Ignoring the Effects of Climate Change

How our natural instinct to stay in step with others is interfering with our ability to address the effects of climate change.

Polar bears

Humans are wired to respond strongest to threats that are immediate, which might be why some of us dismiss the drawn-out effects of climate change.

Photo by Fotolia/hperry

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Don’t Even Think About It (Bloomsbury, 2014), by George Marshall, explores why some people choose inaction when facing the effects of climate change, even if they accept it as a real phenomenon, and how we can overcome it. The following excerpt from Chapter 6, “The Jury of Our Peers: How We Follow the People Around Us,” introduces us to the concept of social conformity and explains how our natural instinct to not stray from our peers may continue to lead to harmful consequences for our planet.

In the early hours of the morning of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was assaulted and then stabbed repeatedly in a densely populated residential area of Queens, New York. Thirty-eight people (one of them ironically named Joseph Fink) said they had heard her screams and done nothing to intervene. One man lamely shouted, “Let that girl alone,” out of his window before going back to bed. Another pulled a chair up to the window and turned out the light to better see what was happening. No one thought to call the police until it was too late.

Rather than being a sad testament of a broken society—as the newspapers of the day suggested—this lack of response actually revealed the strength of social conformity. People read the social cues. They saw that no one else was taking any action and decided that it was in their best interest to keep out of a potentially dangerous situation. Knowing that others had heard the cries, they diffused responsibility, assuming, quite wrongly, as it turned out, that someone else had called the police.

The tragic Genovese incident launched a rich and still expanding body of research into the importance of social cues in defining what issues people respond to and what ones they ignore. It is a fascinating feature of this bystander effect—as it was subsequently named—that the more people we assume know about a problem, the more likely we are to ignore our own judgment and watch the behavior of others to identify an appropriate response.

A string of experiments confirmed the power of the bystander effect. In one particularly entertaining experiment, an actor faked having a seizure over the laboratory intercom. The last words heard from him were “I could really—er—use some help, so if somebody would—er—give me a little h-help uh er er . . . I’m gonna die,” followed by a choking noise and silence. Of fifteen participants in the experiment, six never got out of their booths, and five others only came out well after the “seizure victim” apparently choked.

Of course, you can only run these kinds of experiments for a few years before your subjects start to get wise to the trick, especially if they are psychology students. Years later, when a subject in a psychology experiment had a real epileptic fit, the other participants were convinced that it was being faked for the experiment and refused to get off their chairs.

The Bystander Effect: Why We Follow Social Norms

Climate change is a global problem that requires a collective response and so is especially prone to this bystander effect. When we become aware of the issue, we scan the people around us for social cues to guide our own response: looking for evidence of what they do, what they say, and, conversely, what they do not do and do not say. These cues can also be codified into rules that define the behaviors that are expected or are inappropriate—the social norm. If we see that other people are alarmed or taking action, we may follow them. If they are indifferent or inactive, we will follow that cue too.

This social conformity is not some preference or choice. This is a strong behavioral instinct that is built into our core psychology, and most of the time we are not even aware that it is operating. It originated as a defense mechanism during our evolutionary development, when our survival depended entirely on the protection and security of our social group. Under such conditions, being out of sync with the people around us carried a potentially life-threatening danger of ostracism or abandonment.

There are, therefore, real and serious risks involved with holding views that are out of step with your social group and your brain is wired to give them greater weight than other risks, even those that directly threaten you. In experiments on social conformity, people chose to adhere to a social norm even under conditions when there was a real and imminent external threat, such as smoke coming from under the door.

So if your views on climate change differ from the socially held views, you find yourself balancing two risks: the uncertain and diffused risk of the effects of climate change as opposed to the certain and very personal social risk of opposing the norm. As I will show, people often decide that it may be better to say nothing at all about the effects of climate change, even with their close friends.

Although conformity is important for functioning societies, a small number of dissenters are required to identify new threats. In the famous Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a small boy has been given the social license to declare that the emperor is naked. Andersen based his story on a Spanish folk tale in which a Moor (an African Muslim) was permitted, by virtue of his outsider status, to defy the social norm. In our own times, nonprofit organizations, such as environmental and human rights organizations, are given some license, even in repressive societies, to raise challenging questions, providing that they remain peripheral.

Andersen added his own astute variation to the original Spanish tale. After the boy shouted about the Emperor’s nakedness, “the Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

The final moral of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” then, is that these social norms are highly resilient to change—even when the norm has been effectively challenged, the social cost of admitting a mistake and the effort required to change a behavior may be so great that it is easier to continue with a known lie.

One way of ensuring against such a challenge is to surround yourself with people who agree with you. In our dispersed and media-driven society, people are able to immerse themselves in a self-constructed social network where the norm is entirely consistent with their own views. They restrict their information sources to carefully selected news media, websites, blogs, and publications—the so-called echo chamber—that reinforce their views. Tea Party members and environmental activists alike share a distrust of the mainstream media and depend on information sources that speak specifically to their interests and values.

Researchers in Australia found that these self-constructed networks had created what they call a “false consensus” effect around climate change, which led both sides to believe that their opinion was more common than it actually was. However, because the loud and very vocal climate change deniers were also heard far into the mainstream media, both sides tended to hugely overestimate their numbers, guessing them to make up a quarter of the population. In fact they made up less than 7 percent.

When people misread the social norm in this way, it can lead them to suppress their own views, thus widening the divide and further reinforcing the false consensus—and at its most extreme, creating a society in which the majority of people keep silent because they fear that they are in the minority. This process, known as pluralistic ignorance, helps to explain the extreme polarization around key markers of political identity such as abortion, gun control, and, increasingly, climate change.

Communicators have long hoped to harness the power of social norms and conformity to steer people away from high-carbon behaviors. They argue that this is particularly appropriate for collective issues, like climate change, in which people require proof that others are contributing before acting—called conditional cooperation in the literature. In a widely influential experiment, Robert Cialdini, professor of behavioral psychology at Arizona State University, placed hangers bearing different messages on the towel racks in motel rooms asking people to reuse their towels. By far the most successful message was the one that appealed to a social norm with the message that 75 percent of guests “help save the environment” by reusing their towels. Even then, less than half of them did so, suggesting that people require more evidence of a norm than can be provided by a single hanger tag.

In 2010, the consultancy Opower built on Cialdini’s experiment to use reported social norms to encourage energy conservation. It persuaded Connexus Energy, a Minnesota-based utility, to include with its customers’ electricity bills a report on how their energy consumption compared with that of their hundred nearest neighbors. To prevent backsliding, people who had lower than average consumption received reports covered in smiley faces and with the exhortation “Great.” After all, Opower reckoned, who would ever want to disappoint those smiley faces?

But manipulating norms in this way also has costs. The tactic (which achieved only a paltry 2 percent energy savings) made no attempt to strengthen shared values. It is not surprising that, confronted with all that green messaging and those smiley faces, some conservatives increased their energy consumption—apparently as an act of defiance.

It should already be clear that social norms might be powerful, but that people are correspondingly extremely alert to the cultural codes that they carry. This is why drawing too much attention to an undesirable norm can seriously backfire. When park rangers erected a sign in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park that read, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time,” the rate of theft significantly increased. Although the sign attempted to communicate the undesirability of theft, what it actually communicated far more powerfully was that stealing a small amount of wood was a perfectly normal activity.

Undesirable and Unintended Messages

Environmental organizations never seem to learn this message. In 2007 the Alliance for Climate Protection, founded by Al Gore, ran a commercial in which young parents at a smart dinner party list the reasons why climate change is a myth while tossing their leftovers onto the heads of their children sitting behind them. The final tagline was “What kind of mess are we leaving our children?” The ad was meant to be ironic but was actually a spectacular mistake—a thirty-second promotion for the wrong arguments that presented climate deniers as attractive young suburban professionals.

Maybe with this in mind, the Alliance’s next foray into social norm campaigning was based around common values and appeals to national unity. The three-year advertising program, supported by a staggering three-hundred-million-dollar budget, aimed to recruit ten million advocates for national climate change legislation. It was called We Can Solve It.

The campaign’s name was a combination of Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes we can” and the Second World War slogan “We can do it!”—forever associated with the iconic poster of the bicep-flexing Rosie the Riveter. Its advertisements drew on other familiar historical images of collective purpose, such as the Normandy landings, civil rights marches, and the Apollo landing, and showed bitter political rivals such as Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, or Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, smiling on a couch together and agreeing to cooperate.

It was a brief cease-fire before the growing partisan divide on climate change forced Gingrich and Robertson to issue rebuttals. But it was, at least, a bold attempt to create a social norm that climate change is a historic challenge that can be overcome by American innovation and the “can-do” spirit.

However, the repeated use of the pronoun we was more problematic. I call this the “slippery we” because it sounds inclusive and assertive when read in a transcript, but it is actually ambiguous and often meaningless. Unlike the “conventional we,” which describes a common action or attitude (in which sense it appears throughout this book), the “slippery we” is a rhetorical gambit to create a sense of norm while demonstrating what management manuals like to call transformational leadership.

The political use of we has been escalating with a kind of rhetorical desperation. In their inauguration speeches, George Washington said we once only, Jefferson and Lincoln around ten times, John F. Kennedy twenty-nine times, Barack Obama fifty-seven times.

In his keynote policy statement on climate change, delivered at Georgetown University in June 2013, Obama went on an unparalleled we spree, using it ninety-six times, sometimes in first-person pileups: “We can figure this out. We’ve got to look after our children; we have to look after our future; and we have to grow the economy and create jobs. We can do all of that as long as we don’t fear the future; instead we seize it.”

But who is Obama’s we? Is it him and his administration, his supporters, the American people, or humanity as a whole? Without such clarity, this is the language of the bystander looking out the window and saying, “We really must do something about this.”

The slippery we can be deeply alienating for the people who do not consider themselves to be included within it. Unlike the languages of truly cooperative cultures, such as indigenous Australians and Native American societies, English has no means to differentiate between the inclusive we (me and you and your group) and the exclusive we (me and my group but not you).

If you oppose Obama, his avowal of common purpose sounds deeply exclusive and you hear him saying, me and my fellow global warming zealot cronies are going to force you to do this. No doubt if you are a supporter of Obama, it sounds wonderfully inclusive. And if you are, consider how you feel about this equally stirring rhetoric: “We can and must work together, and re-chart our course toward a better future. We will begin to thrive again when we begin to believe in ourselves again.” When I tell you that it is from a 2013 speech by Tea Party founder and climate denier Rand Paul, do you feel embraced in his “we” or repelled?

While politicians use the slippery we to create a false norm of action, many people use it to create a false social norm of inaction. For example, a woman in a Swiss focus group explained why action on climate change is pointless with the following words: “We just consume. We are somehow helpless. We don’t care anyway, as we don’t exactly know what effects we cause. If we took every problem equally seriously, we would become permanently depressed.” She is quite deliberately playing with the power of the social norm, projecting her own views onto a supposed “we” and being resigned in her inability to challenge the norm she has just fabricated.

In focus groups, people who stumble to explain their own inactivity suddenly become fluent in explaining the reasons why other people are unable to act, mobilizing the language of popular psychology and talking about anxiety and denial. In a 2012 study one woman, described as being well educated and middle-class, said, “So yeah, I don’t think people take it seriously because it’s not a thing that affects you here and now, and I think people often react slowly or badly to things that seem very distant.”

There are two layers of distancing here. There is the legitimate observation that climate change as an issue doesn’t feel dangerous—an issue I address in the next section of the book. But there is also her own detachment that enables her to make an observation about why other people do not react. Conveniently, this reading of the social norm helps to justify her own inaction.

So, a few words of warning. Although our instincts lead us to seek out social cues when forming our views on climate change, these could be deeply misleading. The jury of our peers is hardly impartial, and through our confirmation bias, we could very well be choosing to read the norm in the way that best suits the position that we have already decided to hold.


Reprinted with permission from Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, and published by Bloomsbury, 2014.