The change mismanagement of climate change

Someone once said that “believing is seeing,” not the old adage “seeing is believing.” The recent international conference of world leaders mixing with Hollywood luminaries has proven that we cannot “see” or “believe” global action on climate change, and we have have little trust in especially industry and government to do anything about it. But then again, depending where you live, we agree that our country is doing “its fair share,” and it should be up to brands to make environmentally-friendly products cheaper, not us mortals having to pay more for being green and saving the planet.

That pretty well sums up a recent Special Report: Climate Change released by the Edelman organization that specializes in giving us “Trust Barometers.” This time we hear from 14,000 respondents to a survey in 14 countries (1,000 respondents in each country) including Canada, the U.S., Brazil, the UK, South Africa and others. It’s not a pretty picture (.

The Edelman reports states that almost two-thirds (62%) of those surveyed believe that “business will not make the changes necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.” So, if business is a laggard on making changes, who leads the change charge? Well, according to Edelman, 58% agree that “People will not make the changes necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change unless the government forces them to.

Forces” people to change? Good luck on that. A mountain of studies shows that it’s super difficult to force people to permanently change. Here’s why efforts to get (force) folks to change both attitudes and behaviors about climate change and global warming: 1) Despite the horror of polar bears on melting icebergs and raging forest fires destroying communities like Lytton, B.C. in Canada, people are not scared enough yet, and 2) many still don’t have a clue (clear communication being another key factor in change management). The Edelman reports states that 65% of those 14,000 people surveyed in 14 different countries agree that “I don’t know a lot about climate change solutions” including different strategies, and over half (55%) agree that “I don’t know a lot about climate change” including the causes and the potential consequences. While that still leaves a lot of people who DO (or think they do) know of the perils of climate change, there’s a lot who don’t.

Why is that? First, again drawing from the principles of change management, there is not enough emotional urgency (the first need of change), and equally, the situation is neither immediate nor clear. Despite a growing list of global-warming linked tragedies around the Earth, despite dramatic changes of weather all blamed on global warming, over half of those surveyed by Edelman can’t make the connection beyond the abstract. A simple example of our complex brain (below) explains why this may be occurring.

So far, many arguments for climate-change action are chiefly directed to our logical brain where we are bombarded with facts, numbers, data, and a mountain of science. The messages are not first going to our emotional brain where in a split second our fear response identifies immediate threats and danger to our safety and life. For too many people the vivid images of fires and floods, unless we are in the middle of such calamities, is not an immediate threat. It quickly becomes an abstraction with scientific facts and commentary bombarding us with statistics, line graphs with predictive analyses. We are inundated with TV-talking heads that we either don’t understand (scientists) or those we don’t trust (politicians and shrill environmentalists). Our “memory-storage” area of the brain doesn’t deliver personal and emotional examples that scare us into action. Instead, our memory vaults provide us with a fuzzy fog of often incomprehensible sober science.

If there is truly going to be sustained global action on climate change then we need more than teenagers admonishing us with “How dare you!” The Edelman reports clearly shows us that climate change is a super important issue whose impact is misunderstood or not accessible in an emotional, simple, and personal way. The report shows that 54% of the 14,000 people surveyed agree that “It is more difficult than it should be to find trustworthy information about climate change, and 40% agree that “It is almost impossible to find information about climate change that I can easily understand.”

On page 46 of the Edelman report is a list of the 14 countries and the barriers to a “climate-friendly lifestyle.” A “lack of information” is cited by over half the residents in five out of 14 countries, and over a third of survey respondents in Canada and the United States. Even more troubling is that in very heavy-polluting countries like China, half and over half of survey respondents agree that “My friends and family make it difficult for me to live a more climate-friendly life.”

Communication from protesters blocking a city’s main intersection, from angry young environmentalists lecturing us, from sanctimonious politicians and movie stars, from well-intentioned scientists, and dramatic footage of true tragedies blamed on climate change are packaged to target our logical, thinking brain with facts and data that, according to Edelman, is simply not getting through to many. Until important warnings about what can truly be the end of our habitable planet travel directly to our emotional brain in an emotional, simple, and personal manner we will continue to face a lot more spin than traction.