Understanding (and Transcending) the Behavioral Challenges to Addressing Climate Change
When faced with the realities of climate change, some people are inspired to fight it. Others deny it exists. And still others acknowledge it exists, but don’t want to think about it. Why? It has to do with the human brain’s normal response to fear, feelings of powerless, and the perceived threat of giving up one’s normal way of life.
In this NPR podcast, Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam visits Alaska’s Mendenhall glacier, which is rapidly retreating. He asks John Neary, director of the Visitor Center, why so many visitors to the glacier were unwilling to accept the scientific consensus about climate change. Neary responded, “Because it’s threatening….When that fear becomes overriding for people, they use a part of their brain that has to react.” He goes on to say, “We need to get rid of that fear, and…allow a different part of the brain to kick in.”
As our research has found, one way to do this is to pivot quickly away from risks and towards climate solutions, to help motivate feelings of empowerment. We also need to present solutions as opportunities to create a better world, rather than sacrifices.
Vedantam later interviews George Marshall of Climate Outreach, a UK-based charity dedicated to educating the public about climate change. Marshall agrees that our brains aren’t naturally wired to address abstract, long-term threats like climate change. However, he points out that people are naturally “motivated by their sense of identity and their sense of belonging.” This is why appealing to the values a person holds – as a member of a political party or religious group, their role as a parent, and so on – is effective when talking about climate change. So is using as your messenger someone the person respects and trusts.
Marshall also stresses that more data and charts are not the answer. “It’s important to recognize that the divides around climate change are social, not scientific. That suggests that the solutions to this aren’t scientific…they’re cultural. We are going to disagree on things politically, but we have things in common that we all care about that are going to have to bring us together.”
Listen to the full 25-minute podcast using the link below. (Marshall’s interview begins at 12:45)
By NPR Staff
Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam takes you on vacation with him to Alaska. You’ll hike on top of a glacier, drink from a cool stream, and talk with fellow tourists from around the world. But the trip comes with an upsetting observation: Glaciers in Alaska are retreating. The Mendenhall glacier, visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year, has receded more than a mile and a half in the last half century.
“It’s sort of just collapsed in on itself,” says John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
Many see the glacier’s retreat as an ominous symbol of climate change. But not all. Shankar talks with tourists who are skeptical that climate change is even occurring. And so the question: Is there something about the human brain that makes it hard for us to grapple with climate change?
After returning from vacation, Shankar calls George Marshall, author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, about the behavioral challenges and solutions to addressing climate change.
Listen to the podcast
Image credit: Shankar Vedantam/NPR