Friday, October 21, 2016

Climate Silence Goes Way Beyond Debate Moderators - By Andrew C. Revkin

Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump on the debate stage. (Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times) Click to Enlarge.
With three presidential debates and one for vice president behind us, David Leonhardt posted a helpful tally of debate questions — decrying the lack of a single question on one of the key issues facing humanity in this century and beyond:  human-driven climate change. (The issue was touched on twice by Hillary Clinton in answers to other questions.)

Paul Krugman and a host of environment-minded commentators weighed in, as well.

I put it this way on Twitter:  “When journalism merely mirrors public worries, what happens? Zero debate questions on #climatechange.”

But of course there are deeper issues afoot.

[You can learn more in my Facebook Live session on the article and related themes.]

In a moment, I’ll give the floor here to George Marshall, a longtime climate communication evangelist who’s written an invaluable book on Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change and what to do about it.  And as a coda, you can watch two great discussions of ways to build A More Scientific Union.
In the end, climate change shares characteristics with other momentous issues humans tend to tuck away — mortality being an example.  (Woody Allen is probably an exception on that front.)

This creates what Leiserowitz and colleagues at George Mason University see as a “spiral” of climate silence.

In a guest post, here’s more on ways to make progress from George Marshall, whose work I cited in my piece on the phenomenon:

Breaking the collective silence is, I am convinced, a key to making headway on climate change.  I work for Climate Outreach, a British nonprofit group that specializes in generating public engagement with climate change.  We published our first report on climate silence three years ago.

The recent research by Yale and George Mason Universities confirms that three quarters of Americans “rarely or never discuss global warming with family or friends.”  The silence is just a strong in Britain.  After our workshops, participants frequently tell us that this had been the first meaningful conversation that they have ever had on climate change.
For one thing people hugely overestimate how much  they talk about climate change.  A survey in the U.S., U.K. and Canada in 2010 by Haddock Research also found that only 24 percent of people said that they talked frequently about climate change — in line with the Yale/George Mason findings.
And this too may be an overestimate.  When asked to describe previous conversations on climate change most people struggle to recall any specific content, and a large majority say they are very uncomfortable talking about climate change at all.  Our work finds that this awkwardness is especially marked among young people, who told us that climate change is “uncool,” “sounds preachy” and is “not something I feel comfortable talking about- like religion.”  A surprising finding of Haddock’s research was that the social group that talked about climate change the least was young women under 30, even though they claim to be among the most concerned.

What is even more surprising is that this constructed silence extends  even to people who are the recent victims of extreme and unprecedented weather.  When I was researching my book, Don’t Even Think About It,  I conducted  multiple interviews with people along the New Jersey sea shore and Bastrop County, Tex., which had been devastated by, respectively, Hurricane Sandy and the largest wildfires in Texan history.  As was reported on Earthblog, no one I spoke to could recall a recent conversation about climate change.  Even those who accepted that climate change had played a role admitted that raising the issue had felt uncomfortable and  exploitative.  [I explored Marshall’s work in these disaster zones on Dot Earth in 2012.]

Such findings support the our research, supported by a large and growing body of evidence, that finds that silence is not accidental but has been socially constructed to create distance and defend ourselves from uncomfortable truths.  It is a process that has disturbing similarities with the collectives silences in countries suffering from human rights abuses in which entire societies reach unwritten compacts about what can and cannot be publicly recognized.

My view is that the climate change community  (a deliberately all-embracing term that encompasses politicians, policy makers, scientists and  campaign organizations) have all underestimated the critical importance of social conversations in generating change.  Peer-to-peer conversations provide a vital signal to us about the issues that are important and the opinions that are socially required for us to hold.  And the conversation itself provides us with the forum within  which we can then rehearse and negotiate our own views.

Such conversations are the essential underpinning for political change.  If people do not mention climate change with friends, they do not mention it to pollsters either, which is why climate change never appears on the regular polls of key voter issues and is sidelined in elections.  Politicians see it as a risky and divisive issue which will yield few votes so they too avoid mentioning climate change.

The news media in turn finds no place for this long-term crisis on a news agenda set by the daily political debates.  As our colleagues at Yale and George Mason say, there is a spiral of silence which, like climate change, is built on positive feedbacks that amplify that silence further.

However the reverse is equally true:  that when people start to engage with an issue with  friends and family and beyond, we could see an acceleration in attention as it becomes socially salient at all levels.  This is why the Scottish government, now arguably the world’s most progressive government on climate change, has made conversations a core component of their engagement strategy.

Several weeks ago it launched a set of materials, designed by Climate Outreach, which will enable hundreds of groups across Scotland to engage their wider communities in local conversations.  In our forthcoming book, Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, my colleagues Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke go further to make the detailed case for public conversations as a model of public engagement.

And it is not enough just to encourage people to talk:  I believe we have to encourage people to recognize and name that silence, and to find the fire that can drive them to directly challenge it:  “Damn  it all —  this is important and I AM going to talk about it.”  For exactly these reasons the challenge of silence and the demand for visibility has long been a key component of social right campaigns- against racism, sexism, child abuse and campaigns for gay rights and marriage. There is much to learn from these struggles.

Read more at Climate Silence Goes Way Beyond Debate Moderators -
By Andrew C. Revkin

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