Why dealing with climate change is difficult (spinach tarts and ice cream)

Let’s be clear about this: the failure to take adequate action to reduce emissions is not because of any weakness in our understanding of the science of climate. It has its roots instead in human psychology and sociology, as George Marshall explains in this series of three videos — The Ingenious Ways We Avoid Believing In Climate Change — a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference in 2009. Marshall is a good presenter — he illustrates his points well (spinach tarts and ice cream feature prominently) — and provides a very good and concise overview of why many people prefer to ignore the climate problem. Whatever your views on the seriousness of the climate problem or how we should act to deal with it, you’ll find something in his talk to challenge your preconceptions. Parts two and three are below the fold…

Part Two:

Part Three:

I won’t attempt to paraphrase Marshall’s talk, but I will assume that if you’re reading this you have taken the time to watch it. Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about what I usually call the “carefully constructed campaign” to delay action to reduce emissions. That there’s been a very clever, well-funded campaign to create an illusion of uncertainty about the need to take action is well documented, but why has it been so successful? Marshall’s analysis suggests that is because it has worked with the grain of human psychology and social interaction. The “top down” effort to delay action has been so successful for so long because it has been picked up by people who are not themselves going to directly benefit from the delay. Most of the people shouting in the denial echo chamber are not in the pay of oil companies, even if the people directing them, in one way or another, are. Here’s a screen grab of Marshall’s first slide:


Climate change is pretty much perfectly designed to fool our normal risk assessment systems. It’s not surprising then that many find it hard to take seriously. Marshall also points out that beliefs are not decided on the basis of rational assessment — we tend to believe what we hear people around us saying, and therefore beliefs are at least partially socially constructed. I’d add that they are also socially reinforced — and this goes a long way to explain the plethora of blogs and web sites devoted to climate denial. The big boys (µWatts) and the minnows (Treadgold) provide venues where the like-minded can go to have their worldview confirmed. It’s not what’s being said that’s important (it can be, and often is, complete nonsense) — it’s the fact that it’s being said at all, and being reinforced by lots of positive feedback. [That same effect works in reverse for sites like Hot Topic, of course, but at least we have reality on our side 😉 ].

Marshall’s comments on narratives and storylines also provide an interesting perspective on how the denial campaign operates. There has been a conscious effort to construct storylines that fit with the attitudes of the people being targeted. To begin with there was an attempt to create doubt, to make uncertainty an excuse for inaction, aimed primarily at policy makers, but that has since morphed into a parallel universe littered with broken hockey sticks, where basics physics no longer operates and where corrupt scientists are colluding with socialist billionaires to bring about the end of capitalism as we know it. The aim is not now to persuade politicians, but to create the appearance of a public not persuaded of the need for action, which will in turn provide politicians with an excuse to avoid doing difficult things. It’s incoherent denial, not grounded in logic or rationality (a sort of climate Tea Party?), much of it keyed into the avoidance strategies Marshall describes:


Messengers are being repudiated, messages rejected, and issues reframed, all in the cause of inaction.


Marshall’s conclusion, in which he briefly ponders how we will socially filter the accumulating evidence of climate change, is especially interesting. Two years on from his talk, after a hot year littered with extreme weather events (that show no signs of letting up), are we seeing the “aberrant behaviours” arrive? In the face of the undeniable, the deniers seem to become ever more desperate, ever more shrill and incoherent.

The obvious corollary to all this is to ask how can we build the local, national and global consensus necessary to ensure that adequate action is taken? Railing against Exxon whilst wearing a polar bear suit is clearly not going to cut it. Now there’s a climate conversation worth having…

[The Norwegian study to which Marshall refers is: Norgaard. “We Don’t Really Want to Know”: Environmental Justice and Socially Organized Denial of Global Warming in Norway. Organization & Environment (2006) vol. 19 (3) pp. 347-370 (pdf).]

25 thoughts on “Why dealing with climate change is difficult (spinach tarts and ice cream)”

  1. I have followed Marshall’s arguments’ closely over time and agree with him. We need to address our own ambivalence about change and demonstrate through example a new social norm which is low carbon living.

    My idea is to begin a conversation about stopping all non-essential air travel. Ethically and in terms of the easiest and biggest emission cuts to make, its the obvious thing to do. It also cuts to the heart of our ambivalence. We know intellectually that the odds are now firmly tipped in favour of devastating runaway climate change, but we still pause before making behaviour changes that would affect one of the most non-essential and affluent parts of our lifestyle. What the hell are we thinking?

      1. Just say it/type it – Ken Ring is a fool and wrong. E G Beck is a fool and wrong. Clear that sand from your eyes. It will just feel right, you’ll have an epiphany and you will rise in the estimation of many. If you don’t mind me saying, you do seem a little fixated on these two!

  2. I also think there’s a role for talking about the advantages of independence from centralised power and water supplies. I don’t have the money at the moment, but I fully intend to add power PV to my solar hot water *and* a couple of large capacity water tanks. I won’t disconnect from the grid, I’ll use it as backup.

    It occurred to me a while ago that I should take ownership of every drop or water, every ray of sunshine, every biodegradable item that finds its way onto my property. Nothing, not one single thing, should leave this property unless it absolutely has to – so – no stormwater, no carbon dioxide, no compostable materials that could fertilise my garden. (But I’m not planning on a composting toilet in the foreseeable future.)

    Non-biodegradable items should be reused, as many times as possible, before being sent for recycling. And we just don’t buy much of that sort of thing anyway – jars of Vegemite, bottles of oil, and other food items mainly.

    As for air travel. I’d prefer to start publicly asking the question why we don’t have suitable alternatives. China now has its super fast bullet train, 1000km in 3 hours. Why don’t we have one (or two)? The USA should surely have several of these.

    1. “Decentralisation” and “devolution” will the concepts of the future.

      We’ve had four decades of globalisation and a concentration of industry and services supported by a fragile transport and infrastructure network.

      Localised responses and adaptation will be the key.

      I’d strongly recomend “Life Boat Cities” by Brendan Gleeson:


      This work has strongly influenced by thinking on the issue.

      Adelay, as you know myself and few others are working on a new initiative discussing “adaptation” strategies in a broader sense.

  3. 2 Tom,
    Totally agree with you. This has to be the fist thing. I know not one family, friend, or collegue who takes climate heating seriously. Within the last year they have all become aware of it and accepted that we are ‘partially’ to blame.

    However, no one will even concider what the concequences are muchless start to address them.

    In the last year I have decided not to fly for the reason you point out. This has had a big effect on everyone around me. They cant believe it. They think I am crazy.

    It is actually force the issue for my peeps to consider climate change more seriously. A welcome benefit. But psychologically punishing for me.

    1. Not so sure about the human psychology issue. The important thing is that we are extremely malleable. What that means is that the culture we grow up in, and the leadership of our society is really important.

      I really don’t think that there was a sudden upswing in murderous psychosis in Cambodia or Germany or the USSR or China or Bosnia that led to the ghastly events at important times in those society’s histories. What happened there could happen anywhere. A nasty leader pushes whatever buttons are sensitive in a culture, and the always evil are let loose – more importantly, ordinary solid citizens do things that we *know* they would reject in other circumstances.

      Those other circumstances generally require a more sane, civilised, courageous, generous and moral leader or leadership group.

      Our psychological flexibility is both a great strength and an appalling weakness.

  4. This Marshall guy from the University of West England (Bristol Poly by any other name) seems to think it is OK to have not one, but THREE plastic drink bottles on his desk.

    Oh Lordy!

    Is a simple glass too much for the high and mighty?

    1. … therefore climate science must be a scam then!

      Look, he is using electricity as well!

      … therefore climate science must be a scam then!

      Look, he is using modern technology!

      … therefore climate science must be a scam then!

      Gareth – goes down as silliest quote of the year?

      1. I am sorry to have to have to explain this to you Mikey. The imagery of the bottled water is not symptomatic of the “Global Conspiracy of Climate Scientists to Form a One World Government”.

        I was merely pointing out the obvious linkage between eco-fascists such as the gentleman in the video and his hypocrisy in using bottled water.

        Of course, this is merely symbolic, and in fact fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

        But one does note that the Green movement in general do seem to have cornered the world market in hypocrisy.

        By the way, Mikey, I find your nom de plume somewhat stasi-esque. I don’t suppose you see it that way dear chap, but personally it makes my flesh crawl. Much like knowing a convicted paedophile is looking after my kids in day care.

        Nothing personal though.

        1. The best course from now on would be just to ignore John D. Eventually he will get bored with trolling and go out into the street to join the other 12 year olds smashing phone boxes. He is just trying to cause as much offense as possible, so just don’t reply.

          1. I would suggest that his persona is that of a bitter, twisted old man. His posts are deliberately designed to give offence and/or provoke a reaction. He knows nothing of the science he claims to contest, and the links he generates to bolster his argument typically do nothing but channel denialist misinformation. He apparently doesn’t have the critical facilities to challenge his sources.

        2. I was going to rebut John D’s point, but on reflection I think I would call on Gareth to put him on permanent moderation. The allusion in his penultimate paragraph surely crosses the line. I’ve got a vague feeling it’s not the first time he’s used that particular phrase.

    2. How do you know he’s not using one or more to pee in? Or maybe the water was off in his building and he brought them from home. Don’t be so quick to judge John – the measure with which you judge others will be used to judge you!

  5. Paul

    Yeah its tough, but the point is to break people out of their current norms. With such extreme cognitive dissonance going on, the only approach is to get out in the streets, and/or quietly step away from the system and let everyone know you are doing so.

    Try my site stopflying.org for links. See the link there to the intersect group of young professionals who are reducing flying. A useful support group.

    And dont worry, the science of climate change is actually pretty simple compared to the moon shot, the mars explorers, etc. So it wont let you down (unfortunately).

    This just in, Hansen et al now say anywhere at or over 3 degrees celcius means multi-metre sea level rise “almost dead certain”.

    Two degrees is looking really uncomfortable.

  6. So John D, I’m curious about why you don’t believe in AGW. Please be specific, I’m genuinely interested in how people come to their conclusions regarding this issue.

  7. Seems John D has watched the show. His subsequent posts seem to indicate that perhaps it struck a nerve for him.

    As of the his comment of hypocracy: I have heard this a lot in my AGW discussions when I get accused of using fossil fuel energy myself and as the argument then goes this is used to discredit the whole AGW debate as on led by hypocrites.

    Lets be sure: AGW will not be mitigated by a few people reverting to cave dwelling. AGW will be mitigated by social and technological actions and processes that can scale up to the billions of people now alive. Mitigating AGW is a colossal task globally and we have really not even started to make one iota of an appreciable dent in the use of fossil fuels globally so far. The dialogue now underway must find the path towards achieving noticeable and significant reductions of GW gas emissions on a global scale.

    Trolls like Lank, Wrathall orJD are simply trying to ridicule and undermine this dialogue out of ignorance on matters of science but most likely also simply their personal fear that any significant actions to reduce emissions will cut into their liberties through changes in social norms which they do not approve of.

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