate results faster than domestic fracking or increasing American exports), but I would bet every crisp in my packet that this could not happen because such proposals simply do not exist anywhere in the discussion. They are a non-topic, a generated silence, a Terra Nullius that is no more than a rough outline on the edge of the cognitive map.

March 21, 2014


George Marshall @ 12:09 pm

Following my last post, announcing COIN’s report on the challenges of communicating climate change around extreme weather events, I had a very interesting hour long interview/discussion with Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the inspiring Transition Movement.

You can hear it/read the transcription here- LINK…

In our discussion we also explored the wider and, I find, fascinating issues of socially constructed conviction and silence. I have particular admiration for Rob and the Transition movement, because they have, from the very beginning, recognised the centrality of these issues – Transition is, as it says, an “exploration” of how to build conviction “from head to heart” through locally based peer communication.

This interview is a first public airing for some of the ideas that I will explore in my forthcoming book: Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be published by Bloomsbury US/international in September 2014.

March 4, 2014


George Marshall @ 3:04 pm

A new report by COIN shows how rapidly media reporting of the recent UK storms degenerated into narratives of blame focused on environmentalists.

The UK floods and storms of December 2013 and January 2014 were exceptional by any standards. In many parts of southern England January rainfall broke all monthly records and in some places being more than double the average.

One would think  it would be natural enough for the news media to make the most of a connection with an issue that scientists had been predicting for nearly 20 years would bring increased storms and far more winter rainfall. They should have put climate change back at the centre of public discussion.

But they did not. Until mid-February there was virtually no mention of climate change in the media.  A survey in late January by the media analysis organisation Carbon Brief, found that 92% of mainstream news articles made no mention of climate change.  This followed the same pattern of media silence found the US around Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 heatwaves .

It was, in many ways, another socially generated and policed Climate Silence as discussed before on this blog. When climate change was mentioned, coverage was tentative and almost embarassed. BBC radio’s flagship Today Programme could not even bring itself to mention the words– the lead journalist, John Humphrys, brusquely demanding of a scientist that he say whether such extreme weather events might become more common in future “without going into all the debate about what might or might not be happening to the climate”.

In the place of climate change the media was – pardon the pun- awash with stories of personal loss, everyday heroes, bravery and community solidarity. Such comelling narratives are common around disasters and suppress the more complex and challenging narratives of climate change.  As I reported last year after interviews with victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and wildfires in Texas, climate change is often considered too inappropriate and divisive to mention at all.


However, what was especially noteworthy in the British coverage- and what, I fear, is a harbinger of how we may respond to climate change- was the rapid transition to angry narratives of enemies and blame.

Emotionally charged extreme weather events always tend to generate strong blame narratives – especially around government negligence (as happened around Hurricane Katrina), individual perpetrators (the hunt for the mythical arsonists who start wildfires) or, the insurance companies failure to settle claims. The complex, multi-causal, unintentional issue of climate change feels incomplete without enemies and so, as I have commented before, it readily absorbs existing conflicts.

So it was no surprise, after a few weeks of stories about resilience and ‘blitz spirit’, that the British media moved to angry language about blame expressed in moving stories about the struggle between individuals and bureaucracies.

The primary focus for that anger and abuse was the Environment Agency, a high profile public body tasked with the flood response. Week after week it was accused of greed, incompetence, indiference to suffering, and corruption. The key hate figure became its director, Chris Smith. As the first senior British politician to be openly gay, the Daily Mail newspaper felt free to indulge in scarcely concealed homophobia with a fabricated story that he had squandered £639 ($1000) of taxpayer money on ‘gay pride tea mugs’ - enough, it whined, to buy more than 250 sandbags to protect flood victims’ homes.

But there was, surely, something more going on here. The Environment Agency is not a disaster relief organisation, like FEMA in the US. As its name suggests, its mission is  to “protect the environment, and to promote sustainable development” and it is one of the lead agencies working on climate change. This includes running the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the scientific network that models the impacts of climate change on future extreme weather events. Nor is Chris Smith just any former politician- he is a former Shadow Environment Minister for the Labour Party and is, according to one conservative blog, ‘climate change obsessed’.

Somehow, then, climate specialists had moved from being ignored when they warned of the link between climate change and flooding to being held personally to blame for it.

Anti-environmental resentment then extended to the “ecological zealots” who had prevented the dredging of rivers- epitomised in a high profile article by Christopher Booker, headed: ‘It’s the deluded greens who’ve left my Somerset neighbours 10ft under water’.

Booker is especially interesting in this regard.  Not only is he Britain’s most outspoken and influential climate denier ‘journalist’ (I use the word with caveats), but he is also the author of ‘Seven Basic Plots’, an exhaustive study of the components of compelling narratives across the arts. Of all people, Booker entirely understands the construction of enemy narratives and uses them entirely knowingly.


On February 9th, the UK Meteorological Office launched a major report detailing the relationship between global climate change and the winter weather. This was a major news ‘hook’ that finally broke the silence and led to a somewhat broader discussion of climate change in late february (although often in the exasperating- is it happening or isn’t it – debate format).

However, when the report was first launched its cautious and dry scientific language was inaudible above the more compelling and emotional narratives of blame. Whilst the scientists were required to frame their analysis in language about uncertainty and probability, these accusations were presented with an undue confidence as socially agreed facts.

This is how the Met Office findings were reported in The Sun on Monday 10th February 2014.  In yellow is the climate change report (noting, in the text, that there is “still no definitive proof”). It is smothered by stories and images of suffering and disaster (in red) and blame (in blue).

The Daily Mail, a consistently (though not exclusively) climate sceptic newspaper also reported the Met Office report and then, with remarkable dexterity, seamlessly merged it into the larger blame narrative by launching a petition to redirect foreign aid towards UK flood victims.  The primary focus of the campaign was the £2.9 billion pledged by Britain to alleviate severe climate change impacts abroad.

So, once again, the target for anger became the people who communicated climate change and sought to address it. Smears operate at a level of emotional metaphor that defies logic or proof. What is important is not the demand – which makes little sense – but the inference.  And that is clear: that, in some ill defined way, the people responsible for the suffering of  flood victims were the self-interested do-gooders who had been warning about it all along.

Blaming the messenger is a common psychological response to anxiety and trauma. My real point, though, is larger than this: that, as climate change manifests itself, our responses are entirely unpredictable. Greater concern about the underlying causes is one response. But conflict and scapegoating are just as likely. And what really concerns me is that we may well adopt entirely aberrant responses without even fully realising what we are doing.

After the floods: communicating climate change around extreme weather, is a new 20 page guide on the challenges and opportunities of communicating climate change around extreme weather events. Available to download at:


December 26, 2013

Christmas Desserts in the Age of Melt

George Marshall @ 1:23 pm

A guest post by Annie Levy explores the themes and ironies of Climate Change Christmas Desserts / Puddings.

This brilliant Christmas Cake was made and iced by  climate activists Claire and Sophie Fauset and their mother Barbara too. They made it to honour Phil Ball and all the Arctic 30, Greenpeace heroes who paid a price of imprisonment for drawing attention to Russian oil drilling in the Arctic.

The cake is funny and celebratory and a kind of Christmas toast. Of course there’s also the pun — the problem with the ice(ing).  But when I saw the photo, the crack reminded me of that kind of anxiety that accompanies the knowledge  of a change and coming crisis.

Christmas is one of those holidays through which we mark time, years advancing, my children growing. Because I juggle with pessimism about the future, I hide the sadness to protect their innocence. We act jolly. But I feel time marching forward– New Years is stong for this too– when I want it to stay still, so we can stop ice melting and oceans warming and figure out what to do.

My husband George Marshall is a climate change campaigner, and so we speak often about the subject, about the future, but also about how people who know and don’t know deal with the knowledge of how serious a situation we find ourselves in, regarding the climate.

So I could only laugh when I realised the Freudian Slip of a Christmas dessert  George came up with for our Christmas dinner: Baked Alaska. It was quite delicious: a soft meringue baked in a hot oven around a core of ice cream and  and home-grown raspberries (insulated by a surround of sponge cake).

It came to the table as a festive masterpiece, and spoke of the wish, The Wish, that something sweet and cold could stay protected and eternal beneath all our technological machinations.

When the microwave was invented a Hungarian physicist and “molecular gastronomist” produced something the opposite, a “Frozen Florida” in which the meringue remained frozen but the inner liquor was heated. Oh the possibilities of climate chaos, and every weird combination of everything, everywhere.

Meanwhile I bought a Christmas Pudding, not because any of us  especially enjoy it, but because the brandy heated and set on fire makes the most beautiful dancing blue flame, something spiritual and numinous, sacred, magical,  heat and light in this cold dark time of year.

And I’ll say a little personal prayer of thanks to people who are putting their lives on the line, like the Arctic 30 did,  trying to guide a better future into being.

This piece was originally posted to the blog www.

George Marshall adds:

Annie touches on the intriguing cultural resonances (and dissonances) between Christmas rituals and climate change: the obsessive concentration on images of ice, snow, the North Pole, the contrary images of open fires, heat, and flames and the high carbon consumerist potlatch which research suggests adds up to 650 kg of CO2 per person. Add to this narrative stew the way that the defence of Christmas against liberals has become an emerging narrative in the polarised political battle that surrounds climate change, as  described here….

These multiple ironies are not lost on environmental campaigners, of course. Greenpeace has set up a website on which a homeless Father Christmas pleads with us to save this home because ‘even the threat of being on Santa’s naughty list hasn’t stopped world leaders from ignoring the reindeer’s cries for help as they sink in the melting ice’. In a similar vein, estimating Santa’s carbon footprint is a familiar seasonal trope- ranging from 9 tonnes per stocking to 69.7 million tonnes in all.


But promoting a contentious and often disbelieved issue like climate change within the frame of a childrens fantasy story (and then tieing it to the imagery of the retail calendar) strikes me as a dangerous strategy, as the British government found when it was forced to pull a national advertising campaign themed around nursery rhymes. I don’t notice anyone doing this with terrorism.

However, these are,  at least,  attempts to break the climate silence. Maybe the most important thing of all is to keep the issue alive at a time that so encourages us to retreat into self satified hyprocrisy.

December 6, 2013


George Marshall @ 4:38 pm

The silence around climate change requires explanation. It is not just the absence of discussion: it is a socially constructed condition of disattention with its own demographics, values and rules. It exists in multiple forms: as a total exclusion of all discussion of climate change, as boundaries that exclude aspects of climate change from discussion, or as taboos that define certain forms of expression to be socially inappropriate.   This silence is a major impediment to building concerted action and it urgently requires analysis.

In a series of papers over the next few months the Climate Outreach Information Network will study the Climate Silence and suggest ways that it might be countered.

The first paper, by my colleague Dr. Adam Corner, describes the extent of the Silence and proposes that it should be broken with a series of conversations about climate change, initiated by representatives of different communities (not just green campaigners), in order to build a more meaningful storyline that speaks better to peoples core values.

Download it here:

The second paper in the series, by George Marshall, will explore the demographics of the silence and the ways that it is bounded and enforced. It will be published in early 2014. Please join the discussion.

November 7, 2013

The story of how Greens became energy enemy number one

George Marshall @ 8:21 pm

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fueled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative or enemies and heroes.

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.

Let me explain.  Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm.  Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Phil Pullman puts it "after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."

Put the two together and you have the powerful basic storyline that dominates mythology, fairytales, the Bible, TV and film – consider that the average American teenager has already seen 16,000 murders on the screen-  and, of course, politics. It looks like this.

1.       Enemy + Intention → Harm to victims

2.      Hero + Intention      →  Defeats enemy and restores status quo

Psychological research has found that this narrative structure is more powerful than any of its constituent parts. If any part is weakened people are people are willing to introduce substitute components even, if necessary, inventing them or using information that they know to be wrong, in order to maintain its integrity.

In his conference speech on September 24th, 2013, Ed Milliband, leader of the UK Labour party applied this model to a well established Labour party enemy- big energy companies. He pledged to  freeze energy prices to help families and businesses. The companies, he said “won’ t like it because they have been overcharging people for too long”. Later he called them predatory - a familiar frame for paedophiles.  His party energy minster joined in with more energetic language about how “hard pressed consumers” (victims) being hit and ripped off (harm). Their narrative looked like this:

1.       Enemy (Big Business) + intention (self enrichment) → harm (high energy costs) to victims (vulnerable fuel poor)

2.      Hero (Labour party) + intention (social justice) → defeat (price freeze) and restores status quo (standard of living)

But then the energy companies responded. As predicted by the research  they maintained the overall narrative structure and simply changed the dramatis personae. The enemy was now environmentalism and the green taxes which had, according to dubious but much quoted figures, added £112 to average fuel bulls. According to Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.On, these were “smeared across everybody’s bill” and were tantamount to a “poll tax”. Right wing conservatives like Jacob Rees Mogg  joined in saying that because of the obsession of “the doomsayers of the quasi religious Green movement”  poor people “may die because they can’t afford fuel” The new enemy looked like this:

1. Enemy (Environmental extremism) + intention (ideological zealotry) → harm (green taxes/suffering) to victims (vulnerable)

Then David Cameron, leader of the ruling  Conservative Party weighed in with his determination to “roll back some of these green regulations and charges”, thus adding his new hero narrative:

2. Hero (Conservative party) + intention (defending freedom) → defeat (roll back taxes) and restores status quo (freedom/standard of living).

When Milliband came into the counter attack he failed to defend the green levies and remained locked into the same enemy narrative, redefining the enemies as liers with Cameron as their "PR man", and arguing that Cameron is no hero because he is “too weak to stand up for the consumer “ and has “gone from Rambo to Bambi in four short years".

Back in September his party speech included something altogether more remarkable about energy: a pledge to take all of the carbon out of our energy (by which he meant electricity) by 2030. This extremely ambitious target for action on a real threat posing overwhelming harm was pushed aside by arguments about enemies and short term loss.  Compelling narratives demand attention and, as he found, the enemy narrative he introduced framed and  dominated all subsequent discussion.

The problem for climate change is that it simply cannot compete against enemy narratives. In climate change the enemy is really everyone, the victims are everyone (although we like to think it is people far away and in the future) and there is no deliberate intention to hurt.  What is more,  there can be no restoration of the status quo because this is a permanent and worsening condition.

Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers,  governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set piece villains. Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats.

The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people.

This blog originally appeared on the Greenpeace Energy Desk



The story of how greens became energy enemy number one

George Marshall
George Marshall is the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, and blogs to
Activists raise a wind turbine on the beach in Durban 

License: All rights reserved. Credit: Shayne Robinson / Greenpeace

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.

October 14, 2013


George Marshall @ 3:19 pm

According to a new report, after 2047 every year -even the coolest- will be hotter than the hottest years ever recorded. This deadline offers an original and potentially very useful new frame for climate change that breaks with the history of environmentalist deadlines and brings a sense of proximity, and a narrative of a journey that leads to an irreversible transformation.

The report (link…) just published in the online publication Nature by a team at the University of Hawaii has a new take on the climate modelling data – they ask how long will it be before every year, even the coldest, will still be warmer than any other in the long term record? They have defined this as the ‘year of climate departure’ and it is, at current trajectories, due to come in 2047 . Three years later will come the year when every month in every year will be hotter than that month has ever been before. The researchers put this year within a range of 14 years either way so the worst case is  2033 and the best is 2071.

I have been wondering why this feels like such an original and effective way to present the modelling data.  I think it comes down to narratives and proximity.

Climate change suffers from ambiguous timelines, and this kind of temporal anchoring is very useful. Scientists usually use timelines that appear on the x axis of a graph- 2050, 2100- which feels abstract and arbitrary. Environmental campaigners try to create deadlines in terms of emissions targets, with countdowns towards some supposed atmospheric tipping point.  Two recent examples from 2007 and 2008 are a celebrity campaign called Global Cool which announced 10 years to ‘save the planet’ and the London based New Economics Foundation which launched the campaign ’100 months to save our climate’.

I fear that these deadlines are so coded with environmentalist language about saving and defending things and the threat that ‘if you do not do what we say then this will happen’ that they do little to engage the wider society and, unfortunately, can easily feed an already well fueled prejudice about greens overstating their case.

These campaigns aim to create a sense of urgency through an impending deadline, but their real weakness is that this deadline feels imposed and artificial. Of course we don’t really blow up in 38 months from today, even though the ticking bomb style countdown on the 100 months to save the planet website implies that metaphorically. The problem is that, come that deadline, it will probably all feel fine, just as we have happily gone through a clutch of previous deadlines.  It is not really 100 months to save the world so much as 100 months before the odds shift into a greater likelihood of feedbacks- which is certainly less catchy.

But this new deadline is much more interesting because, rather than drawing on old and familiar narratives, it creates a new one: that we are about to make a step change into a new world where nothing is like the old world.

Climate change is a process not an event, and this language speaks far better to that reality: this speaks of metaphors of journeys, making a transition, crossing a line, and a stage of no return. It speaks less to the finality of a deadline (which, as the name suggests, I suspect we process subconsciously as a warning of our mortality) than a moment of commitment and passage.

And this speaks very well to the way that we build our understanding of the world on our recent experience: what is sometimes called the hindsight bias.  We all carry a mental scale of past hot and cold weather and this says: you remember that very hot year? From this year onwards nothing will ever be cooler than that. 2047 is 34 years from now- potentially quite a powerful figure because that is close to the average childrearing age (in the UK the average age for women too have a first child is now 30, 32 for men). This allows the argument that we will enter this new era ‘when your children are the same age that you are now’. I say ‘potentially quite powerful’ because there is little  evidence that having children makes people more concerned about climate change: though this may provide a better way of engaging parents who do already care about it.

This approach also reflects the uncertainties of the science far better. It doesn’t matter whether this happens in exactly 2047. Or how much of any individual heat wave is ‘climate change’ and how much is ‘natural’ (a false dichotomy that enables people to deny climate change). What has always been important to people is not what causes what, but how it will feel: and this argues that, from this year on, nothing will feel like anything that has happened before.  That word ‘nothing’ has a bold authority to it that counters the uncertainties of the science very well. This is not a matter of degree- of things being a bit hotter or stormier: this new world it going to be something totally and dangerously different in every respect. This is the natural partner of the emerging language of the ‘anthropocene’: the age when the world is shaped more by human than any other natural or physical force.

There are, as ever, dangers with this framing too. It speaks far more strongly to adaptation (batten down the hatches) than it does to mitigation (stop burning that stuff) . There is the danger that the inevitability and irreversibility of this impending crossing point could feel so threatening to people and therefore less effective than other narratives. Maybe so- but then climate change of some kind is now inevitable and irreversible, so maybe we need to be finding ways to talk about it that reflect this.

The paper itself says that this year of climate departure is coming whatever we do, and that even with a scenario of aggressive emissions reduction we will still cross that line in 2069.  It argues that these additional 22 years could be critical for the survival of many species and ecosystems but this is a technical argument that will not make sense to people’s intuitive understanding of the world. In any case 34 years and 66 years are both already in the category that most people would regard as long term and the psychological research on hyperbolic discounting shows that people are not overly concerned about differences in losses and gains that far ahead.

And then, of course it works for me.  I believe in climate change and I think it is at threat. Other people’s views will always be mediated by their worldview and politics and, if they don’t believe in climate change or climate models, I can’t think that this will  suddenly win them over.

Generally though, this is the first deadline I have seen that could speak well to a general audience- grounded in the science, timescales that work well for them, speaking to common experience, and lacking the coding of environmentalism that can sometimes repel .

November 6, 2012


George Marshall @ 2:07 pm

In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.

This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern- and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.

I have heard many scientists, including the former UK chief scientific advisor Sir David King, go further and argue that real public and political attention requires such events.  Climate change campaigners are already building their public communications around this assumption (for example a viral campaign ‘advert’ contrasts Romney’s ludicrous nomination speech with Sandy).

However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions- especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognise that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.

A few weeks ago I was in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history (by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes. The fires were directly related to the extreme drought and record breaking temperatures that struck central Texas in 2011. Causal links are always hard, but even the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon (who surely has one of the hardest jobs in climate science) made a cautious connection between climate change, the drought and the fires. I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

People did note that there was a change in the weather and most anticipated that the drought and fires could happen again. But they weren’t really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges. They had recovered remarkably fast and the local economy had grown (boosted by government recovery grants and insurance payments). The county is doing very well and continues to grow- incredibly, after entirely repeatable wildfires incinerated the homes of a third of the residents, it is said to be the fourth fastest growing county in the US.

I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.

Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)

In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose. This is nicely reflected in Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book, a Paradise Built in Hell

We know, though, that attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project ).  We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.

And we could anticipate that extreme events might also reinforce existing concern in places that are already disposed to accept climate change.  It will also be very interesting to see how Hurricane Sandy affects attitudes to climate change of both people inside and outside affected areas.  Given than attitudes to climate change are often held as part of a political identity, we cannot be surprised if people in a politically left leaning area (and much of the affected area is strongly Democrat) are prepared to ascribe extreme weather events to climate change. But this will not, of itself, be evidence that extreme events changes attitudes.

Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle.  The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.

We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat. Britain and the US won the war and with it a correspondingly inflated view of their own global authority that lasts to this day.

Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
People’s view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values.  In so doing they will reject or marginalise competing narratives that might challenge their current worldview. (For example just look at the competition of interpretive narratives around Thanksgiving ! ).

So a complex and challenging narrative will have a very hard time being accepted as social truth when it is competing against strong, appealing and highly coherent narrative. In the case of Bastrop the weak narrative is that the fires were caused (in part) by weather conditions which were caused (in part) by climate change which was caused (in part) by the culture and behaviour of Bastrop residents.

It’s a hard one to sell at the best of times, and a disaster is the very worst condition for this narrative because it is overwhelmed by a much more attractive story: “we support each other, we are surrounded by evidence of our love and kindness, we are tough, we faced a huge challenge and we won through…and we can do it again”. This does not just speak to local pride, but the much larger mythology of frontier town Texas.

And there are other powerful narratives waiting in the wings. In other disasters the most powerful narrative can be one of blame- of the people who started a fire (leading at times to the demonization of a supposed arsonist), the government who did not build the flood defences, the construction companies who broke building codes, or the emergency services who failed to do their job.

These may well be valid arguments, but they also generate an enemy and victim frame which is far more compelling that anything offered by climate change. “It’s their fault and I demand action against them and restitution” is a much more compelling story than “it may be my fault or our fault and I demand that we work together to change the way we live”. The fatal flaw of the climate change narrative is that, uniquely among our major problems, it has no clear enemy at all.

Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines
Human psychology is strongly prone to creating patterns and comparisons based on the ‘availability’ of comparable events. In terms of environmental issues people tend to be very poor at noticing decadal change (and certainly intergenerational change) because of a shifting baseline.

Disasters create intense but isolated events after which, as the people on Bastrop said, things go back to ‘normal’. The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire that there be a ‘normal’ state to which one can return, making it harder to people to accept that there are larger changes underway. The desire for stability makes people more prone to see a disaster as being at the extreme end of natural variations (that is to say part of a normal cycle).

However, any extreme event has also created a new baseline. The next event will be measured against this baseline and, if this is equivalent or lesser will reinforce the idea that it was part of a normal cycle.  There is a good chance too that the collective learning and adaptation to the previous event will ensure that future events will be more manageable and have lower human and economic impacts. This too will reinforce ideas the perception that such events are not escalating.

The critical consideration in how events are perceived is the relationship between an event and the most recent comparable events, and the time that separates them. Events that are far apart are unlikely to be noticed, whereas we could assume a greater perception of change around events that are relatively recent, memorable, and clearly escalating.

Well this is true to a degree, but then there is a risk of another problem for events that come too often…..

Repeated disasters generate hopelessness and powerlessness
The ‘Paradise in Hell’ communitarianism pertains to events that are relatively rare anomalies in an otherwise confident and successful society. If extreme events occur with regularity – especially if they occur too regularly for communities and economies to recover fully- they could generate a sense of despair and helplessness.

I suspect that the most likely response to regular extreme events would be for people to move or to bunker down into inwards looking family and social groups. This in turn would work against the outward looking confidence required to take action on climate change. People may, under these conditions, accept the reality of climate change but if they do so they will have to accept that actions to mitigate emissions, even across the entire world, will not prevent further more extreme and severe events.

Different kinds of extreme climate may have different impacts on public attitudes

It is important to differentiate between different kinds of climate event and suggest that they may have different outcomes in public attitudes. Droughts and heatwaves are extended conditions that encourage the perception that there is a long term change underway (a change in the ‘normal’). What is more, although they generate solidarity in suffering there is far less of the ‘pull together’ cohesion that occurs in major disaster events. We could reasonably infer that they may be more likely to generate an increase in concern about climate change.

This conjecture seems to be borne out in recent research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication which found an increase between spring and fall of 2012 in the number of  people who reported that had been they had personally harmed by drought and heat waves and a slight decline in those reporting harm from other weather events. Overall the survey found a 5% increase the number of respondents who would agree that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States”.

The relationship between climate disasters and perceptions of climate change is complex as it is mediated by socially constructed narratives.

This means that campaigners and communicators should be very wary of charging into areas affected by extreme weather events and assuming that they have fertile ground for increased activism around change. The very opposite may be true, especially if they are perceived as outsiders who are breaking into the community (which may never have been stronger or more united) and exploiting its suffering. It would be hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than an environmental activist organisation dropping a banner in the midst of a conservative community after a major disaster.

The critical condition for affecting longer term attitudes is the extent to which events are translated into a socially held narrative that speaks to people’s sense of their own identity. And this requires a steady long term approach – waiting until the dust has settled and working with trusted local communicators who can make a case that the single event fits into a narrative pattern of longer term change.

August 31, 2012

Romney Channels Beck

George Marshall @ 2:46 pm

There are curious things happening with climate change narratives.  In this excerpt from his Republican convention acceptance speech last night Romney delivers a line about climate change with mocking pauses that look,  to my British eyes, pure Glenn Beck. What does this say about the way we message climate change?

The line is “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans (13 second pause)
And to heal the planet (3 second pause)
My promise is to help you and your family.”

Watch it carefully because the delivery is a meticulously choreographed mime. Romney breaks his gaze from the audience, and does a little eyes to heaven, lip biting act that is all about communicating clearly to the audience that this is not a podium style rhetorical pause ( such as “think not what your country can do for you…….) but a Jack Benny stand up comedy pause. The body language suggests that he is like a long suffering but resigned parent holding in his real views about the President’s ‘stupidity’.  Watch it and see what I mean.

To me this  signals several things.  Firstly that the political discourse as a whole is being strongly influenced by the mocking parodic style of the shockjocks. This is nothing new- Reagan had his ‘zingers’ and every presidential debate has one rehearsed one liner that they hope will make the news headlines. But the theatrical contempt is something  new.  Look for example at Bush’s delivery in the 2000 debate against Gore “I’m beginning to think that not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator as well”. The intent is to mock (and it references attack ads), but the delivery is stiff and literal.

It is also a step change in the way that politicians talk publicly about climate change.  So this is no longer a debate about the science, or  the policy response (as it was under Bush)- it is now a debate about competing versions of reality and fantasy. The line about slowing the rise of the oceans is skillfully chosen as it frames climate change as both a natural cycle and an inevitability. The mocking pause clearly signals that attempts to stop it are therefore a self aggrandising  folly. Here in Britain the resonance would be with King Cnut (Canute) who ordered the tide to stop coming in. I suspect in America is more likely to be with Moses. It is a quote that appears on some Christian Conservative sites as evidence that Obama claims to be the Messiah.

And this all makes you wonder at the ineptitude of Obama’s own script writers. This was not some throw away line in a minor interview like Gore’s claims to have invented the internet- Romney is misquoting the meticulously honed language of Obama’s own acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2009. Of course, we know that it has been distorted and removed from context, but surely it was not smart in any context to talk about “healing the planet”- a phrase that immediately triggers an association with the most woowoo end of New Age greens.

And, when there is so much that can be said about the short term impacts and opportunities of climate change, it was surely not bright to reference the one impact that is probably the most distant, protracted and unavoidable. He might as well have promised that his presidency would be the point at which the North Pole or the glaciers stopped melting.  Let’s face it, this was a gift to his opponents.

So, if this is a harbinger of what is to come, we can expect that climate change will continued to be used in this election as a metaphor for an ideologically driven fantasy rather than as a a  real issue that should be weighed and evaluated. Few people vote, and even fewer are party activists, but this framing is powerful and toxic.

POSTSCRIPT- I like this from Joe Romm:’s Climate Progress blog

Reacting to the resounding laughter among delegates to those comments, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said the moment would someday “be in documentaries as a moment of just ‘what-were-they-thinking’ madness.” As a former documentary maker I had exactly this feeling, though Chris Hayes put his finger on it- this is one of those Peace in our Time, Read My Lips, Mission Accomplished  moments that will make it onto the stupidities of the century B roll.

August 22, 2012


George Marshall @ 8:50 pm

We know that climate change is hard to accept because it is complex, long drawn out, challenging to our world views and without a clear external enemy. So what happens when a related issue- the West Nile virus – comes along with exactly the right ingredients to motivate public concern, media coverage and an immediate political response?

The Texas Department of State Health Services has so far recorded 509 cases and 20 deaths from West Nile virus, of which 14 have been around Dallas. This is a dramatic increase on the two fatalities recorded last year.

The spread and growth of West Nile virus can be directly linked to the wider issue of climate change.Of course, as many sceptics argue (most notably Dr Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute) the links between climate change and disease are complex given that of each and every stage in the lifecycle of a parasite has the different requirements.

However in this case the evidence is strong.  Warmer weather extends the length of the mosquito breeding season and enables the virus to spread wider within the mosquito population. A major five year survey of outbreaks across the US found  a strong correlation between increased temperatures and increased infection rates. The findings are born out in Texas which, like most of the US, has experienced a warm winter and record breaking summer. 88% of Texas is officially declared to be in drought- broken, unfortunately, by just enough water for the mosquitoes’ breeding needs.

When Scientific American summarised the evidence of a link between West Nile virus and climate change the majority of comments were from climate change deniers: such as “AAAA+ – Another Asinine Alarmist Article”;  “my 12 year old son knows more about science than these editors” and “Scientific American… are spokesmen for politically inspired agenda with no debate or discussion”.

Given this vitriolic debate it is hardly surprising that there has been virtually no mention of climate change in coverage of the current West Nile virus in the regional or national US mass media. This reflects the wider reluctance to mention climate change in relation to the record US temperatures. But, I suspect, it is just as likely that no journalist wants to contaminate a compelling story that is easy to tell with a story that is contested and complex.

A few days ago Time Magazine tried to explain the links under the heading “Why West Nile Virus is a Self Inflicted Wound”.  The article opens with the line: “There are no good ways to die, but death by the West Nile virus is worse than most”. This apocalyptic narrative is a standard editorial line for a magazine that ran its April 2006 Global Warming special report with a cover reading “Be Worried. Be Very Worried”. It raises the question- who exactly has inflicted this wound on themselves? Given that the main fatalities are among the poor, sick and elderly, the virus outbreak exhibits exactly the same arbitrary injustice as other climate change impacts. It is exactly this kind of causal complexity that makes climate change so hard to message.

But, whilst reporting of climate change is challenging and struggles with a limited number of stale narratives in a bitterly polarised debate, the West Nile virus contains all the necessary ingredients for powerful and fresh storytelling.

To start with, a deadly disease is inherently frightening. This one has the added potency of being new and foreign. It even has its own Ground Zero: the initial outbreak was around LA Guardia Airport in 1999.

Unlike climate change (or most diseases) West Nile virus is also carried by a very visible and much despised external enemy- the mosquito-that can be exterminated without ethical qualms.

And, because this enemy is ubiquitous and can breed in any standing water, the danger is everywhere. On Fox TV Mayor Mike Rawlings held up a plastic bottle cap between his fingers with the words “this could be a bottle cap full of death because that’s what could breed”. Oh my God! Any piece of trash could be breeding death! The official advice to “limit outdoor activities between dusk and dawn” creates a fear of the entire public realm and a fear that every mosquito bite could be fatal.

Above all the onset of the virus is sudden and deadly, generating personal stories of real despair that stimulate our empathy and desire for revenge. Interviewed last week on local television, Mayor Rawlings said: “we have people dying- we have to have a sense of urgency to get this done now”.  (As an aside, it is worth noting that ten people died last year of heatstroke in Texan jails but clearly some deaths create more urgency than others).

The need for a dramatic and visible response led Mayor Rawlings to approve aerial spraying with pyrethroid insecticide across Dallas and suburbs. Objections from ecologists concerning the potential impacts of pyrethroid on other insects (especially bees) or fish have been brushed aside in the interests of a supposed greater public good.

The resulting story, which is ubiquitous in media reporting, is one of an aerial war between the mosquito and its deadly payload and the spray planes with theirs. Fox 4 Dallas tv news talks of ‘an aerial attack on mosquitoes’ in which ‘everybody needs to be on high alert’. Dallas Morning News talks of the ‘aerial West Nile assault’. The August 16th  PBS Newshour opened with the full attack metaphor: “Earlier tonight Dallas begins an air war, the enemy is West Nile virus and the immediate targets are insects”.

Those who lead the battle are then described as heroes. County Judge Clay Jenkins said that he “shook the hands of all the people loading the chemicals” onto the planes before they departed. “Watching the planes take off”, he said “I knew our citizens would be safer the next day.”

But the aerial spraying of the public by the government generates other enemy metaphors. There is already a wide network of ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy theorists terrified that the government is spraying the US with chemicals from high level jet plans.  On the Facebook page of Mayor Rawlings opponents frequently use the term “spray with poisons”. Natural News provides tips for how to “detox after exposure to aerial or ground sprayed pesticides and toxins”- clay bath anyone? There is, I should point out, no evidence that pyrethroid poses any threat to human health.

On the website of Dallas Stop the Spray! there is a striking graphic of a gas masked figure and spray planes with the ironic text, “Dallas Sleep Tight”. The image of gas masks– always a powerful and frightening symbol of faceless militarism- appears regularly on opponents’ literature and websites .

This issue readily reflects the wider battle of political worldviews between those who favour the use of technological force to ‘defend freedoms’ and those who oppose militarism and corporate power. The liberal Dallas Observer newspaper summed this up nicely in a cartoon of WWII bomber planes raining death on all living things below in an ecological Blitzkrieg.

And, at the loopier fringe, the West Nile virus is being reported as one of the key signs of the second coming as predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24:3 “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes”. (See for example).

So, whilst climate change generates confusion, denial, and political delays, the related issue of Nile virus generates an immediate political and media response. People who would normally oppose action on climate change and might be expected to resist government interference in the atmosphere sanction the chemical spraying of residential areas because it fits neatly into a narrative of militaristic response to a visible and immediate threat. And, for those who oppose it, it slots just as well with their existing prejudices and metaphors.

Many people have argued that the dangers of climate change will only become real to people once they start to feel its affects.  This may be true, and there is some evidence that people in the US are associating the extreme weather in 2012 with climate change.

However the response to the West Nile virus suggests that it is also possible that the impacts of climate change can generate their own internal narratives that actually undermine attempts to communicate the more complex long term causes. Certainly the virus has generated a very strong sense of urgent threat, but this has in turn been projected onto an external enemy that can be successfully eradicated through a violent technological intervention. This does nothing to build a sense of shared responsibility and co-operation. And, because it justifies technological interventions and stimulates a fear of the outdoors, it does nothing to encourage a change in existing lifestyles.

The storyline fits so well with existing worldviews, and the rise and fall of this outbreak fits so neatly with short political and news cycles, that there are few goods reasons why anyone would wish to tell the more complex story: that this problem will keep coming back and becoming worse because it has long term systemic causes. This is why we strongly prefer stories that have a narrative arc leading to neat closure. After all, no one is going to queue up for a movie in which James Bond counters the threat of SMERSH through a lifetime of diplomacy.

We can see a similar pattern around flooding resulting from extreme rainfall events. There is little evidence that flooding increases awareness of climate change. Indeed there is good research showing that flood victims are no more likely to link their experience to climate change than non-victims. What we can see, time and again, is that the dominant story concerns the struggle with an external enemy- typically a government agency that has failed to provide adequate flood defences or flood relief.

This is not to say that we cannot engage people around impacts- just to point out that human responses are complex and will readily default to a familiar and appealing narrative even when this  does not reflect the reality of the situation.

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