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How to fight for climate action without losing our minds

What psychology can teach us about becoming better climate communicators, overcoming collective differences and finding common ground.

Sari Ohsada, Contributor | Opinion

The parallel between our human psychology and climate action. (Patrick Schneider / Unsplash)

Do you ever ask yourself: what is something that I can personally do to positively impact society and the environment? How can I do it in a meaningful way that also encourages my colleagues, neighbours, friends and family to participate? What is climate action supposed to look like anyway, if we want to make real change?

As a 24-year-old Environmental Science graduate from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I have asked myself these questions many times and searched within my own identity and values for answers. Climate communicators struggle to figure out how they can motivate people to care, when at times it feels like a lost cause.

As someone interested in diverse perspectives, I enjoy learning from others who work towards creating a healthy and sustainable society. From my participation in citizen-led groups and philanthropic, academic and religious initiatives at home and abroad, I have learned that not all climate communicators communicate in the same way. Different groups address environment-related challenges using particular narratives, values and methods of communication. Yet they also have fundamental differences that often don’t seem to agree. To me, it seemed like these differences made genuine multi-group engagements look good only on policy papers and annual reports—documents that the larger public seldom reads. Understanding different perspectives but seeing their innate, deep disagreements exhausted me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever be able to create a single solution to better society on my own, which is why I turned to basic human psychology for some ideas.

Our basic human psychology

Frustrated by my own sense of inaction (and stuck in COVID-19 isolation), I decided to read up on psychology and human evolution. What struck me most is that humans have an extraordinary capacity to communicate and collaborate in almost infinite numbers, unlike any other species on Earth.

While the theory of Dunbar’s number argues that a human individual can only maintain up to 150 meaningful relationships at a given time (a theory still widely supported today), humans can feel a sense of belonging and identity amongst much larger numbers of humans thanks to their ability to produce fiction. Historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens argues that only humans can produce imagined realities of “gods, nations and corporations,” which enables worldwide coordination of and respect for faith communities, political borders and currency.

Humans also tend to only listen and engage with perspectives they already agree to—confirmation bias. This is the habit of ‘cherry-picking’ evidence that supports our existing knowledge and beliefs, which strongly influences who we interact with and how we make important decisions. While we are open to perspectives different from our own, we are often more comfortable and willing to cooperate when the information already reflects our own worldviews.

Ultimately, it’s through storytelling that humans absorb information best, not just random assortments of the facts. Nancy Baron, author of Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, said that if you want to capture a journalist’s attention, you need only “remember the magic words, ‘let me tell you a story’.” Stories evoke emotion and become even more powerful if the audience can personally relate. Not every story appeals to every kind of audience. However, tuning into the audience’s interests can produce stronger messenger-to-audience connections and an increased willingness to accept the message.

Climate change

Climate change is arguably one of the most, if not the most, challenging issues of the 21st century. Strong scientific consensus on its existence has been repeatedly stated by researchers for several decades. The global climate trajectory has become even more uncertain with the emergence of COVID-19, a virus already changing the very fabric of our day-to-day lives. Around the world, the climate crisis seems to have taken the backseat to the health crisis.

It’s a position climate communicators say we can’t afford to accept. This Earth Day, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg emphasized the need for active democratic citizens to keep leaders accountable for current and future decisions on climate.

“During a crisis like this, there is a big risk that people try to use this emergency to push their own agenda or their own interests,” Thunberg said during her speech. “We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Climate change is a wicked problem; despite a range of proposed solutions, none of them seem to be the end-all, be-all solution. On top of that, every solution seems to create a new problem. If we switch from gas-powered cars to electric ones, how do we dispose of their batteries sustainably? What about the carbon footprint that goes into production? Will eating less or no meat affect the way people from different classes and countries practice their own cultures? Climate action is no easy feat.

The parallel

From a psychological standpoint, our brains understand that climate change is no simple matter and it’s certainly not an easy problem to solve. The issue is further complicated by our deep-rooted values, assumptions and prejudices. While climate science and activism have been making the news more frequently over the past decade, we need to consider how information is communicated to us—not only practically, but emotionally.

Environmental campaigner and communications specialist George Marshall explains in his book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, that climate change advocates often fall into the trap of delivering messages of doom, blame and guilt.

This doom-and-gloom type of framing often results in the unintended audience action of shrugging off the “climate problem”. It’s a defensive response that can cause people to become even less supportive of a movement. Essentially, it pushes people in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, the real battle is reaching the so-called ‘middle’—people who might be swayed to support either side of the climate dialogue. Convincing the people who are on the fence is the job of the climate communicator. It’s the silent middle who might be doing the most harm.

“In real life, it seems that the most influential climate narrative of all may be the non-narrative of collective silence,” Marshall writes.

In other words, silence is the loudest statement someone can make. It’s just as detrimental to the climate movement as the voices of the deniers.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

If we encourage people, starting with our innermost circles, to share discussions based on respect and humility, we can begin shaping a common narrative on positive change. It might start with a casual conversation about COVID-19 with our family and friends and demonstrating care about their well-being. There is an unprecedented demand for nutritious food, adequate housing and medical support, as well as longer-term accommodations in regard to employment, healthy relationships and community recovery. Remind others how these basic life necessities all rely upon the health of our natural ecosystems and climate.

To reach people outside your immediate circle, understand that the key to communicating differences is with a loose set of narratives. The response you get can be surprising, and perhaps disappointing. While some may prefer a formal meeting with a clearly outlined agenda, others would rather gather casually at a local pub to watch a game and talk about anything other than climate change. Take your time and be patient in assessing how to bring climate change into a conversation that makes you and your audience think meaningfully. Remember that good conversations require a safe space, a mutual exchange of ideas and the attitude that your audience may know something you don’t.

The bottom line of my argument is that people should decide how they want to communicate climate change amongst themselves on their own terms. As a climate activist, you should actively connect with these groups through a culturally-sensitive and compassionate way based on our common psychology.

“The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us,” Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Norman Doidge writes in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. “It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.”

If we can embrace the neuroplasticity of our brain, then we’d better look beyond climate data and tap into our psyche for truly meaningful communication. Creating a space for effective conversations about climate change and long-term preparedness begins with each one of us. We need to understand that the journey ahead of us is a long and challenging one; that we need to take extremely good care of ourselves in order to be able to give to others. We all have our own limitations—health, financial, social or family commitments—so challenge yourself and your loved ones based on realistic goals. Forgive yourself and others. Embrace cooperative values, not competitive ones. Consider a wide range of solutions.

By making conscious compromises while engaging with political decisions, participating in community conversations and being aware of our own confirmation biases, we can make a significant and realistic difference. We need more people like you. Do not be afraid, because you are not alone. I have a long way to go in fully understanding the sheer complexity of climate change and our basic psychology—but to me, the journey of exploring these parallels is what makes life exciting.

As Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

What is yours?

Originally published on The Parallel, a Medium blog