Climate Change: I Didn’t Do It My Way

When new acquaintances learn of my interest in climate change, most try to change the subject; but when they learn that I used to be very active in financial markets, they often become engaged in the conversation and ask  questions on economics or investment. Why should the reaction be so different?

For such people, the logic with respect to financial markets appears to go something like this: “I have no idea if this guy is full of bullshit or not, but he seems to know something about investment so let’s find out what he has to say.” But for global warming I find the following reaction: “I have no idea if this guy is full of bullshit or not, but he seems to know something about climate change so let’s find a way to change the conversation because it is making me feel uncomfortable.”

I have always been fascinated about the psychology behind financial markets, a field of study that was given the economics profession seal of approval when Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2002 (for the best business/economics book of 2012 read his Thinking Fast and Slow). Psychology helps explain why individuals, or groups of individuals, frequently act in certain ways that is different from the profit-maximising model underpinning neo-classical economics.

Similarly, my suspicion has been that psychology lies behind the reason why climate change has failed to engage the general public, even though they should be engaged for reasons of self-interest if nothing else.

The other day I stumbled across the blog of George Marshall, the founder of the charity Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN) who has been developing the same line of thinking for far longer than myself. The introduction to his blog contains a question:

This blog explores the topic of the psychology of climate change denial – with observations and anecdotes about our weird and disturbed response to the problem. It seeks to answer a question that has puzzled me for years: why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?

I encourage you to go through some of Marshall’s posts. They are not only insightful in trying to understand the apathy, indifference and denial that surrounds climate change but also sympathetic to the soft denialists (the vast majority of the population).

I will just pick up one theme that runs through the blog: narrative.

Everyone of us has a life narrative: a story about the future for oneself and one’s family. We also generally have an optimism bias. Outcomes are expected to be positive and once manifested should present the individual in a good light to others. Further, we perceive we have a lot of autonomy in achieving those outcomes. We all wish to die singing Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”. Climate change, like the onset of chronic illness, upsets the narrative. The future could look more bleak than the present, our own actions are giving rise to that bleak future and—due to the global nature of climate change—there is very little that any individual can do about it.

What is more, Marshall makes the critical point that climate change makes a lousy alternative narrative (here):

Climate change has always been hard to turn into a compelling narrative. It’s bad enough that it is a vast and overwhelming tableau with major uncertainties of causality, timing and outcomes. Even worse, though, is the absence of any external enemy. We cannot demarcate between the perpetrator and victim (us and them, good and bad), because everyone in our society contributes to the problem and everyone will be affected.

The existing narrative is also rooted in political affiliation, class, country and culture. As such, it is extremely tenacious and resistant to change—even in the face of natural disasters. In his most recent post, Marshall muses on the response of a community in a town in Texas to the worst fires in living memory.

I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

He makes the point that a disaster can reaffirm a survival narrative that is far more powerful than a complex and nuanced climate change narrative:

Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle.  The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.

In he U.K., this would be called the Dunkirk spirit and will serve a society well if the threat can be countered by sheer stoicism as, eventually, was the case with the fight against fascism. Unfortunately, climate change is not an ideological threat. It is just a shortening probability: that Texas town will burn down again and again on current emission trajectories until the community is bludgeoned into submission.  As such, defiance is not the correct response. In Marshall’s words:

Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

Ironically, I think capitalism can actually be part of the solution here. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has a very cold, calculating narrative. The people may wish to rebuild that Texas town, but there will come a point where the businesses won’t.

With this in mind, I believe climate activists frequently ignore a natural ally. Yes, the fossil fuel lobby will be immediately antagonistic to their agenda, but there are many businesses that will be receptive to any information that better allows them to evaluate the future. Successful business investment requires “self-criticism and self-doubt”. Indeed, any businessman or woman who does not have these qualities is generally a fool and will be soon parted with his or her money.

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