CTI 3: Beyond polar bears and the future: what climate communication should learn from repented chain-smokers

Author: Zach Ter-Minassian is a Masters student of Environmental Policy at the Paris School of International Affairs. French and Canadian bi-national, he is a former Director of CliMates’ Research Team (2013), has worked as an R & D Consultant for the French environmental-consulting and carbon offsetting firm EcoAct, and currently interns for the United Nations Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia, Jakarta.

It is a new year, for individuals and climate policy alike. In the press and on the web, season greetings mingle with stock-taking exercises, “Best of 2013” articles and new year resolutions crowd social media, as passionately resolute average Joes and Janes flock to gyms, creating unnatural peak attendance for the month of January occurs at global gyms alongside peak anomalous temperatures in both hemispheres.

I should not be so cynical of such newfound will to engage in virtuous new habits, or that to kick old ones – I am among the many smokers who have decided that it was time to let go of the destructive habit. And as I battled my cravings, grounded in physical, social and psychological dependencies, the climate activist that I am – or that I like to think I am – came to the realization that many disturbing similarities exist between this bad habit of mine and arguably the worst modern habit of our current civilization.This blog series will explore what the tobacco-smoking epidemic and global climate change have in common. How can we learn from strategies to combat addiction to inform sound climate policy in various domains? I will here draw upon the psyche of an individual in relation to his body – or life-support system – to paint a picture of the general human society and its own collective supporting natural infrastructure. Lessons from psychology can help campaigners and communicators address the discrepancy between our societal goal of long-term survival and desire for short-term economic growth.

#1 – Cognitive dissonance or how our rational brains should be tricked into being more virtuous

The first similarity that comes to mind between climate change and tobacco addiction is the most obvious – at least to a climate-aware smoker like myself. It is the absurdity and irrationality of pursuing habits with scientifically demonstrated detrimental effects. Let us posit that a human individual’s body represents our collective life-support system, i.e. Earth. Just as a chain-smoker knows the ills of suffocating himself on the combustion of dried leaves rolled together in paper, we know the danger of burning away at millennia-old swamp-goo to feed the 2,000 kilogram steel tank bringing us to the grocery store (and back). And yet, both habits seem impossible to kick. The above comparison has its limits – while smoking is utterly unnecessary, not all energy use is exaggerated – far from it. Smoking appears to be superfluous; energy, vital. But one could argue that fulfilling desires is, if not necessary, an unavoidable aspect of human functioning. After all, what drives many of our daily choices is basic satisfaction of sensory desires, bodily needs or social recognition. Perhaps the habit of smoking could be more readily compared to the ambivalent stakes linked to the consumption of a juicy, high-carbon footprint steak– your body does not strictly need it, it’s bad for you and others around it, consumes a hell of a lot of bodily or planetary resources in order to be produced be enjoyed, – and but despite all that, you want it anyway. desire for it overcomes the virtuous behavior to adopt – not consuming that cigarette or steak. In other words, the messages dispensed to us about long-term negative consequences contradict deeply seated beliefs about our behavior.  Modern –Western(?)- lifestyle, characterized by the pursuit of comfort, happiness and the fulfilling of material desire is inherently incompatible with the daunting, terrible prospects of cataclysmic consequences somewhere far off in the future; for a smoker’s body, increasing likelihood of lethal cancer; for a society, increasing likelihood of unlivable environmental conditions.

On one hand, we have an instinct to survive and preserve our health and our species. On the other, we really want to continue to fulfill our desires and live the way we want to. Faced with such insoluble conflict clash between two conflicting rationalities, a situation termed by psychologists “cognitive dissonance”, humans usually react in a very specific ways in order to cope. To resolve the impossible battle of the long-term health of our body/planet versus the short-term continuity of our previous lifestyle, we mechanistically attempt to find discourses, ideas, arguments that validate the most comforting reality we want to subscribe to, hence leading to the denial of facts we otherwise would have considered to be true.

As Naomi Oreskes and Robert Conway relate in their must-read work [1], this feature of the human psyche was among the factors that enabled a “handful of scientists to obscure the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”. Cognitive dissonance has important implications for behavior-altering communication of risk. This implies finding arguments to support the virtuous behavior that are traditionally outside the usual discourses. Tobacco-severance programs encourage smokers to find motivators to quit that are not those they have suppressed for a long time, i.e. don’t focus on long-term health benefits, but rather on increased sex appeal in the short-term due to improved breath and skin condition; financial savings etc. Similarly, media and advocacy campaigns around environmental issues should diversify their focus on external motivators for behavior alteration, completing the usual ‘turn off the lights’, ‘future generations’ and ‘for the sake of the planet’ heartbreaking narratives. Read more on the theoretical background of cognitive dissonance and how it can be related to risk-communication campaigns here [2].

In recent months, the activist group 350.org has launched a promising campaign that I suspect has had a brilliant communication or psychology specialist behind it. The Divestment campaign urges US college students to form movements to demand that their institutions divest – the opposite of invest – from fossil fuel companies, in order to garner political momentum in support of the climate movement. Why could this campaign be promising, against the backdrop we have painted?

According to Chloe Maxmin, President of the ‘Divest Harvard’ campaign and CliMates researcher, divestment can succeed where other movements have failed because it is a “tactic from outside the climate movement”, enhancing its potential reach. By painting fossil fuel corporations as villains that profit from “coercing society” into needing their products, the Divestment campaign surfs on widespread anti-big business sentiment, camouflaging its green colors. Additionally, it clearly designates an enemy – a feature direly needed in order for the human psyche to overcome climate apathy [3], in other words to react and take action when facing perceived danger.

In the words of 350.org [4], “Divestment won’t solve climate change, just as successful campaigns aimed at tobacco companies didn’t cure cancer. But that doesn’t mean they don’t make change happen.”

by Zacharie Ter-Minassian


Links and references:

[1] Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M., 2010. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury: New York

[2] Sandmann, P., 2009. “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial”, The Peter Sandman Risk Communication Website. Accessed on January 18th 2014 at: http://www.psandman.com/col/climate.htm

[3] Paramaguru, K.,  “The Battle Over Global Warming Is All in Your Head”, TIME.com, Accessed on February 08th 2014 at: http://science.time.com/2013/08/19/in-denial-about-the-climate-the-psychological-battle-over-global-warming/#ixzz2sjKARfkf

[4] 350.org, “Divestment : Climate Change :: Anti-Tobacco Campaigns : Cancer” Accessed on February 08th 2014 at: http://350.org/divestment-climate-change-anti-tobacco-campaigns-cancer/

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