Why climate change is not urgent anymore

David Spratt co-author of Climate Code Red has written a series of posts about the collective failings of the climate movement and political parties to respond to the urgent threat posed by catastrophic climate change.

Chiefly to blame — according to Spratt — are the “bright siders” of the climate movement, who offer a positive solution and message to the bleak future of runaway climate change. Spratt argues that advocating for clean energy as a principal reason for taking action on climate change is akin to spruiking the popcorn while a cinema burns down. For Spratt, it is a political failing on the part of environmental NGOs and progressive political parties that they are not shouting the dangers of climate change. A key example of the “bright siding” failure was the “Say Yes” campaign run in 2011 in the lead up to the introduction of the carbon price. This campaign did not talk about the dangers of climate change, only the benefits of the carbon price.

More interesting in my view is a research paper in Nature magazine, “Climate change and moral judgement”, which talks about the cognitive challenges associated with collective action on climate change. Researchers Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff argue that there are six reasons that underpin our collective unwillingness or incapacity to take action on climate change:

  1. Abstractness and cognitive complexity: “The abstract nature of climate change makes it non-intuitive and cognitively effortful to grasp.”
  2. Blamelessness of unintentional action: “The human moral judgement system is fine tuned to react to intentional transgressions.”
  3. Guilty bias: “Anthropogenic climate change provokes self-defensive biases.”
  4. Uncertainty breeds wishful thinking: “The lack of definitive prognoses results in unreasonable optimism.”
  5. Moral tribalism: “The politicization of climate change fosters ideological polarization.”
  6. Long-term horizons and faraway places: “Out-group victims fall by the wayside.”

Thankfully, Markowitz and Shariff also provide tactics to challenge these hurdles. These are based on “psychological mechanisms” that can be “used to bolster people’s perceptions of climate change as a moral issue and of ameliorative action as a moral obligation.”

The six tactics are:

  1. Use existing moral values: “Frame climate change using more broadly held values that appeal to untapped demographics.”
  2. Burdens versus benefits: “Focus messaging on the costs, not benefits, that we may impose on future generations.”
  3. Emotional carrots, not sticks: “Motivate action through appeals to hope, pride and gratitude rather than guilt, shame and anxiety.”
  4. Be wary of extrinsic motivators: “Pushing action on climate change as ‘good business’ may backfire.”
  5. Expand group identity: “Increase identification with and empathy for future generations and people living in other places.”
  6. Highlight positive social norms: “Leverage human susceptibility to social influence and approval.”

This advice is interesting because it supports parts of Spratt’s argument and counters others. Markowitz and Shariff clearly believe that “bright siding” (no mention of climate change, promoting benefits of clean energy) is the wrong strategy because it relies on extrinsic motivators. This is because it downplays action on climate change as a moral imperative and relies on economic incentives as a motivation — something that can create cognitive dissonance and conflict between morality and the profit motive. Extrinsic motivators also undermines attempts to develop non-materialistic motivators for action.

At the same time, Markowitz and Shariff also talk about the importance of the small steps involved with behavioural change to build attitudinal change and social norms. The likes of David Spratt and Clive Hamilton disagree that behaviour change programs should be a part of any climate action strategy. However, the research here and elsewhere demonstrates that these tactics are important to building social norms. Most Australians for example actively recycle.

Finally, I’m reminded of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Alinsky’s final rule was

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

One of the chief challenges for climate activists is that there is not a single target to campaign at. There is no single person or corporation responsible for climate change; greenhouse gasses were emitted by every country in the world over many generations, by tens of thousands of companies and organisations. This makes campaigns difficult because the target is abstract.

Bill McKibben, founder of climate action group 350.org has attempted to address this problem by labelling fossil fuel companies “Public Enemy Number One”:

But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

In my view, this plan is heading in the right direction. It addresses many of the six challenges noted by Markowitz and Shariff, and answers the chief issue that Alinsky raises. As ABC environment journalist Sara Phillips notes:

But the world needs to address climate change long before those CO2 chickens come home to roost. McKibbens’ article has struck a chord because the ability to direct moral outrage at an entity is the galvanising force the world needs to turn our fates around.


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