Climate Change Denial

August 3, 2006

Buy Your Own Porn

George Marshall @ 5:21 pm

How could I resist boosting my hits by using the word PORN on the blog?! The excuse is a very interesting report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which argues that “climate change alarmism might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’” www.ippr.org.uk/ecomm/files/warm_words.pdf

The papers can’t resist the word either. The Independent happily gives it a headline then sniffs in the editorial that “the word ‘porn’…is a cheap way of securing a headline, masquerading as a serious piece of analysis”.

Not fair. The report, “Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better” is a very valuable analysis of the semiotics of climate change and how language contributes to climate change denial.

It identifies three distinct repertoires (descriptive systems of language) that are being used in to describe climate change in media and information materials:

Alarmism
- “typified by an inflated or extreme lexicon..[which].employs a quasi-religious register of death and doom [and] excludes the possibility of real action or agency by the viewer of reader.

Settlerdom
– “which rejects and mocks the discourse and invokes ‘common sense’ to dismiss climate change as too fantastic to be true”. A sub category, called ‘British Comic nihilism’ by the IPPR, is a ‘sunny refusal to engage in the debate, typified by comic musings on the positive possibilities of a future with climate change’. See my last two postings for examples.

Pragmatic Optimism
–Examples include: “techno-optimism”- which promotes business-as-usual technological solutions like biofuels;  “David and Goliath” which recycles endlessly the tired Margaret Mead quote about a few people changing the world; and “Small Actions” which encourages small personal actions but ‘can be lacking in energy and may not feel compelling”.

The IPPR is quite right. Bombarding people with the bad news makes them feel powerless and defensive. Backing it up with the admonition to change your lightbulbs then undermines the power of the issue. It’s like saying “smoking kills, so why not cut down a little”. And, again like smokers, there are a vast numbers of people who say ‘stop telling me to give up my little  pleasures’, ‘they’ll come up with a cure’, ‘can’t believe what you read in the papers’ and so on.

The IPPR advocates a change in communications: targeting groups in terms of their own values, especially recognizing that many people are esteem driven; using the language of  ‘ordinary heroes’; and using metaphor to enable emotional engagement.

I am less sure that a change in language will solve anything much. Whilst I do not doubt the power of language to frame a debate, I believe that people adopt arguments and language according to their existing world view. Nihilistic or evasive language is therefore a reflection of wider currents of despair, denial, or optimism.

The real issue is the profound disconnection between what we know and what we do. Nihilism and the refutation of the science seek to resolve the disconection by reducing the scale of the problem. The ‘advocacy of small changes’ seeks to resolve it by reducing the scale of the solutions. Alarmist strategies fail because they actually increase the dissonance by increasing our perception of the problem.

What we need is personal and collective action that is in proportion to the scale of the problem. When looking for solutions, the danger with reframing the language we use is that we are still reinforcing the intellectual side of the balance – the “what we know”. As motivational research shows time and again, it is often more effective to get people doing the right thing before giving them the language to describe why they should do it. 

Despite this, we continue to look to language as the best means to energise and motivate change- hoping that it we try hard enough can find a formulation that works. The UK Department for Environment has recently awarded £2 million to community organisations to communicate climate change. It was adamant that funding as only available for “attitudinal change” not “behavioural change”- in other words, awardees could use language to persuade people of the scale of the problem but were forbidden to lead them into any substantive personal action (other than to talk about it some more).

We do not need elaborately crafted rhetoric to get people making the necessary changes- we can start to create change through an effective combination of sticks and carrots. If the vast cost of the Iraq War (£6 billion in the UK to date) had been put into domestic energy efficiency and microgeneration there would building activity on every street, and every household could feel that they are part of huge and sweeping changes. They would then be far better prepared to hear about the problem.

We are depending on language because there is no real political will on this issue and we therefore need to persuade everyone to make their own contribution- and let’s face it, how far would any war get if it had to be funded by public subscription?

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6 Responses to “Buy Your Own Porn”

  1. Peter Hale says:

    Quite agree – the best thing I have heard for a long time was the recent news that the Environment Secretary is looking at personal carbon allowances.

    But we need to keep engaging with people! e.g. to tell them why the sceptics/deniers’ arguments they read in the Telegraph and Mail are likely to be wrong. And to emphasise our individual moral responsibility to do our bit.

    As a speaker, I am trying to take on board these communication ideas for effective action, but have a bit of a problem with the idea that we should not convey bad news – are we supposed to make out that climate change isn’t too much of a problem?!

  2. Almuth Ernsting says:

    I was in Germany during July’s heatwave, obviously reading and speaking quite a bit about the record-breaking heat and the drought. The impression I got was that there is a very strong sense in Germany that nuclear power is morally wrong, a crime against the next generation and the future of the planet. But there is no similar sense of fossil fuel burning being a moral issue. There is plenty of information out there about climate change scenarios but, as a relative and long-standing environmental activist said to me, reading about it seems more like ‘watching a disaster movie about something happening far away’. The result, of course, is that it would be political suicide for any German government not to get out of nuclear power, whilst subsidising and building new dirty coal fire stations is no serious political liability. Now, I don’t want to debate nuclear power – but it seems that, if fossil fuel burning was seen in the same moral terms as nuclear power stations are in Germany, positive change would be far closer!

  3. In the fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy we have been puzzling over this issue for some time: what is the nature of the state of denial which prevents human beings from taking timely and constructive action to avoid our own destruction? Can one view this “denial” as the kind of phenomenon therapists see routinely in their offices or is collective denial another animal entirely? Are we ecocidal? Suicidal? I’m glad you’re addressing these issues as well.

    A new group, Psychologists and Mental Health Professionals for Sustainability, based at the North West Earth Institute (www.nwei.org), is in the early stages of preparing a conference to be held at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon next spring to examine these and other issues. If you’re interested in attending, you might want to contact Dick Roy at NWEI.

    Linda Buzzell-Saltzman
    International Association for Ecotherapy
    http://thoughtoffering.blogs.com/ecotherapy
    Santa Barbara, California

  4. Ed Beale says:

    I agree. There has been quite enough and often too much talk already on the issue of climate change, with newspaper articles appearing almost daily not to mention TV and radio programmes, debates, conferences and books. Sometimes it can seem vital to have all the facts before taking action, but then information gathering can turn into the most important activity, leaving little or no time or energy to actually make any positive changes in our lifestyle.

    In fact, the only way to feel empowered to make positive changes is to start making positive changes! It is not necessary to know every detail of climate science, or the ins and outs of every alternative technology to start making a difference. There are loads of different initiatives now that are encouraging individuals and groups to get together and start making small (or big) changes to be more environmentally friendly. There seem to be new initiatives of this type starting up every month or so. Obviously we have to hope that each new initiative is attracting new people.

    These are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head, but I’m sure I have heard of more:

    Eco-Teams
    COIN Climate Action Groups
    A Rocha 24:1 Living Lightly in God’s World Commitment
    Operation Noah Climate Covenant
    The Little Pledge
    Stop Climate Chaos Pledge
    Flight Pledge

    It is empowering to be part of a group. Sometimes a particular lifestyle change can seem impossibly hard, giving up a car for example, but if someone you know in your group has already done that, suddenly it seems possible – still a challenge, but possible.

  5. Graham Game says:

    Interesting comments. I’m unsure about the collective denial scenario, my sense is that it is just sheer ignorance.
    (Especially in the USA as David Suzuki’s research shows this week). However, bombarding people with information is unproductive too. I think what is required is lots of good role models reducing their carbon footprint visibly, then hopefully the sheep will follow . . . We also need strong leadership – was it Napoleon who said ” A leader is a dealer in hope”?

  6. [...] Educational? No, not really. The figure of 100 metres was chosen by a graphic designer not a climate scientist. Even if all of Antarctica, Greenland ice sheet and the world’s glaciers melted it would still only add 80 metres to sea levels (more info…). This misinformation plays to a form of voyeuristic climate alarmism that the Institute of Public Policy Research calls ‘climate porn’ (see my posting…) [...]

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