When you hear about it, the message quickly becomes clear: apocalypse, disaster, the end of the world. Actually, we have no chance at all of stopping climate change and saving humanity from the greatest catastrophe of all. But this is exactly where we make the first big mistake: as long as we don't manage to see this challenge as an opportunity and let hope take the place of despair, nothing will really change. A plea for more future optimism in the fight against climate change.
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The year 2018 is on its best way to become the fourth hottest on record. And the only three years that have been hotter are 2015, 2016 and 2017. "The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle," said Prof. Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. And yes indeed we see them play out through extreme weather events in real time before our very own eyes: Hurricanes in the US and Puerto Rico, heat waves in Europe, droughts in East Africa, record rainfalls in New Zealand and even forest fires in Greenland. Yes, in Greenland – the ice island in the Arctic Ocean! In comparison to Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, where – hardly surprising – tourists had to flee from the flames of the forest fires back in July last year, such phenomena have actually been unthinkable in a permafrost landscape. Still. Experts predict a drastic increase in the number and extent of bushfires north of the Arctic Circle due to climate change.
Yesterday the leading international body of climate change researchers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued a major report on the impacts of global warming. And guess what? It slams the door on wishful thinking, again. More urgently than ever before, we are told about the severe and dramatic effects of climate change. And yes, they have massive ecological and social consequences worldwide, such as the increase in heat waves and corresponding pressure on our health, agriculture and thus our food by shifting vegetation periods. And, to name just a second one, of course the increase in global migration through the destruction of habitats – a topic as relevant as never before. And it's quite clear that these consequences are ultimately provoked by us. Climate researchers have repeatedly found that human activities are the main cause of global warming with a probability of more than 90%. So to avoid the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years, the authors of the special report are being quoted.
The fact that by no means everyone believes in these scientific findings or changes their behaviour accordingly gives cause for concern. And it also gives reason to believe that our current climate change efforts and the communication that comes along aren't convincing enough. What if the way we report on climate change is to blame for this problem? What if the public discourse and messages in the media, marked by extreme scenarios, only contribute to the fact that climate science isn't heard and in some cases is even supposedly taken ad absurdum?
And hey, it's true. Much of the discourse on climate change is more reminding of an inevitable death sentence than of an actual discussion of proposed solutions. According to a study by the University of Washington, 80 percent of media reports and even 90 percent of IPCC reports frame the topic with terms such as "disaster" and "catastrophe". Some of the most recent communications even went so far and promised an end to mankind in less than ten years. For the world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking it's still 100 years, but he too has reduced his forecast by a factor of 10 within just one year. Smith Broecker, one of the world's leading geoscientists, not only coined the term "global warming", but also speaks of the planet as an "angry beast", which we prick with sticks.
However, it's also clear that this communication tactic is highly ineffective. Decades of psychology research have taught us that humans are usually extremely bad at realistically assessing the future negative consequences of their current actions. Our brain is so interconnected that it prefers to somehow ignore and suppress everything bad, painful and torturous. It also simply doesn't work if measures in the fight against climate change are to go hand in hand with a restriction or negative perception of the adaptation of one's own lifestyle.
Also, the consequences of global climate change for too many people are still too far away for them to feel compelled to take immediate action. It is true that our brain is a wonderfully constructed "walk out of the way machine" that has been protecting us from immediate dangers for millions of years – for example, it has made us run away from the approaching saber-toothed tiger. But with regard to the handling of dangers, which seem to build up gradually and lie in a more distant future, is still in a beta test.
Researchers typologize the German population's attitude towards climate change in five subpublics. The group of the "cautious", consisting of those who are worried, but have not (yet) changed their lifestyle, represents the largest share with just under a third. In comparison to the group of the “uninvolved” (about one fifth of the population) they at most support climate protection politically. The smallest subpublic with around 10 percent is called "doubters" and completely denies climate change and humankind's main responsibility. But lucky us Germans, this group is way less ideologized than in the US for instance. And “rejecters” that vehemently oppose climate protection and consider climate change to be the pipe dream of a conspiracy are of no significance at all in Germany.
"If climate change was caused by sex between homosexuals or eating kittens, millions of demonstrators would take to the streets", happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert once said, addressing a key reason why we aren't directly alarmed when confronted with global warming. Climate change doesn't violate our moral sensitivities. And our moral emotions are, after all, the brain's essential call to action.
We need to refocus the discussions on climate change to first identify the opportunities for change, while at the same time delivering environmental and societal benefits. It doesn't help that we climate researchers and activists, when experiencing scepticism and ignorance, only provide more urgent and louder information about the magnitude and extent of the challenge. This also means that we must not only provide facts, but also tell stories. We have been opening up the world in stories since childhood, which is why this must also be a tried and tested means of climate change communication.
We, who regularly deal with climate issues, should try to reformulate dramatic appeals into hopeful solutions. To reach as many people as possible, our best strategy might be to use more optimistic and encouraging formulations. Reframings must free themselves from the endless disputes over small details of climate research findings and instead repackage predictions into more digestible and easily understandable material. Such a strategy could revive the whole dialogue and turn skeptics into like-minded people.
Individuals tend to use emotions rather than facts to make judgements. Conversely, this means that warnings about the effects of climate change among cautious and sceptical individuals may not achieve the desired success of sensitising the addressee. It's therefore hardly surprising that the usual IPCC graphs on various temperature and CO2 emission scenarios, which are anything but emotional, haven't had the hoped-for impact for years. The facts are almost undoubted and fast action therefore highly rational, but obviously there is still a lot of silence and a "yes, but" attitude.
"When we think of climate change as a ticking bomb, we see it differently than when we think of it as a fever, a gamble, a new Apollo mission, or a World War II mobilization. In any case, we imagine different causes, different consequences – and different solutions", George Marshall summed up the central dilemma in his book "Don't even think about it – Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change". And I couldn't agree more with him.
Our attitude towards climate change should be one of critical future optimism. Or even better: a possibilism that emphasizes the potential of our world in view of this great challenge. Unlike blind optimism, it differs in the way that it neither excludes nor ignores evil and bad. On the contrary, positive change is possible precisely because of such problems. But these aren't in a one-dimensional center and – due to a consistent overemphasis – produce a reinforcement of ignorance or even fear and despair. They are the starting point for a reflected attitude of responsibility towards the world and place the possible solutions in the foreground.
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