Do people really "wake up" to warnings as a result of other people telling them to? Does hearing about the threat of a catastrophic future inspire us to do something about it? For the most part, the answer appears to be no -- and that is why one of the most important things we can do about climate change is change the way we talk about it.
The latest United Nations report, released on March 31, predictably forecasts a bleak future, and news coverage has been equally depressing. Consider just three headlines and watch how they make you feel:
- "Warming World Threatens Us All, Warns UN Report" (Time)
- "Panel's Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come" (The New York Times)
- "New UN Report Warns Humans More Vulnerable Than Ever to the Effects of Climate Change" (Fox News)
I care deeply about climate change -- and yet news like this makes me want to turn the virtual page and think about something, anything else. Periodically, it has even made me take a fascination with things like deadbodyguy.com, a website that features photos of a bald middle-aged dad from Ohio, posing dead all around his house. You can see him seemingly strangled by a houseplant, pinned under his garage door, caught by his tie in a ceiling fan.
Deadbodyguy.com is completely irrelevant to my life -- nothing more than a gimmick intended to help the owner land a job as a stunt man. But I have turned to it, as people turn to so many unimportant distractions these days, because they give us a temporary reprieve from this age of too much bad news.
Over the past 25 years, we have been exposed to an avalanche of information, scientific modeling, increasingly intense warnings, and mind-numbing rhetoric about the unquestionably momentous unsettling of nature's systems that is occurring as a result of our burning of fossil fuels.
Yet ultimately, it feels like telling a teenage boy that he needs to throw his dirty clothes in the laundry or he won't have any clean clothes. We gently remind, eventually nag, goad, lecture, finally perhaps even shout -- and, miraculously, not a word penetrates -- until, one day, five minutes before he needs to leave for school, he discovers that he has nothing to wear and screams with incredulity, "Mama!"
This is how we respond to risk: Our rational mind, as a Jewish grandmother might say, "Feh!" It's our emotions that rule. And when we are made to feel fearful, guilty, or simply bad, it is human nature to close down -- especially if we don't know what to do to change the situation. It is this fact about human nature that we would do well to consider when talking about climate change.
Yes, climate change is a very serious problem. But most of us know this already and hearing about it in ever greater detail is unlikely to inspire us to do something about it.
What we need is to hear more about the solutions. We need to hear about the progress that is being made. We need to hear that we can make a difference.
At the end of the new U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are two sections on opportunities for adaptation and building resiliency. And in early April, another report is expected on climate mitigation. These are good topics.
But at the same time, we can do better than adaptation and mitigation. In other words, we should stop focusing so much on risk and think more about the limitless opportunities for employing American ingenuity and moving in the direction of a clean energy economy and better-designed systems that can be of real benefit to us all.
Lisa Bennett is a writer and communications strategist focused on climate change, clean energy, health, families, and social change. She is coauthor with the psychologist Daniel Goleman of the 2012 book, Ecoliterate.