COIN, the Climate Outreach and Information Network, recently published a great report called After the floods: communicating climate change around extreme weather, which set out to explore our “complex attitudes to climate change and extreme weather events”. Why do extreme weather events not necessarily mean that people “get” climate change? How should Transition initiatives in communities hit by extreme weather talk about climate change with their neighbours? These are just some of the vital questions we explored with George Marshall, COIN’s founder, in a long and fascinating interview.
I went to Dawlish the other day, where the railway line was washed into the sea recently, and the town took a complete pasting. I met an old man there who’d lived in Dawlish for many years and we sat and looked out over the town together and I asked him about the storm. He said, “it’s the worst storm I’ve ever seen, I’ve never seen anything like it.” I said “so do you make any link between what you saw that night and climate change?” He said, “oh I don’t believe in climate change.” He said, “do you?” and I said “I do, very much so.” He said, “well I do believe that since the beginning of the industrial revolution we’ve poured huge amounts of gases and pollutants into the atmosphere and that that has changed the climate, but I don’t believe in climate change.” Can you explain that?
I can counter that with another quote. I have a book coming out later this year on the psychology of climate change. I started with a quote from Leon Frankfurter who was a high court judge in the US. He was given a presentation by a man who first hand had seen the clearing of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis during the Second World War and the herding of Jews into concentration camps. He reported all of this to Judge Frankfurter who was a Jew himself and Frankfurter said “I cannot believe you.” So the guy said “are you crazy, this is an eyewitness testimony.” But Judge Frankfurter says “No, I’m not saying he’s lying. I said I simply cannot believe him and these are different things.” This was interesting from a Supreme Court judge
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What is this psychological mechanism that allows us to know something is true but act as if it is not? In this groundbreaking and engaging look at one of the most important issues facing us today, George Marshall, known for his work on the psychology of climate change denial, shows that even when we accept that climate change is a dire problem, our human brains are wired to ignore it—and argues that we can overcome this.
With engaging stories and drawing on years of his own research, Marshall confirms that humans are wired to respond strongest to threats that are visible, immediate, have historical precedent, have direct personal impact, and are caused by an “enemy.” Climate change is none of these—it’s invisible, unprecedented, drawn out, impacts us indirectly, and is caused by us. Taking the reader deep into our evolutionary origins, Marshall argues that once we understand what excites, threatens, and motivates us, we can rethink and reimagine climate change. In the end, his book is both about climate change and about the qualities that make us human: our limitations, our strengths, and how we can grow as we deal with the greatest challenge we have ever faced.