Although we are aware that the planet has limits, it is difficult for us to live in a sustainable way. Our cognitive biases are partly to blame. So far, communication professionals have done nothing more than reinforce them by creating a story about climate change that leaves us cold.
If we put a few bacteria in a flask filled with culture medium, we know for sure that they will divide unstoppably, doubling their population every twenty minutes. This rate of growth for them is unsustainable, but they are single-celled beings that cannot do anything other than exhaust all their resources while their population increases exponentially.
As far as we know, bacteria do not see glass, nor do they think well about the future, and therefore cannot imagine a sustainable life.
If we draw a graph of its growth, it would be very similar to that of human beings since the industrial revolution, except for its scale: minutes would equal years. And, as much as we can see that our planet has limits and we know that we cannot flee much further, it is difficult for us to live in a sustainable way. A disability marked by defects present in our overvalued brains: our most distinctive organ is practically blind to climate change.
It does not care what we perceive as something far away in time or space. In fact, it only allows us to have it really present on days of extreme weather events.
You don't like dealing with uncertainty, and you smell it every time scientists update impacts as your knowledge advances. In addition, he does not understand as dangerous something that is not personal, or abrupt, or immoral.
It makes us very social beings and, if our colleagues do nothing, neither do we. If all is true, it is a common tragedy.
Not to say that we like to think that everything will be fine and that the future will not be very different from the past. With all these biases, identified over the years by scientists from different disciplines, we are far from being well equipped for what is coming our way.
Words that tell us nothing
Furthermore, historically, the communication of climate change has only fed these biases and helped, to some extent, to lead us to the current situation.
Starting with the polar bear on a piece of drifting ice, a recurring and shocking image that sends a dramatic message. And it works great for us to remember and share. Unfortunately, it works awful when it comes to helping us do something. Various studies indicate that negative and scary messages only paralyze us. In addition, the polar bear, for a vast majority, is far away, reinforcing the psychological distance.
For years, the most aseptic terminology possible to talk about this complex process has prevailed: climate change. Do you remember global warming? Well, that expression was not wanted by the Republicans in the campaign, nor by the scientists. Some because it suited them, and others, for purism: global warming did not define all its causes and consequences.
Now we are trying to call it a climate emergency, but it can cause problems to call something an “emergency” something that we do not feel as such. It is to supercharge the effect of "Peter and the wolf" that we carry on our shoulders for years. "Emergency" is not a word that works well the day the sun rises again after a flood. “Emergency” is not what new grass growing where there was a fire smells like.
On the other hand, misunderstood journalistic equidistance has on numerous occasions pitted deniers and scientists as equals, inflating their marginal representation from 3% to 50%. This subliminally increases the feeling of uncertainty, instead of showing the very broad consensus among the scientific community.
Neither right nor left
In communication, the figure of the spokesperson, the public face of the problem, the person who champions the change, matters a lot. Here again, great failure. We have historically settled for very popular characters who could amplify the message, but we do not think if that person contaminated it ideologically. Al Gore is the best example, but there are many others. And they all have one thing in common: none are conservative.
That the cause is politicized is serious, because our brain processes what we believe in en bloc. Human beings understand the world better in groups of things and reject ideas that belong to the opposite group. For this reason, despite the fact that the fight against climate change has all the necessary elements to convince and concern a right-wing electorate (it is a conservative struggle), we have suddenly lost 50% of the support.
But not everything has been bad in these years. We are beginning to understand how important the story is in changing our mental models or propping up our biases. Literature, for example, can help combat psychological distance.
Therefore, there is an entire literary genre dedicated to bringing climate change to the present. It's called cli-fi:climate fiction. And it's theBlack mirror or theYears and Years of climate change. Books likeSolarby Ian McEwan,Far north by Marce Theroux orYear of the Floodby Margaret Atwood help us to attract a little to our brain and bring us, little by little, to the action.
We are also learning to shape the message to resonate with the most conservative electorate. Because there are angles like "the planet that you leave to your grandchildren", the "economic independence that renewables grant" or "maintaining the good life." Not to mention how proud we are of our homeland and how little we want our natural heritage to change, perspectives that have rarely been addressed in campaigns launched from the left, generally aimed at raising awareness through blame.
Political action, scientific solution
Even the IPCC, the scientific consensus made document, understood that its way of communicating, on many occasions, was too ambiguous. They decided to add a label to their claims in parentheses, to indicate scientific certainty (low, medium, or high). To even further disambiguate the speech, one study pointed out that adding a numerical percentage of certainty would help: it is less ambiguous than using words for which we can each think a weight. These small details are what can determine huge differences in behavior.
But we cannot think that communication is going to save us, because, at most, it is going to help individuals to slightly modify our behavior on a personal basis. And the average person has too much serial bias to achieve a zero emission goal. At best, we can slightly slow down the process and live a few more generations on our only planet. That is not little.
From communication, the highest that can be reached is to convince the brains of those who direct us, to take drastic measures that can put a stop to it. Ultimately, climate change is a political problem: it seriously affects the economy, public health and national security. And mentioning it as such may allow, once again, to give a push for politicians to bet on investing in the development of scientific-technological solutions.
Because perhaps the only way to get out of this climate crisis is to find a scientific formula that balances the balance. And the best prepared to get that fantastic remedy out of a hat are the same ones who have studied how the greenhouse effect produces global warming, how our brain tricks us, or how often a handful of bacteria shaking in a glass flask double their population.
Maybe that way we will have better luck than them.