Sunday, April 05, 2015

Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change.

That's the subtitle of a book by George Marshall, the Citizens' Climate Lobby speaker at Saturday's international phone in meeting.  He called in from Wales, I believe, and spoke to the 250 or so local chapters around the US and Canada.  (I don't recall hearing that the European, Asian, Australian, or South American chapters are in on the calls.)

I'm in LA, so I biked over to the LA chapter meeting in Westwood.  It was fun to meet CCL folks here and I got a lot of ideas from them to take back to Anchorage - events they're participating in, they've made CCL T-shirts, and they were really well focused on evaluating which of their activities had the most impact so they can best use their time.

And it was also interesting to ponder on how in Anchorage, with a population of 310,000 we get 10-12 people at most meetings and the LA group had only eight people (plus they poached one Alaskan). (Several of their regular members were out of town or otherwise busy Saturday.)  We talked about how it is harder in a big metropolitan area to get people than in a smaller place where people know each other better.  And even though California is a very blue state in the midst of an historic drought, they related that people really don't want to talk about it - which is what the speaker, George Marshall said too.  But in Anchorage, I don't see that.  People talk about climate change all the time - it's effects are much more visible.  And maybe the effects we have - glaciers retreating at record rates, sea ice disappearance meaning more open water and massive erosion of coast lines and villages on them, permafrost melting, snow-free dogsledding - are all easier to connect to global warming.  And we also have a Fairbanks chapter and a couple more chapters hatching - in the MatSu valley and in Sitka.  Whereas the LA chapter covers a bunch of congressional districts, we in Alaska can all focus on one member of congress.

Our group was pretty old, pretty white, and economically comfortable.  There needs to be a younger and more diverse group. And we do in Anchorage.   On the other hand, this older, well educated group, have the perspective, time, and resources to fight this battle.  We have our grand children's futures at stake. 

Anyway, the book, as Marshall described it, goes into how the brain is wired - the rational thinking side is slower to act than the emotional side.  And since this is
  1. a complex problem that requires a lot of patience to truly understand
  2. a problem people don't want to accept 
  3. a story they don't like 
  4. and a story teller they don't like
the doubters will continue to doubt.   He also discussed confirmation bias - that we seek out and believe those 'facts' that support our preset beliefs.  This is a problem for both sides - the believers in climate change and the doubters. 

This is a problem that has costs today, for a problem that most people see as out in the future (and for the doubters, if at all).

So, his advice is to change the structure of the story.
  • It's something happening here and now - it's what's behind the severe weather patterns we are seeing around the globe
  • There's a powerful story here, but there is no 'enemy' and enemies are important for getting people to act   - so we tend to make the doubters the enemy which isn't a story they buy

He talked about this as the biggest story we DON'T tell.  There is a great silence.  This isn't part of my experience, but I recognize that because I'm tuned into this story, I see it everywhere. Other people at the meeting did mention later that they experienced people not wanting to talk about climate change.  In fact he said we should take a page from the religious communities that  takes their messages out to strangers. He talked about a 'socially constructed science' that makes people purposely avoid the topic and likened it to the silence about apartheid in South Africa - which was also a big silence. 

He said he respects the energy and drive of the Tea Party who are opposed to how things are and we should treat them respectfully (ah, yes, my detractors don't like that message I keep giving) and engage them in climate change discussions and get them away from the other issues that are distracting them.  He praised CCL for its conviction that we must speak with those who don't agree with us and that we treat them with respect. 

Great change can happen quickly, he said, and recommended Adam Hochschild's Bury The Chains, an account of high a small group in England took on all the vested interests to get slavery banned at the end of the 18th Century.

In some ways, this speaker had less to tell me that I didn't know than most other speakers, but there were still some nuggets and reinforcement of things I know, but haven't articulated lately. 

You can listen in to the meeting here (while you jog or clean the bathroom or whatever task you have where you can listen too).

One thought I had was about how to make this story very much here and now - it's to ask the person I talk to, to think about the world they will be leaving for their children and grandchildren.  To take their ages and add 25 years.  How old will they be?  Anyone over 50 knows that 25 years will come quickly.  I think of my 2 year old granddaughter and nearly one year old grandson.  I don't want them to be in their mid-twenties in a world of chaos caused by climate change.  Where weather patterns have disrupted human food production and people are literally fighting for food and water.  It's already happening around the world.  The revolt in Syria happened after years of drought and increasing economic instability for farmers.  While we currently have the resources to recover from storms like Sandy, other parts of the world don't, and as time goes by, and disasters become even more common,  neither will we.

That's why I think this fight is worth fighting now.  As someone said Saturday, maybe Marshall, the gains we make now are like compound interest - the benefits grow quickly.  But, in this case, the benefits really are just a lessening of the climate caused disruptions of humanity. 

And I'm at CCL meetings the first Saturday of each month, because they are highly and efficiently focused on one goal now - getting a carbon fee with dividend passed by congress.  Shi-Ling Hsu The Case for a  Carbon Tax convinced me that this was the most politically feasible option that could seriously lower carbon emissions.  This organization is incredible at energizing and supporting its members, networking with like-minded organizations, and moving toward the goal.  Being there is a lesson for any non-profit on how to operate.  (I say this as a very critical student of organization behavior.)

Margie and crew, thanks for being such gracious hosts to this Alaskan. 

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