Are people getting saturated with all the climate change news you talk about? Is all the doomsday and apocalypse prophecy surrounding climate change discussions becoming surreal and movie-like to them?
Is this saturation leading them to switch off mentally when they hear you talking about this topic? Then just change the way you talk! But how?
An inspiring TED Talk by Per E. Stoknes, a leading psychologist, gives interesting insights. His view is that most of the discourse around climate change often revolves around pointing the moral-finger at people – be it your families, friends, businesses or communities. Nobody likes to have the moral-finger pointed at them again and again, and there is a need to change that tactic if it has to be effective.
More importantly, we have to surmount the inner-defences of people when we talk to them about issues they would prefer to ignore and pretend don’t exist. These inner-defences are part of our cognitive system, which create mental walls, or barriers, and prevent us from imbibing the message someone is giving us. Climate change discussions are often prey to this.
These inner-defences include the aspect of distance; when we feel that the problem is still some time or distance away. Children in Ghana suffering from polluted water or tribals in Brazil’s Amazon suffering from forest-fires, feels miles away from India, so we feel it does not directly impact us. Similarly, when big institutions bring out glossy reports about climate projections in 2050, most of us switch off because we feel we will anyway be dead by then. The issue of distance is also connected with another inner-defence, that of dissonance. Beyond a point, the human brain is wired towards cognitive dissonance when it receives too much of anything. At that time, we understand we face a problem but are so detached, that we only end up doing the status-quo.
Another inner-defence is of doomsday. We become de-sensitised to the excessive flow of apocalyptic and doomsday prophecies surrounding any climate change discussion. Beyond a point, it just falls on deaf ears, rendering the very talk ineffective. Denial is another inner-defence, which flows partly as a result of the moral-finger issue mentioned previously. Since the topic makes us uncomfortable, we prefer to live in denial by ridiculing or ignoring the facts. It is a more comfortable option. Tell a typical chain-smoker to quit smoking as it affects their health, and then hear their fact-bashing about cigarettes and its correlation with health.
When we speak to people about climate issues, it is important to bear in mind these defences, and circumvent them for our talk to be more effective. One way is to talk about our income, jobs, health, etc. and the impact of climate on these. The human brain relates to the former, everyday things, more easily than to things they are less aware of. Jobs, health and income affect each and every one of us, and any conversation around these topics will gain ears. Build the climate aspect surrounding these themes, instead of the other way around. In other words, reframe the way you talk. The moment you talk about positive and negative arguments on everyday issues that people can relate to, the wall of the inner-defences lowers a bit. How many of you have ever spoken about inflation (mehengai) and its relation to climate risks? Just start the talk with inflation instead of climate, and 1.3 billion Indians would listen!
Instead of advising paradigm transformations to peoples’ habits, simply nudge small changes step by step. Again, the human mind is wired to resist major changes. The average person hates leaving their comfort zone, especially on everyday habits like diet, plastic usage or transport. Nudge small changes, like using public transport just for a few days each week, or eating climate-smart food for just a few days each week, or keeping a cloth bag rolled up inside one’s study or office bag for only those days when you shop while returning from office or college. None of these suggestions is talking about leaving the past habit entirely and taking up the new habit. It is about nudging small, incremental changes whilst doing both, and thus giving the person the time to get comfortable with the new idea! Nudge-based incremental changes also have less risk of retraction, i.e. people giving up and moving back to the way they did things earlier.
Last, use visualisation and story-telling, instead of the lecture-mode. That would draw more people to listen to you – and for a longer time! Visuals always work better than words, and social media tools make this job easier. Use it wisely. Story-telling is more appealing and engaging, unlike a lecture-mode that is bound to raise the inner defences, owing to the moral-finger issue. Talk about solutions and inspiration – that would be more rewarding to any conversation around climate change!