Blog Post

Bridging the Climate Divide

bottom side of bridge

Author: Linda Brown, Senior Vice President

Humans have evolved over millennia to respond to threats that are immediate and urgent.  On the other hand, we’re not inherently wired to deal with existential planetary crises such as climate change.  Yet this is the task we face. 

The science is challenging enough – in recent blogs, we’ve looked at some of the important findings of the past decade that require us to rethink conventional carbon footprinting, policymaking, and mitigation approaches.  We’ve also pointed out ways that companies are generating business value (check out our 3-part free Webinar) from their corporate climate mitigation and offset activities.  Compound that with layers of psychological obstacles, and the task becomes even more daunting. Let’s put it this way: talking about the weather may be a universal conversation starter, but talking about climate change will hardly win you friends at a party.

I started looking into this a bit deeper when I began speaking on the topic.  One of the most accessible resources I’ve found is a short video produced by the PBS Digital Studios, “Why Some People Don’t Believe in Climate Science.”  A compelling narration combined with animation deftly deconstructs the subconscious barriers we so often encounter when talking about climate.   The video makes several key points:

  • When faced with future threats, our brains find excuses to delay taking action.
  • An “optimism bias” causes many of us to believe that really bad things only happen to other people.
  • We tend to gravitate toward facts that are consistent with our beliefs.
  • Our bandwidth for worrying about problems is limited – most often, problems within our immediate sphere — while problems that seem too vast to solve just don’t make the cut.
  • We tend to view the world through frames that enable us to focus on selected information and shut out other information.
  • Peer pressure is a major driver.  It takes a lot of gumption to stand apart from one’s social circle, and risk being ostracized.
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Many commentators have called attention to another obstacle – what is now being referred to as “climate change grief.”  The impending sense of doom and feelings of helplessness in the face of this crisis cause many people to simply shut down. Bill Nye “The Science Guy” has done us a big favor by bringing some welcome humor to an otherwise gloomy topic.  Teaming up with Arnold Schwartzenegger, he’s featured in a National Geographic Explorer documentary, “Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown,” exploring the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, with Schwartzenegger in the unlikely role of therapist. The bipartisan duo also make a subtle case for unity of purpose in this period of polarization.

Like all good communicators, Nye relies on simple, straightforward language, anticipates his audience’s questions, and builds on what his audience already knows in order to be inclusive rather than didactic.  He follows the tried and proven formula of progressing from problem to solution, ending on an upbeat note.

Pacing and repetition are important, too, to let each idea sink in.  We also need to pace ourselves, or risk burn-out.

One of the most important pieces of the puzzle is to listen as well as talk.  As we learn more about the drivers of climate change and potential mitigation options, most of us will inevitably be confronted with information that challenges our own deeply-held beliefs and those of our peer group.  To confront this problem, we need to be scrupulous in following the facts where they lead, rather than falling back to familiar tropes within our ordinary comfort zones. 

As we talk about climate, it is important to recognize and acknowledge that we all live with some level of hypocrisy.  The choices we’ve made individually and collectively have gradually brought us to this point in the climate crisis.  Naturally, we deduce that the problem can be reverse-engineered in a similar way, through a gradual drawdown of emissions.  The problem, however, is that we are experiencing non-linear global temperature rise.  Intellectually, we understand what that means, but in our guts – in our visceral experience of the world – it is simply hard to comprehend.  What it means is that the options available to us to achieve climate stabilization are becoming ever-more circumscribed. 

As our scientific understanding of climate change deepens, it is up to us to confront these psychological barriers, to bridge the divide and collectively identify a workable path forward.

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Linda Brown is co-founder and Senior Vice President of SCS Global Services.

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