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Inspire the Choir, Shush the Denier: A Climate Communications Manifesto

This is why I wish Johnnie Cochran was a Climateer: he could sell the rhyme in the title of this post. If you don’t know who he was, then a) you’re young; and b) he was the lawyer who got OJ Simpson off the hook for murder. One of his key arguments was “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!” and it delights me that someone once walked the Earth both brazen and charming enough to rhyme someone’s shackles away. It’s like Dr. Suess conjured a lawyer and it came to life and it was Johnnie Cochran.

Alas the titular rhyme isn’t his. Rather, I made it up to convey my view on climate communication and I want it to weasel into your head.

I’ll work up to its meaning. Let’s start with a question which causes much twisting of hair and drooping of heads:

How can we change deniers’ minds?

Here’s the answer: we shouldn’t try. Two reasons:

#1 It’s impossible

If someone doesn’t want to believe there’s a danger, arguments won’t change their mind. Beliefs mingle with emotions and egos in ways that make them impervious to argument. A denier’s more likely to assume the messenger’s an idiot rather than consider the message. Here’s a review of the evidence.

#2 There’s an easier way to create change

Consider other movements, like civil rights. In the sixties, many whites, especially white southerners, opposed civil rights. Let’s call them skeptics (to be generous). Question: did the civil rights movement succeed because skeptics changed their minds? Answer: mostly not. Some did, eventually, but that came later. How did the civil rights movement happen then?

Answer: sympathizers got louder (the Volume Theory)

Civil rights supporters started more openly criticizing previously unopposed positions, both in public and private life. As a result, Uncle Cletus stopped feeling so free to wax racist around the Thanksgiving turkey. As the voice of civil rights got louder, Uncle Cletus got softer, until a new norm took hold: it was okay and even good to support civil rights, and increasingly icky not to. It was this new norm that changed the tide.

Civil rights happened not because folks changed sides, but rather because the sides changed volume: one got louder and the other consequently softer. Let’s call this the Volume Theory.

This is how most movements happen. Consider India’s struggle for independence. A few thousand Brits ruled 300 million Indians. Most Indians didn’t like it, but they were silent because they felt powerless. But then Gandhi convinced his fellows of something which in retrospect is silly-obvious: there was no way the British could oppose 300 million obstinate Indians. So Indians got obstinate and the Brits left.

The Volume Theory makes sense in light of what we know about behavioral change. We’re willing to do what we see others doing and unwilling to do the opposite. It’s called Social Proof, and most of us don’t realize the extent to which it holds sway in our lives. If I don’t know any vocal civil rights supporters, I won’t be vocal either. Silence reinforces itself and the status quo along with it.

If you doubt the Volume Theory, do an experiment: gather a group of old white southerners, get them trusting, tipsy, and talking about civil rights. You may hear some ugly sentiments (to be fair it’s not just Southerners — I can turn at least one member of my own “progressive” northern family into a white supremacist with three Manhattans and the right conversation starter). The old attitudes aren’t gone; they’re just quiet and retired.

Let’s circle back to Climate Change. Many are worried about it, as well we should be. But we’re also too quiet. Nearly all of the non-experts I know who care about Climate Change avoid it for fear of feather-ruffling. Even many experts keep quiet.

A key point is that those who want action on Climate Change outnumber those who don’t, and it has been so for years. This means the pro-action side can dominate if we choose. We have only to raise our voices.

So the most important thing each of us, as individuals, can do is speak up and convince others to as well. This goes especially for everyday folks who aren’t already considered partisans. Everyone expects Al Gore to talk Climate Change, so that’s nothing new, but if someone who’s never spoken up before suddenly starts bringing it up at dinner, ears will perk.

Beware: others will try to discourage you, often with good intentions. I recently listened to a marketing pro tell a sustainability group to avoid mentioning Climate Change because it’s too divisive. It’s common marketing advice and it’s wrong. Creating change isn’t like selling widgets. The obstacles to success are different. Pepsi lovers don’t feel pressure to avoid talking about or drinking Pepsi in the presence of Coke drinkers, for example. Marketing pros aren’t aware of the silence problem so they give bad advice.

The silence problem can only be fixed through exposure. Every time I speak plainly, a listener feels freer to follow suit. Our silence allows deniers to advertise their beliefs and implies to the undecided that there’s no problem. It’s Uncle Cletus redux.

Inspire the Choir, Shush the Denier

Now we come to my mantra. When we speak up, we won’t try to change deniers’ minds (because we can’t). Instead we’ll help create a new norm where it’s good to call for action and not good to resist it. We’ll speak to inspire those who already want action to raise their voices too (“Inspire the Choir”), and a side effect will be to shush deniers.

Our ability to pull it off depends on our not looking like mad harpies, which means that, while we’ll be insistent and strong and plain, we’ll also be patient. Don’t back down, but neither fling insults. “Dignified Relentlessness” is a good phrase to keep in mind.

If you’re not used to raising your voice, you may have initial discomfort, but

  1. It will soon feel better than the powerlessness so many endure. That’s been the case for me, in spades.
  2. Once we realize how much power we have, we’ll feel great.

A few more words about when, where and how to bring the subject up.

First, and obviously, when someone denies that climate change is a problem in the company of others, speak up. You needn’t be an expert. Just say that 99% of all climate scientists agree we’ve got a problem and it’s not a conspiracy and it seems foolish to pretend there’s nothing to talk about. If you want talking points, check this out.

Less obviously, when you’re discussing future plans, and Climate Change might affect them, say so. Example: in seminars I ask about the effect of Climate Change during the Q&A. A few weeks ago, I went to a forum where my city’s water planners presented their plans. My city gets more than 90% of its water from snowpack, and snowpack has shrunk 15-30% in recent decades. The trend will accelerate with Climate Change but that wasn’t factored into the strategy, so I asked about it and it changed the discussion. I made it easier for everyone to discuss it and it was prominent in the rest of the Q&A. This tactic is especially nice because you can influence a lot of people with only a tiny effort.

Another issue to watch out for: Climate Change is so thorny that it triggers something called Motivated Avoidance, which refers to our tendency to actively avoid the most difficult topics.. because ‘ignorance is bliss’. I’m still learning how to counter it but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Avoid apocalyptic language. It’s good to insist that we have a serious and urgent problem of the highest order, but don’t say stuff like: “If we don’t act now, we’re all gonna die!”
  2. Use repetition. Keep bringing it up. It’ll annoy those who are trying to avoid the subject, but don’t worry about that. Keep bringing it up.
  3. Address the avoidance issue head on. Acknowledge that we don’t want to talk about Climate Change because it’s so difficult, and say you don’t blame anyone for not wanting to talk about it, but that confronting it is healthy and right so you insist on talking. As Churchill said of Germany’s push toward Britain in WWII: “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour.” Make it clear that you’re not going to stop pressing.
  4. Make confronting the problem the noble thing to do. For guidance, study Churchill, who excelled at preempting Motivated Avoidance by making his listeners feel proud to confront their problems. For example, he famously said in a speech to the House of Commons that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” It made adopting his plan feel like the brave choice (which it was).
  5. Emphasize hope.

So: talk. It’s critical and anyone can do it. You needn’t be an activist, sit in a tree, lash yourself to a gas pump or lay siege to a congressman’s office. You just need to talk. It’ll ruffle feathers, but that’s ok. Change doesn’t happen without ruffling and you’ll be doing it for the best of reasons.

Time is dear, so don’t delay. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

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Written By

Nick Bentley is a Climate Change activist, Neurobiologist, and Tom Jones Appreciator. His ignorance is encyclopedic.


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