Breaking Key Barriers to Thinking about Climate Change

It can be overwhelming to read the extensive – my goodness it is! – literature about the psychological barriers that prevent so many people from thinking clearly about climate change. For a variety of reasons, people resist accepting this “wicked” problem as deserving attention and action. In the face of such a thick stack of information about barriers, interested parties must think clearly to avoid either overload or pessimism.

What are the psychological barriers? Here are a few: human beings’ brains do a much better job responding to tangible, immediate threats than to long-term problems; the benefits of reducing carbon emissions seem to be in the distant future with little payoff today; many people trust their peer group(s) more than scientists or political authorities; large numbers of people are not willing or able to analyze complex problems carefully; ideology can and often does trump facts; the reasons go on and on. One article identifies 29 different barriers and classifies them into seven distinct “dragons of inaction.” A recent (2014) book about barriers (Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change) discusses dozens of others.

These psychological barriers are real and substantial. One prominent researcher says, “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis,” and the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is “deeply pessimistic” about humanity’s capability to pay attention and act in time to prevent catastrophe. A third expert notes, “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”

So what’s a concerned, action-oriented person to think after reading such disturbing news? I believe that the most formidable psychological barrier of all is fatalism, the sense that “nothing can be done,” or its slight variation, “there is nothing that I can do.” That outlook, if widely adopted by individuals and policymakers, is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, appropriate messages of alarm need to be coupled with messages of hope. Humanity can reduce the long-term consequences of climate change with better short- and long-term policies and practices. Humanity can do a better job of mitigating consequences of climate change (such as rising sea levels) that are happening now and will continue in the future, if we enact and pay for appropriate steps. There are useful things that you or I can do.

However, observations about fatalism and hope still beg the question: how can more people be persuaded to take climate change seriously – seriously enough to do something about it? Although there is no single answer to this question, the literature suggests that “trusted communicators” are key to changing minds, and that these trusted communicators are often friends, relatives, neighbors, or respected people in local networks (for example leaders of local religious institutions). Many individuals will respond better to messages about climate change from the people they know and trust than to authority figures, or experts, appearing on TV or in the newspaper.

A group called Mothers Out Front, based in Massachusetts, provides a useful example of how structured small group work with friends and neighbors is able to move people to think about and act positively on the issue of climate change. The group’s principal activity is to hold “house parties” in living rooms, church basements, and community centers where participants learn basic information about the science and urgency of climate change, share personal stories, and empower mothers (and others) to work together in a variety of ways. Hundreds of homes have switched to “green electricity” as a result of these meetings. Concerns about climate change that had often been private can now be confronted, discussed, and worked on with other people.

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