September 12th, 2014


Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley

Author, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change

George Marshall can pinpoint the moment he was first made aware that climate change was real - it was at a public meeting in his British hometown in 1988.  “I left absolutely shocked and devastated,” he recalls.  But he also remembers how quickly that feeling passed; it was another twelve years before he started working seriously on the problem. Why did it take so long? “If you're not getting that support from the wider society outside,” he cautions, “it's very hard to hold that conviction.”
Marshall, a former advocate Greenpeace and author of “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” sees an overall disconnect between awareness and action when it comes to climate change. “As a narrative, it does not have an enemy with the intention to cause harm,” he told the Commonwealth Club audience.  Without a clear enemy, people have difficulty perceiving the threat to their family, their community and the world.  “The narrative structure we create around climate change becomes the issue.  And that becomes the thing which people say "I believe in climate change" or "I don't believe in climate change."  
UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner agrees, pointing to a challenge that Marshall poses in his book: “‘What kind of narratives can we construct about this issue?’ That is a really important piece of advice, because we have this story-telling brain that really is moved by stories, even more than facts and hard statistical data, which people don't intuitively grasp.”
The key, says Keltner, is to frame climate change in a way that appeals to each audience.  And those narratives often divide along partisan lines. For liberals, he says, it’s typically the threat to vulnerable species or the loss of ecosystems that triggers a reaction. “And there's recent work in moral psychology showing that climate deniers will actually be more moved by arguments and advocate for policies if the issue is framed in terms of purity, which is a very compelling moral frame for people of a more conservative political persuasion.”
No matter where we fall on the concerned citizen spectrum, says Keltner, “we are hesitant to approach the problem, because it taps into so many of our basic habits and tendencies,” such as the car we drive, where we shop, how we eat. “We have these self-interested tendencies that can sort of feed into these social practices and economic practices that are bad for the environment.”
But there’s good news, too, he adds.  Old habits can be broken, and our brains can be rewired. “We also have a lot of new science that suggests an amazing capacity to sacrifice.  And we know shifts in social behaviors that benefit others from a lot of different studies are actually good for your health, they're good to activate reward circuits in the brain.
If we can kind of rethink the enemy that we're trapped in, and think about pathways out through these more nobler tendencies, I think there's a lot of movement to be had.”
But even as evidence for climate change is increasing, that societal movement might sometimes feel like it’s happening at a glacial pace.  Will our brains catch up to the growing danger?
“We often talk about climate change as the enemy in the room,” says Marshall, but to quote ABC correspondent Bill Blakemore, ‘it’s the enemy we’re inside.”
“We're in the middle of this thing…we’re all in various ways involved with it. [And] yes, we can develop and grow as people; we can actually look at things which are really important to us, in terms of our social relations, the way we live and our collective happiness out of a low-carbon society.”
It’s the stories we tell each other that will make a difference, adds Marshall.  He finished up the discussion with a call to action:  “Please, use these themes, and share your personal conviction and persuasion on climate change with people in your own networks.  And don't underestimate how important and powerful that is.”


– Anny Celsi
September 12, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California