Climate Change Denial

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May 6, 2015


George Marshall @ 10:35 pm

I regard myself to be a radical. However, I now believe that the most radical thing that I can do is to break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with conservatives.

I have two decades in the radical environmental movement, and I believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes. I make no apology for this and am utterly convinced,  from my reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.

But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves  that a highly motivated minority – what Marxists used to call the vanguard– can ever win this. This issue is far too large to be overcome without a near total commitment across society.

Yet, throughout the Anglophone world  there is a dangerous political polarisation around climate change. In one particularly disturbing US poll, attitudes to climate change were a better predictor of respondents’ political orientation than any other issue- including gun control, abortion and capital punishment. Denial of climate change is not just an opinion, it has become a dominant mark of people’s political identity.

This is no small problem. People with conservative values (some of whom may also vote for centre-left parties) constitute the majority in almost all countries. In US surveys people who identify strongly with these values outnumber those who identify with liberal/left values by a factor of 2:1.

In my book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, I argued that climate change exists for us in the form of socially constructed narratives built upon our values and identity. It is these narratives- not the underlying science or even the evidence of our own eyes- that leads us to accept or reject the issue.

Unfortunately one of the dominant values in the climate movement is a disregard , if not outright contempt, for the right-leaning mainstream and their concerns. Activists often talk with disgust of the selfishness, greed and stupidity of conservatives. This is intolerant and unpleasant. The denigration conveniently ignores the diversity of opinion and life experience among conservatives. A struggling rural family, an elderly Christian on a small pension, a community shopkeeper and a Wall Street Banker are combined into one faceless enemy.

More often, though, conservatives are just ignored. Few people in the climate movement want to deal with them, talk to them, or find out more about them. They simply don’t exist.

Last week I led a communications workshop for one of the largest international environmental networks: one I respect and have worked with for many years. I asked them “do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?” Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle aged men, too white, too middle-class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people. Nobody mentioned the absence of conservatives, and certainly no-one in the room was admitting to being one.

Diversity’ is a powerful frame for progressives but its components have been entirely defined by the struggles of marginalised groups for representation. It makes us blind to our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens.

Last year I was thrilled to attend the People’s Climate March in New York (I think I can justify the carbon-I was there on a six -state book tour). 350,000 people marched with placards declaring “To Change Everything We Need Everyone“. But, just as diversity only includes the groups that conform to the progressive ideology, the definition of everyone excludes the majority of the population. There was a great deal of progressive diversity at the march: indigenous peoples headed it up, followed by environmental justice groups of all colours and ethnicities and labour unions. As someone who has campaigned for over twenty years for indigenous rights, and led large programmes with trades unions, I was thrilled to see  such broad representation.

But as I watched the banners and placards pass by, I imagined how this would seem to mainstream America. The dominant messages were about banning, stopping, protecting, boycotting things. Among them were hard left-wing messages about overthrowing capitalism and destroying Wall Street. A woman with a placard reading Never, Never, Never, Ever Vote Republican (see above) was clapped and whistled. To balance this a posse of cigar-chomping Republican frat boys turned up with cut outs of Ronald Regan to wind up the lefties.  But there was nothing, not even a word, that so much as hinted that mainstream conservatives had a place alongside everyone in the climate struggle. A small pack of  Nebraskan ranchers, converted to the cause by their fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline, told me freely, proudly, that they were lifelong Republicans. They were hidden within the mass of the march when they should  have been at its very front: a symbol of an extraordinary unity of purpose and our shared destiny.

Ironically we know how to change this. The process to increase representation of conservatives in the climate change movement can be taken directly from previous experience with building diversity- whether it be economic, gender, or race. First of all actively hire new people from the underrepresented group who can work through their networks. Then enable them to develop communications that speak to others like themselves using their own values.

The  process by which we respond to climate change creates the tramlines for our future adaptation. If we use it to build a narrative around our interconnectedness and shared humanity then we stand a good chance of pulling through, just as divided communities can settle their differences to pull together after a hurricane. If we build our  movement through distrust and division we create the preconditions for future in-fighting, blame and scapegoating. The only reason why the minority vanguards ever won was that they got their hands on guns and then ruled by them.

So  my challenge to all people concerned about climate change is this: when are we going to accept the challenge of reaching across partisan boundaries and building a broad social consensus for action? We do not even have to agree about the details of the solutions- indeed I hope we maintain a strong debate. But surely we can come together in the recognition that dealing with climate change is the greatest calling of our age? 


Please share this piece and comment below. Over the next few weeks I will be posting a number of articles to my blog exploring these themes.

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September 28, 2014


George Marshall @ 8:10 pm

As world leaders meet today at the United Nations in New York, they will face intense pressure to act. The discovery that North Korea has been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US has sparked an international crisis.

A recent drone photograph reveals the scale of North Korea’s secret programme to destabilise world weather patterns.

That’s not true, of course. There is indeed a summit today, called by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, to discuss dangerous climatic disruption. It’s a disruption that may in fact lead to the collapse of many of the world’s main agricultural regions. But since it’s only dull old global warming, a subject swaths of the public seem to find less interesting than watching paint dry, the politicians don’t have to worry too much about being held to account.

So why can we be confident that the North Korean scenario would lead to rapid political mobilisation while the huge threat we really do face will generate mere empty promises? Why does the former quicken the pulse, and the latter induce widespread indifference? This raises a larger question about our own psychology: why do most people understand that climate change is a major threat yet, when asked to name the greatest dangers to civilisation, still seem unable to bring it to mind?

The primary reason is that our innate sense of social competition has made us acutely alert to any threat posed by external enemies. In experiments, children as young as three can tell the difference between an accident and a deliberate attack. Climate change confounds this core moral formula: it is a perfect and undetectable crime everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive.

There is no outsider to blame. We are just living our lives: driving the kids to school, heating our homes, putting food on the table. Only once we accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention – so we readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.

Even worse, climate change appears to contain a royal flush of other qualities that are notoriously hard for our brains to engage with: it requires immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses far in the future. The cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally we respond to such issues, sighed deeply when I asked him to assess our chances: “Sorry,” he said, I am deeply pessimistic. I see no path to success.”

I would agree with him if indeed climate change really were uncertain, impossibly costly and located in the far future. It can easily seem so, if that’s how you are determined to frame it. However, many economists, such as Nicholas Stern and Hank Paulson, George W Bush’s former treasury secretary, see it differently. So do the 310,000 protestors who jammed 30 blocks of Manhattan, and the tens of thousands more in London on Sunday shouting with heartfelt conviction that climate change is real, happening now and entirely actionable. For them the real obstacle – memorably represented on one float in New York as a 15 metre-long octopus – is the oil and gas industry and its tentacles of political influence.

And herein lies the real challenge. Climate change can be anything you want it to be. It can be here or there, in the present or the future, certain and uncertain. It seems that we see climate change as a threat – and are therefore able to harness that innate reaction to an external enemy – only once it is poured it into the mould of our familiar stories, with their heroes and villains.

So my fellow advocates for action create this enemy narrative with dramatis personae from our past struggles – corrupt politicians, malignant corporate executives, fat bankers, lazy journalists, slippery lawyers and an apathetic public. All the while, however, our opponents are mirroring these actions. During a raucous evening with members of the Texan Tea Party I was told in predictably blunt language that liberal environmentalists are the real enemy, and that we have invented this scam to extend government control. Like most conservatives, they failed to see that it is climate change itself that poses a threat to their values, freedoms and property.

This tendency to confuse the facts of climate change with the narratives constructed from them is just as common among politicians. I can safely predict that the leaders gathering in New York will stress the urgent need to control greenhouse gases but remain mute about the $1tn a year spent bringing yet more fossil fuel reserves into production. In 25 years of negotiations, no measure to control fossil fuel production has ever been discussed. It does not exist anywhere in the official narrative.

For the general public, too, there are gaps and blind spots. Most people have never discussed climate change with anyone outside their immediate family. A third cannot recall having talked about it with anyone at all. And, counter-intuitively, climate-related trauma seems to make people even more reticent. Speaking to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Texan drought and wildfires, I could not find anyone who could recall a recent conversation with their neighbours about climate change. Battered communities, it seems, find strength in the hope of recovery, and actively suppress any disheartening discussion of underlying causes or future threat.

So if we are to really mobilise action on climate change it is vital that we recognise that it exists in two forms: the scientific facts and the far more potent social facts of constructed narratives or deliberate silence. It is the latter that provide the basis on which we accept, deny or ignore the issue, reinforced by our innate need to conform to the norm within our social group.

However, seen in this light, the situation is far from hopeless. Like the cycles that govern global energy and carbon systems, public attitudes are subject to positive feedback effects that can amplify small changes and result in rapid shifts. Strong visible protest and increased media coverage can break the climate silence and create wider engagement. Above all, though, we need to recognise that the narrative we choose will shape what happens from now on. We may continue to fall back on our need for an enemy. But the very best story would be a one of common purpose, based around our shared humanity.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 23rd September under the title: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. It has attracted 271 comments, the vast majority of which are extremely opinionated, and some very rude. Taken together, they entirely support my observation that climate change exists in the form of socially constructed narratives based around values, worldview containing existing (or projected) enemies.

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August 20, 2014

Climate Change: the Slippery, Shape Shifting, Jelly Mould Threat

George Marshall @ 5:41 pm

Climate is not the perfect cognitive challenge but its amorphous nature creates the ideal conditions for human denial and cognitive bias to come to the fore

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is not hopeful. “I am very sorry,” he told me, “but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision-making. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. He regards climate change as a perfect trigger: a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. This combination is exceptionally hard for us to accept, he told me.

Kahneman’s views are widely shared by the other cognitive psychologists I interviewed for my new book  Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. As Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and best selling author on happiness, told me: “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.”

People from other disciplines also seem to view climate change as a “perfect” problem. Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect market failure”. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle says it is a “perfect moral storm”.

Everyone is confident that they have found the real reason why we find it so hard to act on climate change. Climate scientists say that people don’t understand the science. Environmental campaigners say that the political process is corrupted by oil companies. Oil companies say that the political process is corrupted by environmental campaigners. Mark Berliner, a professor of statistics at Ohio State University, says that our failure comes from our “aversion to statistical thinking.” And communications specialists such as myself say—lo and behold—that the main reason why people have not responded to this threat has been because of failed communications.

If climate change really is the “elephant in the room”, it is a pitch black room, and, like the blind men in Rumi’s ancient fable, we are all feeling different parts of it and drawing our own, culturally biased conclusions about what they might be.

Which points to the real problem: climate change is exceptionally amorphous, even slippery, problem. It is multivalent—that is to say, it is open to multiple meanings and interpretations. It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process information about the world and evaluate threats. And we find none.

And so we impose our own and shape shape it, like jelly (jell-o to Americans) in the mould of our own values and worldviews. This is a dangerous situation, leaving climate change wide open for miscategorization and, another of Kahneman’s biases, an assimiliation bias that shapes climate change according to peoples pre-held assumptions.

Which raises a further question: is climate change really cognitively challenging at all? Or does it just seem so because of the stories that communicators shape around it?

For example, the media and many campaigners present it as an overwhelming and possibly hopeless struggle – leading to feelings of powerlessness. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and their constant talk of uncertainty. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the word “uncertain” more than once per page.

Discussions about economics, meanwhile, invariably turn into self defeating cost-benefit analyses. Stern offers a choice between spending 1 per cent of annual income now, or risking losing 20 per cent of it in 50 years’ time. What sounds like an easy choice (a ‘no-brainer’ we could say) to him is actually disconcertingly similar to the language used in Daniel Kahneman’s famous experiments into temporal discounting. And, not surprisingly it produces the same result: phrased as a choice, people are innately biased to postponing action and taking a gamble on the future. What is more, politicians and business leaders are especially to prone to what Kahneman would call the ‘optimism bias’ – the tendency to overestimate their own luck and skill- and are all too willing to take this gamble.

Clearly cost and uncertainty cannot be overwhelming or universal psychological barriers when polls consistently find that 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. What is important is that these people have political convictions that can readily trump the cognitive challenges. Most of the people in this group have left wing politics or environmentalist values and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.

Conservatives may justify climate inaction on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both for other issues that speak to their core values. Mitt Romney, the first US presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a 1 per cent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”

Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they cannot even recall that it exists.

This disavowal is similar to that found around human rights abuses, argued the late Stanley Cohen, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. He suggested that we know very well what is happening but “enter into unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged”.

Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal avoidance: our unwillingness to face our own mortality. Neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York argues that the overt images of death and decay associated with climate change (along with its deeper implications of societal decline and collapse) are proxies for the denial of mortality. She draws on the large body of research evidence of Terror Management Theory, first developed by the anthropologist Ernest Becker, that finds that people respond to death salience with an aggressive assertion of their own in-group identity. Dickinson argues that this is entirely consistent with the angry denial and political polarization found around climate change.

And we appear to cope with climate change in similar ways to our fear of death too- recognising its reality but deliberately creating distance and stripping it of the qualities that would cause us anxiety. We cannot stand to think of the death of our own children, but we accept that they will die after we ourselves have died. Similarly, we can avoid the fear of climate change by placing its impacts beyond our own life span. In focus groups, people often do this quite openly, justifying their indifference with the observation that it is all in the future, when they will be long since dead and gone.

For all of these reasons, it is a mistake to assume that the scientific evidence of climate change will flow directly into action – or, conversely, that climate denial can be dismissed as mere misinformation. The systems that govern our attitudes are just as complex as those that govern energy and carbon, and just as subject to feedbacks that exaggerate small differences between people. The problem itself is far from perfect and the situation is not hopeless, but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction.

This article is an expended version of an article in appeared in New Scientist  issue 2982 on 18th August 2014 in the print edition under the headline “Hear no climate evil” and online as  Understand faulty thinking to tackle climate change link…

The ideas and interviews were taken from George Marshall’s new book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change published by Bloomsbury US.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that

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July 21, 2014


George Marshall @ 4:19 pm

Thank you former UK Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, – and, let’s be honest, climate denier– Owen Paterson, for providing us with an excellent object lesson in right wing climate change narratives. There is much to learn, and much to cause concern.

In yesterday’s high profile op-ed in the conservative Sunday Telegraph newspaper link.., Paterson, until last week the politician in control of Britain’s environmental policy reinvented himself as the voice of ‘sanity’ against the straw enemy of green extremists.

Allowing a while for the irritation to pass and the blood pressure to go down, I suggest that we environmental communicators can improve our game by watching how a highly skilled communicator like Paterson is speaking to this audience. Please read it now and reflect on it.

Although he pays lip service to supposed external facts, he does not cite any of them. Paterson is only really interested in a culture war of competing values and identities. According to Self-categorization theory we seek to achieve closeness and similarity with people with whom we feel an identity and kinship: our in-group. Then we seek to establish our differences from the people who are not like us: the out-groups. Our attitudes are shaped by both the people around us who we want to be like and by the people beyond us who we want to be unlike.

Paterson’s interest is in setting up the identity markers that clearly signal that he is speaking to in-group conservative values of national pride, localism, fairness, and property as the reward of personal success. And he is just as concerned with defining this in opposition to an out-group: the  “mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups and renewable energy companies” which Paterson calls the “Green Blob”.

Paterson duly defines “the environment” within the conservative frame of patriotism and defense of locality and traditional values as “the real countryside of farmers and workers, of birds and butterflies” and “the landscapes of this beautiful country”. Such values  (as highlighted in an excellent COIN report by my colleague Dr Adam Corner) is diametrically opposed to the language of a global responsibility and “saving the planet” utilised by mainstream environmentalism. Putting the two worldviews in direct contrast Paterson praises the “wonderful work” of “local conservationists on the ground” who, he says, are “a world away from the highly paid globe-trotters of the Green Blob”. The meaning is contained in the nuance: the word “conservationists” shares a root with “conservatives”- they are rooted in “the ground”. The phrases “world away”  and “globe trotters” links the environmentalists with internationalism and its older sibling cosmopolitanism- both deeply distrusted values within traditional little England conservatism.

Enemies need motivations, and a moral judgement requires that this enemy has an intention to cause harm. In Paterson’s story, the Green Blob is motivated by its “handsome” profits, “lavish funds” and “high pay”. This tendency to mirror the accusations of your opponents is called inversionism and is familiar from other polarized debates such anti-smoking, gun control, and abortion. In arguments over climate change both sides portray themselves as ‘David’ s mastering the real science against a self interested and corrupt ‘Goliath’.

So, having established the mythic moral battleground,  Paterson can then write a heroic narrative of himself standing up to “death threats” even when he is  being “burnt in effigy”.  The main structure of this piece is a single rhetorical pattern, repeated five times, like the riff in a conference speech:  When I spoke up..they tried (and failed) to silence me.

His countervailing opponent it is not just an amorphous “they” Green Blob. His article repeatedly pits the heroic Paterson against more specific enemies. They do not need to be named because they are less important as individual people (although readily identifiable) than as familiar out-group archetypes. All have one quality in common- they are members of a privileged deracinated leftist elite who have never done an honest hard days work. So, he tells us, his mission was opposed by “pop stars who had never been faced with having to cull a pregnant heifer… a luxury organic chocolate tycoon…a dress designer for whom energy bills are trivial concerns” and so on.

This storyline is familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in 2007 the novelist Michael Crichton took part in a radio debate on climate change that was broadcast across the US. Crichton received the largest cheer of the night when he castigated the hypocritical greens who fly their “private jets to their second and third homes” or “buy a Prius, drive it around for a while, and give it to the maid”. Crichton, as one of the world’s most successful authors, understood all too well the power of this storyline.

Then Paterson brings in another familiar frame that defines his in-group identity, arguing that these Green Blob “anti-capitalist agitprop groups” are “like the nationalised industries and obstructive trade unions of the 1970s”. As with the other accusations the goal here is not to put a coherent argument. The real goal is to flash the right cultural signals to his audience.

So what then can climate change communicators learn from this?

Firstly – Paterson understands well what we often do not. Environmentalists and scientists alike continue to assume that climate change denial can be overcome with more reports and data. They are wrong: this has to be understood as an appeal to values and identities.

Secondly – we can do well to adopt Paterson’s framing of environment around the cultural values of the national landscape. This confirms the finding of my own research as discussed in a recent report  on “How to Build Climate Narratives Around National Identity and Cultural Pride”

Thirdly – we must, as a matter of ever greater urgency, develop a right wing discourse on climate change. Political orientation has become the single most reliable predictor of people’s positions on climate change. The centre right political worldview is very poorly served by environmentalists, most of whom have progressive left politics. Our failure to address this audiences has left this critical social space wide open for aggressive deniers like Paterson to  fill with their own narratives and language.

But we cannot and should not be filling this void on our own- and it would be disastrous for environmental organisations to do so. We need to step back and encourage and enable conservative communicators to come to the fore, shaping language around their own values. And this, I have to warn my colleagues in the Green movement, will involve allowing some new ways of talking that make us decidedly uncomfortable.

Finally we must not respond in kind, however tempting it might be. To do so would be to further fuel the very polarisation that Paterson wishes to create. This is not the place for a culture war and we must, at every opportunity, recognise our differences but speak over them to common values and shared concerns. More than any other issue climate change requires a sense of shared humanity and we must not let that be poisoned by the divisiveness of a failed politician preparing his speech for the dinner circuit.

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July 1, 2014


George Marshall @ 12:57 pm

I was recently privileged to speak on a panel at the British Library about the peculiar lack of public discussion about climate change in areas damaged by extreme weather and the tendency for people to interpret these impacts in terms of their own politics and worldview.


Putting the scientific evidence was Prof. Stephen Belcher, the Director of the UK Meteorological Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (a man with a very wide business card and a disgacefully full head of hair). Then myself, followed by Bob Ward, the outspoken and always stimulating Director of Policy & Communications at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change.  Chairing is James Randerson, Assistant National News Editor at the Guardian.

I discuss these themes more thoroughly in a former blog article, in a report for the Climate Outreach Information Network – After the Floods: Communicating Climate Change Around Extreme Weather and my forthcoming book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

But it is always interesting to see people talk about this in their own words. In early 2014 the wettest month ever recorded -and in Oxford those records go back to 1767! led to widespread flooding (not ‘fooding’ as I first wrote!)

In this video by COIN taken with flood victims in Oxford, even with the water lapping around their feet none of them  talks about climate change until prompted and even then they are split about it.


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May 29, 2014

You say "Global Warming". I say "Climate Change"- Let's call the whole thing off!

George Marshall @ 11:01 am

A new US survey by the Yale  Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?

The Yale survey is fascinating  (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption”and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern.  It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.  The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches.  Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.

The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”– that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack?  Craig’s List?  Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.

This article was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.

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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.

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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.

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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:


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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.

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