August 21, 2014

Recently I learned about “Prius repellent” — a tricked-out truck takes deep swigs of diesel and spews black smog all over a tailing vehicle, preferably a hybrid. These ominous clouds signal that, in our national conversation about climate change, something has gone very wrong.

George Marshall, a founder of the Climate Outreach think tank, tries to get us talking productively in his intelligent and genial new book, “Don’t Even Think About It.” He visits with fellow environmentalists, with psychologists and policy analysts, and with political opponents — even sharing a few laughs in the lair of 40 Texas tea partyers — to try to understand just why people are so prone to deny or ignore climate change.

Some of the answers are familiar. Humans respond most urgently to threats that are present, concrete and definite — a mugger, say. But climate change is gradual, hard to observe and indefinite, at least in terms of its eventual magnitude and effects on our personal lives. Addressing it requires making palpable sacrifices now in order to prevent unclear costs in the distant future. Global warming also doesn’t automatically raise our moral hackles, as there’s no clear enemy who wants to destroy our world. If anyone is to blame, the culprit is me, you and everyone we know. So it’s in our own self-interest — though perhaps not in the interest of our future selves, those poor schlubs — to play down the danger, if not outright deny it.

In 42 short chapters, Marshall also covers some less-obvious ground. For instance, you might think that surviving a weather disaster would raise your alert level on climate change. Not always — near-misses give people a sense of invulnerability. What’s more, after a community floods or burns to the ground, people just want to get their lives back to normal and not worry about some even larger threat.

You might think that having kids would turn your attention toward the mess you might be leaving them. Nope. The optimism bias kicks into high gear, enhancing your view of your eco-legacy. Plus, you’re too busy changing diapers to worry about the long-term benefits of recycling.

’Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall (Bloomsbury USA)

You might think that environmental campaigns reminding people to be green would, well, make people green. But they communicate individual responsibility, and thus blame, which leads to resentment. One study found that conservatives were less likely to buy a low-energy light bulb when the package said “protect the environment.” And people who do buy such light bulbs feel morally licensed to use them more, countering the gains.

You might think that climate-change deniers are short on scientific literacy. But everyone’s heard the facts about greenhouse gases. At this point, deniers are actually better versed in science than are accepters. Rather, political forces shape their attitudes. Marshall quotes the ethicist Clive Hamilton: “Denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.”

Those who traffic in “Prius repellent” are no doubt repelled by Priuses and everything they stand for. When Marshall spoke with the tea party activists, a running theme was “control.” Any mention of carbon triggered their fears of the government taking over their lives via regulation of this basic element. Climate change “is polluted with cultural values,” Marshall writes. “It becomes a toxic C-word for politicians and communicators. It is largely ignored by the media.” Well, you’re reading about it now, but Marshall writes that climate change was not mentioned once in the 2012 debates between Obama and Romney.

The role of culture makes the framing of problems and solutions crucial, Marshall argues. In fact, he regrets the framing of climate change as an environmental issue, rather than one of economics, health, human rights or defense. Hugging trees seems superfluous compared with preventing unemployment, starvation and war. As a result of its identification with the environment, he notes, climate change gets far fewer mentions on the Web sites of human rights organizations than do donkeys and ice cream. (He counted.)

Marshall takes some good pokes at the likes of Shell Oil and the televangelist Joel Osteen (who refused to talk with him about climate change), but he’s best when provoking his own side. He quotes one e-mail from Live Earth, an organization fostering environmental awareness, suggesting that heart-shaped candy boxes be recycled as backpacks for dolls. (Carbon-neutral, here we come!) He rips apart a TV spot for its overkill in depicting a possible ecological disaster arising from too much CO2 in the atmosphere, complete with a drowning puppy. Marshall quotes a strategist calling the ill-considered ad “about as much use as a marzipan dildo.” Research shows that among people who think the world is fair, apocalyptic messages reduce belief in climate change, because climate catastrophe seems so unjust. (You might disagree.)

The book is full of advice, and perhaps the most provocative is that environmentalism could learn a thing or two from religion. Of course some critics have already equated the two, but “if climate change really were a religion, it would be a wretched one,” Marshall writes, “offering guilt and blame and fear but no recourse to salvation or forgiveness.” In his view, the “Green Team” should borrow several elements from the “God Squad”: There should be opportunities for public commitment to the cause. People should testify to their doubts and anxieties, so they can work through them with peers. They should treat certain goals as sacred values — say, protecting the natural world or the innocent or our children. And they should develop a language of forgiveness, so people can deal with their green guilt rather than turn to denial.

In the end, Marshall is neither fatalistic nor idealistic about our chances of survival. Yes, he says, we’re wired to ignore climate change. But we’re also wired to do something about it.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”

DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT

Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change

By George Marshall

Bloomsbury. 260 pp. $27

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