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Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active

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Can’t Seem To Face Up To The Climate Facts

facts carbon drawdown climate action activism language framing storytelling

Language, Posture and Framing – our 3-point guide to help Unwilling Inactivists speed up carbon drawdown without making them tense and nervous

Hard facts fall flat. Overwhelming scientific consensus hasn’t worked. Human-created disasters aren’t making much difference. Available technology is being ignored in favour of magic-bullet dreams…What does it take to shift ordinary people into effective climate action? Here’s our practical guide to leveraging emotional responses to enhance fact-based Action.

Why is change so hard, when climate change is so fast?

Why, when the need for climate action grows more urgent every day, are we still so reluctant to do anything about it? Understanding this problem is the first step to working out how to address it.

We all know why we’re reluctant to change, and find facing inconvenient truths so unpleasant. 

Humans have evolved to fear change and novelty. Inaction has been a pretty reliable default. Most things go away, or sort themselves out, eventually.  We can override this inaction when we’re shocked into perceiving an ‘emergency’, immediate life-threatening threats like an approaching bus, comet, or coronavirus.

The climate crisis, however, is too distant in time and space to trigger a sustained emotional response. Serial campaigner Naomi Klein describes her own initial response to the climate crisis as being to ‘look away’. We’ve written elsewhere about Hollywood’s attempt to focus movie audiences on the threat – ‘Don’t Look Up’.

Panic is hard to sustain, and faced with one overwhelming threat, it’s tempting to distract ourselves with smaller, more manageable problems.

Our instinctive inertia is made worse when it’s not immediately obvious how or when climate change will affect us individually. We can imagine the personal consequences of germs spreading without masks. Harder to conceptualise what the Greenhouse Effect will do to us.

Shrugging our shoulders guarantees Inaction. Unless we find a way to change rapidly and radically, atmospheric physics, and scientific fact will condemn us to a terrible, avoidable, future.

That future becomes more terrible with every moment we postpone change, and prefer the comfort of Inaction to the prospect of Action.

Facing up to the facts

We’ve known the facts and reality of global heating since the 1970s. We’ve had the technology to provide a solution, but have still allowed the problem to get worse. The problem is not one of facts, but of our reluctance to face them.

Scientific American recently published a long article, headlined ‘What Makes People Act on Climate Change’. It’s well worth a read, as an activist handbook, as it addresses the hard part of the problem – ourselves. 

Engineers, biologists and scientists tend to be the focus of our search for salvation, but behavioural psychologists may hold the key to any sustainable future with an intact civilisation. 

Behavioural psychologists can tell us what it might take for us to drop our preference for wilful ignorance and beguiling lies, and face up to inconvenient truths.

Effective Activists, Ineffective Activists, Unwilling Inactivists & Willing Inactivists

This chart summarises how See Through News categorises our different attitudes and actions to climate change. 

An article about our Target Audience provides more detail of what we mean by our categories. The key points:

  • Unwilling Inactivists: Most of us. People who accept the reality of global heating, but feel powerless to do anything about it
  • Willing Inactivists: AKA climate Deniers and Denialists. A shrinking but still highly influential group who profit from the status quo or are convinced it benefits them, and fight to resist change.
  • Ineffective Activists: a small but growing group. They try to be Active in accelerating transition to a sustainable future, but expend energy in actions that don’t measurably reduce carbon.
  • Effective Activists: are focused only on action that can demonstrably speed up carbon drawdown. Any form of ‘education’, raising awareness’ etc. is only a means, never an end.

The article details why we consider so much climate activism to be Ineffective, but suffice to say most Ineffective Activists’ wasted energy is directed towards changing our Individual Behaviour. Individual behavioural change will get us about 10% along the path required for a sustainable future. Government Regulation accounts for the remaining 90%, which is what Effective Activists focus on.

Changing Individual Behaviour isn’t exactly futile, it’s just 9x less effective at measurably reducing carbon. OK, so yes, pretty futile then. 

The risk of Ineffective Activism is that it diverts our available energy for change away from the shortest path to sustainability. 

Kidding ourselves that activities such as litter-picking, whatever their merits, reduce carbon, means we’re not spending that time and energy on the quickest way to speed up carbon drawdown – getting our governments to regulate business into reducing carbon.

Words Matter, But So Do Frames

Another Scientific American article, The Right Words Are Crucial To Solving Climate Change, is a handy guide for would-be Effective Activists. It’s hard to argue with its premise.

To inspire people, we need to tell a story not of sacrifice and deprivation but of opportunity and improvement in our lives, our health and our well-being—a story of humans flourishing in a post-fossil-fuel age.

The article is full of case studies of how language influences our thinking. Some is embarrassingly infantile, like how the Biden administration managed to convince its hold-out Democrat senator, who held the swing vote for long-overdue carbon-reducing legislation, by re-naming it the ‘Inflation Reduction Act’. Because one representative of a coal-rich state thought this euphemism might increase his chances of re-election, the world’s most powerful country, and biggest per-capita carbon emitter, couldn’t face up to the facts, and had to sugar-coat it’s biggest act of Government Regulation.

If you find that dispiriting, the article also reports how Yale researchers found that Americans associate ‘natural gas’ with ‘clean’, and methane gas with ‘pollution’, even though they’re the same molecule, CH4. 

Who needs enemies, with scientists like these?

Climate scientists can display the same tone-deafness as doctors who blithely tell their patients their diseases are ‘progressing’. Using technical jargon for public pronouncements is a huge act of self-harm. Climate activists might sometimes wonder, like the patients, whose side the guys in white coats are on.

The article includes this chart to remind obtuse boffins of the importance of the words they choose to use:

All good examples of how scientists can shoot themselves in the foot by being unaware of how their words land on non-scientific ears.

Like ‘faux amis’ mistranslations, when British people assume French-sounding words mean the same thing as what they suppose to be their English equivalents, language can obstruct as well as facilitate.

Frustrating though it is that some scientists remain resolutely monolingual, and cynical though Denialist shills are in exploiting this, fixing this language element is only one trick.

We should also consider our posture. 

Shoulder to Shoulder, Not In Your Face

Not our physical posture, though this provides a useful visualisation, but our mental state, how we present ourselves to the person we’re trying to convert from climate Inaction to Action.

Being angry almost never works. Looking angry is even less effective. Think of all those demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, with red-faced activists on both sides poking each other in the chest. They stand face to face, each shouting slogans into the other’s deaf ears. How many of them went home with their minds changed?

Much more effective to try to empathise with your ‘opponent’. Better not to see them as as an opponent at all, but someone who’s still clinging on to excuses for inaction, and needs your help in understanding that Action will: 

a) make them feel much better than doing nothing

b) lead to something better, not worse

It’s the way you tell ’em

This is what behavioural psychologists call framing’ (also ‘anchoring’ and ‘benchmarking’). 

Framing demands a more subtle approach than bludgeoning your opponent into submission. Instead of shouting in their faces, you sidle up to your Unwilling Inactivist, stand shoulder to shoulder, view the same world together, and find points of agreement, or mutual interest, from which to start your conversation.

Best not to mention carbon, at first at least. No one’s in favour of traffic, risk, pollution or litter, so why not frame carbon reduction in those terms, ideally without even uttering the ‘C-word’. All generals know the best victories are the ones that don’t require any combat.

So how do you present carbon-reducing notions in the most appealing way to a given audience, without lying or distorting the truth? 

Learn from the experts

Not only is there nothing wrong with emulating the behavioural psychology tricks used by climate deniers, it would be foolish not to. 

For decades, Big Oil has paid top dollar to the brightest and most creative minds in advertising, lobbying, PR and communications to spread misinformation, disinformation, smears, lies and distractions.

Why not learn from the best? You may not be able to match Big Oil’s budgets, but you have the considerable asymmetric advantage of having the Facts on your side.

A common example of a ‘framing’ manipulation is the False Choice Trick. It’s a common rhetorical sleight of hand, used since recorded language began, and presumably well before that.

It’s a combination of the ‘Don’t think of a polar bear’ trick, which requires you to think of a polar bear, and the ‘pick a card, any card’ trick, in which skilled conjurers can compel you to select that card they want, while making you think you’ve chosen at random.

Here’s an example from one of the most effective Willing Inactivist mass media publications, the Daily Mail.

The Mail is deeply, irrationally, opposed to onshore wind farms. The ignore the fact that onshore wind is by far the cheapest source of power, instead prioritising the importance of preserving what they call ‘natural’ landscapes.

Ignoring the fact that these ‘natural’ landscapes are the result of centuries of human management, and feature both electricity pylons and old-technology windmills, they urge their readers to oppose wind farms at all costs. This usually involves printing a ‘Before’ picture of a ‘pristine’ landscape, and contrasting it with a mocked-up ‘After’ picture of the same view with loads of wind turbines. ‘Which would you choose?’, their headlines ask, rhetorically. This is a textbook False Choice Trick.

When wind turbines are removed, the Mail reverses this ‘they’ll ruin our view’ technique, and celebrates the ‘restoration’ of the ‘natural’ landscape. Here’s an example of before-and-after pictures used by the Mail after a power company removed a few old turbines from a Yorkshire Dales valley.

Which would you choose? Given A and B, it’s a no-brainer. Just what they’re counting on.

The False Choice Trick creates binary Good & Bad option. In turn, this creates an implicit obligation for the viewer/audience to pick one or the other. Framing the issue creates a huge psychological advantage. Few of us, if caught unawares, think of rejecting both, or suggesting a third option. 

Imagine you’re in a situation – at a demonstration, in the pub, at a dinner party, on a panel – where a Willing Inactivist plays this False Choice trick to sway the audience of Unwilling Inactivists. 

How do you respond?

Two can play at False Choices

One way to counter this psychological manipulation is to do what we’re trying to do in this article, and ‘explain the trick’, in a neutral and friendly manner.

This works well for people who are inclined to listen (the shoulder-to-shoulder folk), but not with those whose emotional tribal affiliations have already been triggered (the face-to-face brigade). 

Mention ‘nuance’ and ‘experts’ to someone squaring up for a Climate Fight, and you risk triggering a distracting side-argument, such as how ‘elitists’ arrogantly patronise good honest ordinary folk with their hi-falutin’ talk of ‘nuance’ and ‘experts’, or some other whataboutery diversion that dodges the issue of measurably reducing carbon.

One option is to sidestep their False Choice, and use your own, in the hope this may expose the cheap rhetoric of their False Choice trick, and redirect the conversation towards fact-based carbon drawdown.

For example, faced with the Yorkshire Dales example we’ve just cited, you could acknowledge it with a neutral nod, not rise to the bait, and suggest an alternative binary choice, like this:

Most Unwilling Inactivists are puzzled by this, and will ask what point you’re trying to make. This means you can explain how this simplified binary choice shows that our current carbon-profligate path guarantees making huge areas of the world uninhabitable, and the chance to nudge the conversation away from emotion, and towards the realm of facts.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees already estimates there are more than 20 million ‘climate refugees’. Without rapid, massive carbon drawdown, this figure will soon be dwarfed.

The IPCC estimates the difference between 1.5 degrees of warming and 2 degrees could create sustained ‘wet bulb temperatures’ that will oblige half a billion climate refugees to flee equatorial countries no longer capable of supporting human life, or die. 

Zurich Insurance, not usually considered to be radical environmentalists, are taking this seriously, publishing articles headlined ‘There could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. Here’s what you need to know‘.

Incidentally, ‘climate refugees’ is another example of the power – or in this case, the weakness – of words. Legal niceties about the current definition of ‘refugee’ mean the UNHCR officially prefers “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” This nit-picking may be legally and politically correct, but in terms of activism it’s a non-starter. Even if you could fit its acronym ‘PDCDCCs’ on a placard, no one would know what you were talking about. When legal ‘refugee’ status is being so widely flouted and abused, this hardly seems worth picking a fight over.

On the other hand, it’s certainly worth debating the retaliatory use of tactics like False Choices.

Hollow victory or righteous tricksterism?

Our Before & After example works by re-framing wind farms as a solution, instead of problem.

The crude binary rhetoric flips renewable energy in the Good Cop role. No longer symbolising the Problem, wind turbines are transformed into the solution. This switcheroo re-frames an emotionally-charged debate about what constitutes a pleasant view as trivial bickering, but at what cost?

It plays on the fact that Inaction will make something many Inactivists fear (mass immigration) even worse. For Daily Mail readers, an ‘invasion’ by ‘hordes’ of ‘illegal asylum-seekers’ is a far more terrifying bogeyman than a ‘spoilt’ view. It implicitly accepts the premise that immigration is a bad thing.

This may stick in your throat, but should you spit it out in disgust, or close your eyes and swallow your principles, as if it were a bitter pill that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but will make you feel better in the long run?

There’s’ no easy answer. This kind of emotional-to-rational re-framing is done with the ‘greater purpose’ of challenging some Unwilling Inactivists into re-prioritising carbon drawdown. Their xenophobia may remain unaffected, even strengthened, but is it worth it if you’ve leveraged this emotion to speed up carbon drawdown?

Those who feel all injustice and prejudice must be challenged at all times may find this pragmatic approach to Helping the Inactive Become Active unpalatable. Exploiting emotions you find distasteful, may feel a step too far.

This is understandable, but avoiding these kind of tactics may keep your moral position intact, and won’t do anything to speed up carbon drawdown. Which is more important, xenophobia or civilisational collapse? (see what we did there? – another False Choice).

One of two ain’t bad

Our view is that needs must. Ideally, a single devastating barrage of forensic questions and compelling facts would both change your interlocutor’s emotional attachment to a moral position of which you disapprove, and convert them to carbon drawdown action. But how likely is that? Isn’t leveraging the former to achieve the latter a better, more realistic outcome?

Think of it as fighting fire with fire & facts. We know emotion trumps reason, so doesn’t it make sense to commandeer an existing emotional attachment, and exploit it as a starting point on a path that leads to reason. In time, on sober reflection, your re-framing may even help that individual reconsider the emotional attachment in a new light. That would be nice, but in the meantime, is achieving one positive outcome such a bad thing?

Identify an issue that in any given individual invokes a powerful emotion that trumps reason (in our example, xenophobia), and you’ve identified a way to re-frame that issue in a way that speeds up carbon drawdown. To some, this may look conceding moral high ground. We see it as taking the shortest available path to carbon drawdown, with the least resistance.

An individual’s emotional response is a starting point from which you can steer the conversation away from beliefs and convictions, and towards facts, evidence and logic. To manage this without getting bogged down in familiar tribal arguments, is to be an Effective Activist.

But be gentle, partly because the less emotional you appear, the more likely it is to work. For Willing Inactivists, objective truth is an unfamiliar battleground. The Terrain of Truth may look like the Moral High Ground, but it’s based on facts, not convictions. Unwilling Inactivists need to be guided carefully through the minefield, not marched through it at gunpoint.

The main thing is to get them to the other side, where they become Effective Activists.

Nuance v Impact

This approach carries risks, which are worth examining. They show how hard it is to be impactful without sacrificing nuance and detail.

You can’t please all the people all the time, so tailoring your message to a particular audience is important, but it also involves compromise, and can backfire.

As many have discovered to their costs, nothing is private on the Internet, or when reported by bad actors. Messages tailored to one audience can easily be misinterpreted by others who miss the context in which it was delivered, or wilfully distort it.

For example, the particular image of queueing ‘foreigners’ used in our counter-False Choice provokes particularly strong emotional response in the UK. It was used as a scare tactic poster during the Brexit campaign to spook voters into believing staying in the EU would leave to a ‘flood’ of immigrants/refugees/asylum-seekers (these categories were all elided into one crude xenophobic ‘threat’).

For some, this image triggers a powerful emotional response to defend refugees. Such people tend to support onshore wind farms, a renewable energy source that measurably reduces carbon. This makes them carbon drawdown Active.

For others, the image elicits a strong fear of being ‘overrun’ by foreigners. Such people are likely to oppose onshore wind farms, and prefer not to face the unpleasant fact that this retards carbon drawdown. This makes them carbon drawdown Inactive.

Why not leverage the emotional response of the Inactive, to nudge them into becoming carbon-reducing Active?

Leveraging powerful emotional issues like immigration risks flipping people on both sides of the debate into familiar ‘for’ or ‘against’ ruts. Those who fear immigration may get diverted from the carbon point you’re trying to steer them towards, and return to their comfort zone of re-stating their fixed opinions on the topic. The same could happen with those who embrace immigration, who’ll be triggered into re-stating their fixed opinions on this topic.

So be it. At least you tried something different. If anyone’s still listening, you can point out that arguments about immigration are just one of the many ‘nice problems to have’, like worrying about a view being spoilt by some wind turbines. Catastrophic climate change resulting from inaction, leading to civilisational collapse, would render both positions moot.

You can’t please all the people all the time, but you can do your best to gently but firmly challenge fixed views that result in climate inactivity, in the hope they may be a first step to effective climate action.

Language, Posture and Framing

So that’s our See Through News take on how to take on Unwilling Inactivists, our three-point plan to bear in mind next time you encounter shoulder-shrugging, knee-jerk blaming of others, whataboutery, regurgitation of Denialist tropes, or other expressions of Unwilling Inactivism. 

Think LPF:

  • Language: get in the habit of using language that portrays effective climate action as a positive aspiration, not a sacrifice.
  • Posture: try to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, empathising with your interlocutor, rather than jabbing fingers in each others’ chests.
  • Framing: avoid false choices, but don’t be shy about creating some of your own. You have truth on your side

LPF won’t work every time, but try it and you may be surprised at how these tricks can dramatically improve your odds.

Good luck.