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20 Mar 2014

George Marshall on communicating climate change following extreme weather events

George Marshall

COIN, the Climate Outreach and Information Network, recently published a great report called After the floods: communicating climate change around extreme weather, which set out to explore our “complex attitudes to climate change and extreme weather events”.  Why do extreme weather events not necessarily mean that people “get” climate change?  How should Transition initiatives in communities hit by extreme weather talk about climate change with their neighbours? These are just some of the vital questions we explored with George Marshall, COIN’s founder, in a long and fascinating interview. 

I went to Dawlish the other day, where the railway line was washed into the sea recently, and the town took a complete pasting. I met an old man there who’d lived in Dawlish for many years and we sat and looked out over the town together and I asked him about the storm. He said, “it’s the worst storm I’ve ever seen, I’ve never seen anything like it.” I said “so do you make any link between what you saw that night and climate change?” He said, “oh I don’t believe in climate change.” He said, “do you?” and I said “I do, very much so.” He said, “well I do believe that since the beginning of the industrial revolution we’ve poured huge amounts of gases and pollutants into the atmosphere and that that has changed the climate, but I don’t believe in climate change.” Can you explain that?

I can counter that with another quote. I have a book coming out later this year on the psychology of climate change. I started with a quote from Leon Frankfurter who was a high court judge in the US. He was given a presentation by a man who first hand had seen the clearing of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis during the Second World War and the herding of Jews into concentration camps. He reported all of this to Judge Frankfurter who was a Jew himself and Frankfurter said “I cannot believe you.” So the guy said “are you crazy, this is an eyewitness testimony.” But Judge Frankfurter says “No, I’m not saying he’s lying. I said I simply cannot believe him and these are different things.” This was interesting from a Supreme Court judge.

I think what your guy in Dawlish was saying the same. He’s saying two things, that he can accept the abstract sense of it but he cannot accept or believe in the moral or personal or emotional implications of it. In other words, when he sees the destruction which is that knowledge manifested, he can’t accept it. I think psychologically we can do this very well, quite consciously. There are things that we know that when we’re asked about it we say “I know that”, but we hold back from accepting or recognising that belief.


Did you think there’s an element to it as well which is somehow that even by now the words “climate change” have become so loaded that somebody who’s very conservative, even though they may agree with climate change, as soon as they use the words ‘climate change’ somehow they feel they’ve put themselves in a box with ‘that lot’?

Absolutely. It’s very clear that that happens.  In cognitive linguistics, they talk about ‘the language of framing’ which a lot of people are now familiar with. Within a terminology of framing you understand that certain words become what we call frames. That is to say that when the words are used they bring into play a whole very wide range of values and attitudes and cultural shapes, and climate change is definitely that, as is ‘global warming’ of course, which is a parallel phrase but actually has its own slightly different separate meaning.

It’s very clear that for many people, particularly people who are conservative, particularly people who are older, they can accept the content of climate science. Many of the people who say they don’t believe in climate change are well educated scientifically but they will not accept the full meaning of it.

When there’s a really big climate/extreme weather event like Hurricane Sandy or what we’ve seen here over the last few weeks, often you hear people saying “what will it take to make people realise that climate change is happening?” But your work suggests that that’s really the wrong question, doesn’t it?

floodsNo, I think it’s very much the right question. Let’s go back a step and say, what are the processes by which we form socially held beliefs. I’m aware, by the way, that that word ‘belief’ is a dangerous word. You’ve used it already in our conversation. Let’s just say that the word belief is itself a frame, that when people say “I believe” or don’t believe, that this is a word that has an association with religious faith.

So let’s recognise that there is a process of belief that’s happening here but let’s call it conviction, that’s the word I prefer to use. We can say ”what is the process by which people form their convictions?” There are a lot of things that we know, but we’re not entirely convinced of them and we hold that information at bay.

Information’s a primary cause of that. Scientific information of course is a very important direction towards conviction, but really the convictions are formed by the people around us. Let’s just say that there is a truth that is an objective truth, which might be formed by the data, and then there is a social truth or a social fact. But we depend on both when we form our convictions, so we can say that it’s quite possible for people like your guy in Dawlish to accept the scientific fact but not to accept the social fact.

We need to put the two together. That means, therefore, that what makes it possible for people to accept these things is very clear evidence of a social fact, that’s to say that the people around, the people they know in their networks, their family, friends and community are actively seen to hold this attitude and conviction.

The problem we have with climate change is they don’t. Some people actively refute it. Many people won’t hold it at all, they won’t publicly accept it and they won’t talk about it. We get into a difficult situation where in opinion polls we ask people “do you believe in climate change?” We also have opinion polls saying “do you think that the extreme weather is related to climate change?” By and large you’ll find that the majority of people will say yes on both counts.

The problem is, of course, that that’s the answer that they give when they’re asked by someone in the street. That does not mean that’s the conviction that they wear and share openly within their peer groups.

The answer to your question is that we have to get people talking about it, and talking about it as a social fact. Something that’s real within socially held conviction, something which is really out there and talked about in the same way that maybe the economy is talked about. It is something which people openly have views on. Those views can be conflicting views too. There’s nothing wrong with having a situation where you have people saying “well I accept this” or “I don’t accept this”. I think the big danger is that conversation doesn’t happen at all. In the absence of that, it just becomes a set of data, information and facts which people can keep squirrelled away in the intellectual part of their brain without it infecting their emotional part which is the part which makes them want to do something.

Incidentally, just to point out, again going back to your guy in Dawlish, we can do that because we do have separate parts of our brain that perform in different ways. We have parallel processes within our brains and one process deals with the analysis of data. The other deals with the emotional implications of data and the sense of threat, and that these processes work in parallel but can also be kept quite separate.


When we receive our information from the scientific source, we can actively collude with those different processes by making sure that we keep it over there in our scientific part where we go, well that’s interesting, and not allow it to come over into our emotional social side which might compel us to take action. Obviously the answer to how we get people to take action is we have to get it to cross over.

In the paper that you just published, you wrote about how victims of extreme weather episodes are not necessarily more likely to associate those with climate change than non-victims. Why is that? What’s the psychology of that?

Let’s just say that the basis for that is some social research, although this is a relatively new area for social research, but also personal experience of going and talking to people. I did a string of interviews, over 20 interviews in two areas of America that had been severely affected by climate change. One was in Bastrop in Texas which had a combination of extreme drought followed by the most devastating wildfires in Texan history. Devastating by a tenfold order of magnitude compared to anything previously.  Then I did a string of interviews up and down the coast of New Jersey where there are astonishing levels of damage from Sandy. I was there six months after and still there were whole towns smashed to matchsticks. It was incredible.

Interviewing people there, it was very interesting that people would not necessarily make the connection. And strange also when you think, well hang on, this is what scientists have been talking about for the last 20 years. So for 20 years, scientists have been saying that climate change will bring more severe weather events, possibly more and severe storms although there’s a bit of uncertainty around that. Certainly more severe droughts and wildfires. So when something comes along which is off the scale in terms of your previous experience which conforms to that, you would think that you would at least pay some heed to it.

But I think what is interesting is not just that people don’t necessarily accept it, but they don’t even talk about it. There is an absence of conversation in these areas about the weather, that what they’ve experienced is connected to climate change. So whether people accept it’s climate change or not, they’re not talking about it with each other. The reason for this is complex and I have to say that is a big question. It’s one we need to answer. I have my theories.

One thing that’s clear is that when people go through a major extreme weather event, it brings them together, especially if it’s a short-lived one. If it’s a long, protracted one like a major drought it can wear people down, but if it’s a single one like Hurricane Sandy or flooding and so on, people often feel a very strong sense of social unity. Especially in our rather fragmented communities, that can be very validating for people.

That means they can concentrate on things that bring them together, their shared values, their sense of common identity. It also means they’re very wary of everything that might potentially draw them apart, and climate change is that kind of issue. I’d say even more in the states than here. The kind of thing that people avoid talking about within their own families because they know their Uncle Bob is a climate sceptic and they don’t want to have a row over the Christmas pudding, that kind of thing. I think people actively try not to talk about it.

But there’s another thing as well. If you are caught in a major event, if your house has been flooded, you have major concerns with just clearing it out, rebuilding it, especially if the house has burnt down or been smashed apart. Rebuilding your life so you have immediate short term concerns which push out from longer term ones. Then let’s face it, if you are making the decision to invest again in your life, to rebuild your life, the last thing you want to consider is the possibility that this is the start of a major shift that will bring not just more of these events but even more intense ones.

Who on earth wants to hear that? I think there’s a real danger that when people reinvest in their lives, they are reinvesting in a narrative that things are normal and that this was a freak accident and that things will go back to the way they were before. In other words, through their action and their spending, and their desire to believe, people become over-optimistic about the future and what might happen.

We know very well that people who have been through personal accidents often come out with a reinforced sense of their own immunity, and an artificially reduced sense of the probability of something happening again. That’s entirely possible with these major events, but that is compounded by their refusal to accept that actually the odds are shifting. Not only are people not prepared to accept that this is something that might come again, but they’re certainly unwilling to accept that the odds are shifting such that these events will be happening more and more.

If people listening to this who are involved with Transition groups in places that have been affected by the extreme weather recently, the last thing they want is to come across with any told-you-so sort of vibe. What’s the most skilful way to introduce the possibility to people, or is it just best not to go there?

I think that’s the key question. I think the temptation is not to go there. The temptation which I think is reinforced quite strongly through our social interactions is that it’s inappropriate to talk about climate change with people who have been devastated by an extreme weather event. I remember just through Facebook, my wife putting out some comments around the flooding or around Hurricane Sandy and getting some very clear signals from her Facebook friends that it was not appropriate and that somehow it’s almost exploitative to talk about that. This is not the right time. The question is of course, if this is not the right time now then when is the right time exactly?

Therefore the temptation is not to talk about it at all – I think we need to resist that temptation. But the first thing we need to say is we need to tread very, very carefully here. These emotions are raw and people are very upset. We need to find a way of doing it. I’d suggest to people that they try it out carefully and compare notes and use this experience of what’s happened over this winter as a way to test things out. Hopefully we at COIN can work with the Transition groups to try out and share our experiences and test in the real world what might work or might not work.

The answer is we don’t entirely know, but there are some pointers. One of the things we know does not work is to parachute into an affected community as politically ideologically motivated outsiders and try and make those links. We strongly advise environmental organisations for example to not do that, to resist the temptation to run broadcast campaigns saying “da daah, it’s climate change, we told you”. I think that’s potentially quite counterproductive.

At a community level like Transition groups however, you’re in a much stronger position. You are at least speaking from a shared level of experience. I think that’s very important. I think that the most trusted communicators will be people who are seen as being part of the community and people who have themselves been affected. To say, putting it up front, talking about your own experience and what has happened. I think one way to clearly do it, and this has been shown to work quite well in the States has been to talk about this within the adaptation and resilience and preparedness agenda. I think that Transition is very much on the right line with this.

Rather than saying “it’s climate change and it’s our fault”, I think people can make those connections themselves if they’re willing to face it. I don’t really need to spell it out. I think we can say we need to recognise that there is a change underway and we need to pull together and be prepared for that to happen increasingly. How can we be strong as a community?  Also, of course, because communities come together so strongly often around these events, we can validate ourselves and we can feel good, recognise actually that there were things that we did in the course of these events which are very positive, but they’re signs that we’re stronger than we thought; that we can pull together in ways which are really worthwhile.

The act of pulling together and the act of individual care and concern and heroism and altruism that people show is something that builds barriers across political and social boundaries. I think that’s something to really put up front, to say, we did really well here. There were some really powerful things that happened in our community around this event which showed how strong we are or how strong we can be, and let’s recognise and prepare for stuff coming in the future.

It’s very important to resist the temptation towards the protection of the individual property. There’s a temptation on this to say, I’m protecting myself, I’m making my house flood-proof. Obviously people do that, and that’s fine, but I think the emphasis has to be on how we can protect ourselves collectively. What can we do to pull together? Particularly what can we do in the case of future events, recognising that they might happen, to protect the vulnerable. People who might be old, people who might be disabled. It might be hard for them to get out of their homes. How can we offer protection and services, community support services lined up for them, maybe an emergency phone tree or a network which snaps into gear when it’s needed.

Because, I’m stressing that, because we know from the values work that’s been done, particularly by people like Tom Crompton at WWF who’s done great work on this, that if we reinforce people’s sense of collective and caring values, that we make people more willing to accept the fact that we need to pull together in the face of a common threat. In other words, through reinforcing our sense of pride and identity and caring for each other, we lay the foundation for being able to feed in those arguments about climate change.

Just to end on this point, saying this is why I’m stressing to start by talking about the positive experiences of how we pulled together. To say that it’s clear from a lot of research that people are far more receptive to challenging arguments like climate change if it’s in a context where their values and their sense of their own identity has already been validated.

But what they are not receptive to is a direct challenge that therefore brings up all of their defences, “don’t tell me what to do” and “who are you anyway”, “you’re a hypocrite” and all of that.

It’s been very interesting to see the response to Nigel Lawson’s appearance on the radio and how the climate sceptics at a time when you thought they would climb off under a rock and take a long hard look at themselves, have actually been coming out and talking about it and getting quite a lot of publicity over the last few weeks. I read recently, there’s a video I watched by Naomi Oreskes who wrote Merchants of Doubt, and she does an interview there with a guy called Nick Minchin who’s an Australian climate sceptic. She says to him:

“It makes me wonder if the reason you want to reject the science is that it has consequences. It has consequences for us about how we live our lives, how we run our economy, what our taxation policies are. I think what you don’t like are the implications, the political, social and economic implications. But what you’ve done along with a lot of other people is to say, let’s shift the debate, let’s argue about the science. Let’s keep the debate about the science going, because as long as we argue about the science we don’t get to the question of what that means for us politically, socially or economically.”

This time, how people have still gone back to arguing about the science just seems completely ridiculous. Is there any sense of how we input into that process to move it on more to the policy?

The problem we always had with the floods is that no scientist is going to be prepared to come out during the floods or any climate event immediately afterwards and say, “aha, that’s climate change”. Of course, they should be saying, well this is a pattern consistent with climate change. This sense of uncertainty tends to pervade the debate.

I’d go back again to what I was saying earlier about how there are scientific facts and socially held facts. If people in their own minds see that there is an association between an extreme weather event and climate change, that becomes the fact that they hold. Similarly, if people in their own minds come to think that all of the scientists are conspiring in order to get larger, fatter, government grants for their research, which of course is this outrageous and ludicrous lie which is paraded by some of these professional deniers, they will believe that. These views can become deeply entrenched and very immovable.

But of course the thing which moves them is not arguing directly with them about this not being true, or this is the evidence. It’s actually going back to this idea of socially constructed facts. What will shift a climate change denier, not the professional ones of course but the general public, is citing the evidence that people like themselves who share their values happen to believe in it and happen to accept it.

The big problem we have, I think, in terms of the issue is that Naomi is correct there. Many people, particularly of Conservative or free market values are deeply suspicious of the solutions. And of course the people who are keenest on the solutions and therefore the ones who hold climate change most readily are their sworn political enemies.


The entire thing becomes polarised around political lines. The way to shift this is to have more and more people of Conservative values being seen to openly hold on to the science and to say, yes, we want to be part of discussion and debate about what the solutions are, which I think might be a very useful debate.

There’s nothing, by the way, intrinsically in Conservativism that would say that Conservatives cannot make personal sacrifices or pull together in the face of a threat. In fact, you can certainly believe that if climate change was being caused by North Korea, that the Conservatives would be on the front line saying “we’ll do whatever is necessary to stop this threat or anything similar”. In fact there’s no doubt in my mind that if climate change was going to be caused by a meteorite that Conservatives would be right on top of it.

But there’s nothing intrinsically in it. It’s the way that these threats speak to people’s world views. Even the most hardcore Libertarians, going right back to the writings of Friedrich Hayek after the Second World War, would recognise that you sometimes need to pull together and you need to maybe interfere with the free market in the interest of facing a collective threat. The question is, how does that threat come to be perceived, and again I go back to that sense that threats are perceived not through the data but through the public perception of them.

I will say something, by the way, about this whole climate change denial thing, which I think Naomi is touching on there, which is important. People hold attitudes on climate change because of their values and their world views and their politics. Not because they’re necessarily bribed to do so. There’s a common view, especially amongst environmental campaigners, that all this denial stuff is a huge public relations scam generated by fossil fuel money.

Whilst it’s certainly true that some of the oil companies have been utterly reprehensible for funding what has been sometimes very professional misinformation campaigns, the reason that the vast majority of people do not believe in climate change is because it’s a direct challenge to their sense of the world and how the world is. And because they personally really do not like or trust the people who seem to be most eagerly telling them about it. But it’s not just about corruption.

It’s about stuff which speaks very much to people’s values. And of course, the reality which is that none of us really, in our hearts, ought to accept that this thing is happening. Nobody really wants to believe it. We’re all very keen to find reasons that it’s not happening, and I’d say maybe for people who are Conservative or people who are doubtful of environmentalism, that’s somewhat easier for them to do because they’re starting from a position of being doubtful of the people who are telling them.

My last question is, the thing that we’re looking at this month is living with climate change. What’s your sense of the next 20 years or so? What’s our experience of that going to be, both in the outer world but also for us internally, how are we going to experience that, do you think?

I’m fascinated by this question. I don’t think there’s any clear direction. I think we can maybe predict that there are certain pathways. One thing we know, as I said earlier, is that people do have a remarkable capacity to put on one side and to compartmentalise things they don’t really want to deal with. I think we have to recognise that this skill is deeper than we recognise.

Those of us who work on climate change really like to believe that there is some revelatory moment, when the lights go on in people’s heads. Some point when they read something or hear something or some major storm hits and they go “aha, yes, now I get it!” For some people there is. I think we should really be encouraging people to have that kind of moment. But I also think it’s pretty clear that people can keep that at bay for a very long time. I fear that for some people, that might be so long until they realise what’s going on that they get into a very different state.

All of these are going to be fighting themselves out by the way, it’s not as if everybody follows one pathway. Different people are going to respond in different ways. There’s clearly going to be one direction in which people just do not accept it. Not that they deny it.


I will say that there are people who right to the very end will deny stuff, but I think there’s a more dangerous form which is that people, as the psychotherapists call it, ‘disavow’: they know it but they don’t know it, they keep it on one side. I think we can therefore expect a continuation of what in COIN we’ve been calling ‘climate silence’, this condition of socially constructed silence where we don’t talk about it and that people roll their eyes and go “oh, here we go again”, “this is so depressing”, and so on.

There are other forms of response where people, as a way of avoiding it, go deeper and deeper into avoidance processes.  I’m afraid, and I’m inclined to predict this, that there will be a tendency in the short term for people maybe to go deeper into consumption, to go deeper into short term pleasure activities, to have a bit of that ‘live for today because you never know you might get hit by a bus’ kind of attitude.

I anticipate that there will be an ever growing and ever more vocal group of people who say “no, wake up”. But I don’t think that there will be any real change on climate change without a very strong and vocal popular movement and I’m reassured to see that that’s starting to pick up weight, I think that that can grow.

There is evidence that social change can happen extremely rapidly. We’ve just seen what’s happened in Ukraine for example, there’s stuff flashing up all around the world. This is clearly a time of major political tectonic shifts. We’ve seen over the last few years that there has been change coming from popular movements on a scale which has been quite exceptional, so I’m feeling reasonably optimistic.

But there are other paths too where people accept that there is a problem but go into aberrant coping mechanisms. One form of that is to actually seek to give power to people to make decisions on their behalf, and this is well supported historically. We can always fear that people will respond in the worst possible way. Unfortunately it may be very well versed people who have said for years “we don’t want the government to interfere in our lives” but can just very readily switch over to going to a war mode and giving a great deal of power to governments to take control.

There are other aberrant forms whereby people don’t deal with the problem at all but they process their sense of anxiety in other ways, for example through conflict, through warfare, through scapegoating, through turning inwards.

All of these patterns have been mapped out for us by the way that we’ve responded in the past to collective and personal conflicts. It’s our responsibility as social change activists, as I think we are, to look at and anticipate those and to really try and make sure that we steer this whole thing in a direction towards positive coping mechanisms where we recognise and we face up to things and we deal with them; but we also anticipate that we might go slipping off in any number of aberrant directions because climate change in the end is not one of those problems like North Korea where you can say “all we have to do is pull together and fight this thing”. We are all participants in it. We cannot objectify what goes on, we have to find a way of pulling together.

I will say in answer to that that therefore the solutions always lie in ways of talking, ways to behave that would involve pulling people together. Drawing people together rather than pulling people apart, which is I think something we need to be very careful with in climate change movements, that we always seek to try and build those movements across boundaries rather than on the basis of it being us versus you.

And just to say there’s also the wild cards. The thing we don’t know is what is actually going to happen with the climate. We really don’t know, and having spoken to a lot of the climate scientists on this, as you have, the overwhelming feeling is that they don’t really know what’s going to happen as the North Pole goes and that huge reflective ice mirror disappears. We don’t know. Some of what’s happened over this last winter really has people scratching their heads. They can see how it’s acting out but it’s not really how they thought that things would work.

So we have got the uncertainty on this that things might move extremely fast. I still remain optimistic that this problem is hitting us at a time when we are exceptionally well connected, well informed, well educated, when there is an exceptional level of international co-operation. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying it’s exceptional. We don’t have a Cold War which is running at the moment. Despite all of these national snipings, we do seem to have the capacity, more than any time in the past, to pull together. So I guess I’m reasonably optimistic that things might turn out alright. But we’re going to have to push it and prod it. 

George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change is published in September.