Published in late 2014, George Marshall’s “Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” is a terrific book. George Marshall is an expert on climate change communication. Ten years ago he set-up COIN “to ensure climate change and its impacts are understood, accepted and acted upon across the breadth of society in a manner that creates a truly sustainable future” (COIN’s website). Also, COIN has “established a reputation as leading specialists on climate change communication” (COIN’s website). Yet, it is not as though he, or anyone else, has cracked it. Understanding how people think (or don’t think) about climate change is an endlessly fascinating and challenging subject.
So George was curious. Why is it that, despite overwhelming evidence, we ignore climate change? To address this question he spent years “speaking with the world’s leading experts in psychology, economics, the perception of risk, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, not to mention hundreds of non-experts” (page 1). The result is a book with many profound insights about the types of cognitive biases that we can hold about climate change; and has well-informed ideas about what this means for better climate change communications.
I also like the humble tone of the book, which is sensitive to the many ways we can think about climate change. Indeed, one of the most powerful themes of the book is that climate change is so multivalent – “that is to say, it is so open to multiple meanings and interpretations” (page 94). And since it is also uncanny, it has become a ‘wicked problem’ (page 95) to try and solve. I certainly concur with that!
One (light-hearted) criticism I have of George Marshall’s book is its very long title! It’s quite cumbersome when writing a review, so I’ll use the acronym of ‘DETAI’ for “Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” for the rest of this article.
A MARKET RESEARCH PERSPECTIVE
Before I get too far, I should explain some of my own background. In 2008, along with some partners, I started Haddock Research as a market research agency focused on climate change. To kick-off the agency, in late 2008 we conducted a nationally representative survey of adults in Canada, England and the US using a very wide-raging questionnaire to understand attitudes and behaviours around climate change. We called this project Environmental Choices. Last year, at George’s request, I produced some special analysis of Environmental Choices data for DETAI (pages 24, 82 & 189). I was glad to help; especially now that DETAI is finished and I can see what a valuable contribution George has made.
Yet there is still so much that we don’t know. Given the right data, and use of modern statistics and data analytics, we could do so much more. Take a look at the work of Nate Silver, and what he is doing with the site fivethirtyeight.com, to give you an idea of what is being done in areas outside of climate change.
Let me be more specific.
Consider the ‘public-is-one-person’ fallacy. DETAI discusses the Pew study (p79) which puts climate change at the bottom of the things that ‘the American public’ thinks should be a high priority for the president. The inference would seem to be that Americans are relatively unconcerned about climate change. Certainly that is the interpretation of Whit Ayers as quoted in a recent New York Times article (see below):
“But Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said that while debate moderators and editorial boards may continue to press the climate change question, the issue does not resonate with voters. He pointed to a Pew Research Center poll showing that Americans rank climate change near the bottom of policy concerns.” (Why Republicans Keep Telling Everyone They’re Not Scientists, New York Times, October 30 2014)
Yet is this a correct interpretation of the Pew poll? Do all voters put ‘climate change’ near the bottom of the list, or is there a high degree of variability between such people? To extract meaning from this data the analysis needs to isolate ‘differences between respondents’, and ‘data which treats each respondent holistically’. If you are talking about cognitive biases, you are really talking about the latter type. The analyst needs to demonstrate how a cognitive bias impacts individuals.
Indeed, a specific episode of the ‘public-is-one-person’ fallacy was a major prompt for me to run Environmental Choices in the first place. I was frustrated by the front page article of The (London) Times of November 8 2006. The article, about ‘The Green Divide’, was to highlight the difference between what Britons say, and what they do, when it comes to the environment. Yet, are the environmental opinions and non-environmental behaviours being done by different people? Or are they being done by the same people, as The Times seems to infer? Or is it somewhere in between? More precisely, how different are people in their environmental attitudes and behaviours, and how ‘environmentally conflicted’ do individuals tend to be? So, I put money where my mouth was, and produced Environmental Choices.
Let’s get back to the Pew study. I have not analysed the raw data from the Pew study, but here is what my guess would be based on our Environmental Choices data, and other sources such as the Six Americas study (page 24). There are certain items that everyone would agree would be on the president’s ‘to do’ list – such as “economy, jobs, terrorism and healthcare” (page 79). These are what might be considered ‘universal truths’. If something is socially contested, such as climate change, the average would inevitably be lower. Yet, averages in this context can be highly misleading. There is a huge difference between an item ‘which is mid-ranked by everyone’, and an item ‘which is felt hugely important by some, and not at all important by others’. Only in the latter case do you have groups of real people passionate about the issue in question. Without doubt, there are people who are very passionate about climate change (as I am)!
As a voter, the key reason that I personally would choose between political candidates would be according to how well, in my opinion, they would tackle climate change. For me, this is a stronger reason to vote for someone than any party political allegiance I might have. How many other people are like this? That is the kind of analysis I would like to make from the Pew poll. It is why I think that Whit Ayer’s analysis of the Pew poll is flawed.
SOME PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF COGNITIVE BIASES
For this next section, I am going to put social differences to one side and focus on individual cognitive biases. If you had seen me read DETAI, you would likely have seen me nodding in agreement, or muttering ‘ah yes’ to myself quite a lot! Setting-up Haddock Research has given me first-hand experience of many of the cognitive biases that George Marshall talks about – both with other people and how I reacted to them. Imagine the scenario that someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said I conducted public opinion research about climate change.
- One response would be an awkward silence and then a switch to talk about something else; ‘the spinach tart effect’ (page 88). If this took place in a social situation, there would often be food or drink around as a prompt for the follow-on topic of conversation. I have a vivid restaurant conversation in mind! If you are speaking with an Englishman, talking about rugby union is also pretty safe ground.
- Perhaps a more typical response would be in terms of ‘environmental framing’ (page 127). The person I would be speaking to would say something like “Yes, I can imagine you could do work for the local city council seeing how much people are prepared to recycle / pick-up litter / stop using plastic bags.” To be fair, I would say that this is a very natural response. It really challenged me to think about how to position what I was trying to do. The key problem, it seemed to me, was that talking about these environmental behaviours missed the point about the scale of the specific crisis we face with climate change.
- I should mention that these comments were from back in 2008 when I was first starting-up Haddock Research. I suspect that, since then, people have become increasingly aware of climate change being rather different from other environmental challenges. Part of the reason is that we are starting to see low-carbon technologies, such as solar panels and electric cars, in our day-to-day lives. Also, people can read about the growth and projections for the clean tech sector – such as UN climate chief Christiana Figueres’ opinion that clean tech investment needs to reach $1 trillion a year by 2030.
- Somewhat similar to ‘environmental framing’ is that the person I am speaking to might assume, given my interest in climate change, that I am a ‘good person’. They may assume that I would be interested in charitable work, and the conversation can go in this direction.
- I have also experienced loss of friendliness (page 81) or even confrontation. My brother-in-law (now ex-brother-in-law) is a British Airways pilot and he stomped-off with the words “There is more CO2 emitted by people breathing than from planes!!” Although he accepted the general science of climate change, it is clear that he did not want the aviation industry to be the seen as ‘the enemy’. I would have liked to have discussed this more, if he hadn’t walked off!
- On that last point, from our Environmental Choices data we can see the attitudes towards ‘good environmental behaviours’ and ‘environmental villains’ varies considerably by country. In England there is a level of disapproval for ‘airline companies for their stance on climate change’ in a way which is absent in Canada or the US. There the focus of climate-change-disapproval is heavily against the oil companies.
So I learnt to use ‘business-speak’, which I suppose it is somewhat similar to the language of ‘bright-siding’ (page 145). To defend myself against ‘the spinach tart effect’, ‘environmental framing’, ‘being thought a good person’ and ‘from confrontation’, I developed a business narrative to describe what I was doing. I would speak about using market research to understand how much consumers’ concern about climate change prompted them to be interested in things like energy efficient boilers, electric cars and so on. I would speak about understanding business opportunities and how best to communicate low-carbon credentials to consumers.
THOUGHTS ABOUT ‘HOW TO DIG OUR WAY OUT OF THIS HOLE’
Yet, thinking about people just as consumers is a fairly one-dimensional way of thinking about society. Even from a business stand-point, companies should be thinking about people in a much more holistic way; how their products will fit into people’s lives, how they will be used with other products and crucially, how will they dispose of them at the end of product-life. I was encouraged by a recent interview with Keith Weed, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Unilever, where he takes the perspective that ‘people are human beings, not consumers’, adopting such an approach as part of their Sustainable Living Plan (Impact Magazine, October 2014).
And people are also voters, government workers, business-decision makers, parents, teachers, civic leaders, volunteers, climate scientists, opinion leaders, social media experts, carers, religious leaders, and much else in ways which may impact how society addresses climate change. If someone has a climate change conviction (page 217), what do they do in the specific situations they find themselves in various aspects of their lives? For example, I suggest we should stop thinking of the government as a single entity, but made up of people who have a range of views about climate change. In the British Conservative party, how does a Zac Goldsmith work with a Peter Lilley with a Tim Yeo with a George Osborne? Understanding these dynamics can help us better understand how a government develops policies for fossil fuels and climate change.
These are complex questions, with many answers. That is why I find myself returning again and again to Chapter 42, ‘In a Nutshell’ (page 231). It has many specific suggestions about how to think about, and act on, climate change based on George Marshall’s extensive experience and research that he conducted for DETAI. I hesitate to try and summarise it; rather I will just comment on a few that particularly resonate with me.
DROP THE ECO-STUFF (page 237) – Absolutely agree with George Marshall on this. Our Environmental Choices research shows that a communications plan that focuses on saving nature is really only appealing to those already concerned about climate change.
BE OPEN TO NEW MEANINGS (page 233) – I feel this is a really important point. As a highly contented area, it is all too easy to create a false or misleading picture of what tackling climate change means.
ENCOURAGE POSITIVE VISIONS (page 234) – Whilst recognising the limitation of any metaphor, I rather like the idea that we still have whales in our oceans, not because hunters could not find them anymore, but because of newer technologies that did not use whales as a resource. My positive vision is that, in a similar way, fossil fuel technologies will become obsolete, with enough fossil fuels still in the ground to allow a healthy climate.
TAKING GEORGE MARSHALL’S WORK FURTHER
Let’s build on George Marshall’s work, using data about society to better understand what needs to be done to tackle climate change.
I have a personal plea to better understand variance in data. Stephen Jay Gould’s “Life’s Grandeur” (1996) is a great book on this subject – and I have had a deep distrust of averages ever since reading it!
In the words of Malcolm Gladwell (TED, Feb 2004, from around 15m00s):
“People … were looking for … universals, they were looking for a way to treat all of us (;) … all of science through the 19th century and much of the 20th was obsessed with universals. Psychologists, medical scientists, economists were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave. But that changed, right? What is the great revolution in science in the last 10, 15 years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability. Now in medical science we don’t want to know … just how cancer works; we want to know how your cancer is different from my cancer.”
Review by Peter Winters, November 29 2014