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Wired to Ignore Climate Change

By Clare Land, Reichstein Foundation

Last month I attended the AEGN’s Melbourne event, Don’t Even Think About it – Communicating Climate Change, featuring climate communications specialist George Marshall.

George Marshall describes himself as firstly an activist, and secondly an author. It is upon his track record as a senior campaigner for Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation that Marshall builds his credibility with many supporters of environmental protection. However it is the research he has conducted that underpins Marshall’s attempts to engage much less likely suspects in conversations about climate change.

In 2004 Marshall co-founded the UK-based climate change communications charity Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) to work out how to reach new audiences.

Marshall describes COIN as a ‘think and do’ tank. COIN conducts consultancies and training, produces practical guide and conducts its own research. All this is aimed at broadening the groups of people who are engaged with the issue of climate change. In particular, COIN uses narrative testing with target audiences. This has led to, for instance, COIN’s recently published Practical toolkit for communicating climate change with the centre-right European electorate .

Marshall’s 2014 book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, explains the psychology of climate change denial and why we need to find new ways to talk about climate change. Marshall’s argument is that when talking to a climate change denier, the conversation needs to be based on values and identity: in a Celtic context, Marshall draws on the concept of hiraeth, or yearning for place. Peer to peer conversations are more effective than top-down slogans.

Presenting CSIRO data, Marshall drew attention to the fact that while 88% of Australians believe the climate is changing, only half of these believe that this is caused by human activity, and some don’t believe that a changing climate is a problem. Beliefs about climate change closely track political affiliation.

Marshall is driven by the question: Why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, do we still ignore climate change? He is also disturbed by the flippant tone many people use to discuss climate change, which is completely disproportionate to the huge threat it poses. Screening video footage of vox pops conducted in Ireland, he points out that members of the public parrot a limited repertoire of positions when asked about climate change. He claims many people have never had an in-depth conversation about climate change.

You can find out more about George and his work by visiting the COIN website or signing up for George’s blog.