Climate Change and the Case for Skipping to the Solutions
There is a growing body of literature suggesting that, as an approach to social change in the face of great environmental challenges, that we go “straight to the solution”, as opposed to always living up to the democratic ideal of progress by
and through the participation of the masses in the formulation of solutions to our collective challenges. This democratic ideal says that democratic solutions should derive from democratic civic participation that is grounded in civic knowledge.1Here, civic knowledge is a particular challenge because environmental law and policy issues are very complex - you have an array of laws both statutory and judicial; you have an array of federal, state, and local agencies; you have complex environmental patterns that are impacted by human activities; you have the complexity of science. After all, here we are at Lewis & Clark Law School taking special courses in these matters so that we can be better prepared to address these issues in a variety of legal or other professional roles. Moreover, with climate change, not only is the situation complicated; it is upsetting. The science of the reality of climate change is upsetting. And so, the “straight to the solution” approach recognizes the psychological tendencies of human beings to deny, avoid, and shut down around things that seem overwhelming or stressful, such as our environmental problems.2 Lending further support to this solution is the urgency, the monumental consequentiality of our environmental challenges, which arguably necessitates skipping ahead perhaps without some of our most cherished national ideals in place. This blog post argues that we must take such an approach, moving forward with existing solutions, even as we continue to do the type of mass education and capacity building that would involve many more people in the continued development of further solutions to our environmental challenges. (That is, the masses: more than the five thousand usual suspects from industries and from civil society who dutifully comment in the Federal Register.)
“Fear Doesn’t Work” wrote Dr. Wendy Ring in a 2015 issue of the Annals of Global Health.
The first attempts by public health professionals and environmentalists to educate about climate and health were inspired by climate
communication research demonstrating the benefit of framing climate change as a health issue.
The central message deployed in response to this finding, which remains the dominant narrative, is a depressing litany of all the ways that climate change can make us sick. The intended purpose of these scare talks was to prove to nonbelievers that climate change is real and serious. This strategy was based on 3 erroneous assumptions: (1) people need to be convinced that climate change is real and serious; (2) fear motivates action; and (3) we all have to agree on the problem before we can agree on solutions.
“[W]e need to think critically about what kind of story we are telling”, Climate Xchange wrote in their report. “Are we telling a story of despair and so-called inevitability? Are we telling a story about negative emissions, feedback loops, tipping points, or other things most people don’t understand at all? Or are we telling a story of hope, possibility, and human agency?”
Indeed, climate communication is an area of increased attention and importance.
Concurreth the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 2015, the school hosted a panel on “Getting Through on Global Warming: How to Rewire Climate Change Communication”. “We need to stop trying to give science lessons,
and talk about the solutions. The sweet spot is on the solution side”, Susan Hassol, director of the nonprofit group Climate Communication, said at the panel.3A recent 2022 survey by the Yale Program of Climate Communication suggests the public no longer needs convincing that climate change is real, and that we should assume that those who want to protect nature are, in fact, the silent majority.4
There are several reasons to assume the best when we approach people in terms of their willingness to accept the reality of climate change. First, our approach may have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if we assume the worst of people instead of assuming the best of them when it comes to their willingness to take action to protect nature, we might be co-creating the outcome about which we complain through non-action, by giving up instead of taking a chance of the common connection with nature and the Earth that we ought to all share. (In other words, will all the people who hate the environment please raise their hand?… I’m still waiting…) While people’s naysaying attitudes on climate change may have the seeming unavoidability of a predetermined truth, they are
instead merely a true potential that we may avoid as long as we do not unwittingly bring about such an outcome through our assumptions, which are a form of affirmation.
What is more, there are recent examples in the United States of especially rapid and surprising changes in public opinion. Drezen Prelec, the Digital Equipment Corp. Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said in the MIT panel that sudden and unexpected shifts on issues such as same-sex marriage and cannabis “show that rapid changes are possible, even in the face of strong resistance from political leaders”. Indeed, there are lessons in social change to be learned from those shifts in public opinion: they were not institutionally driven, they were driven by people living their authentic lives as their authentic selves in the face of adversity and in contravention of social norms. Hearts and minds were changed as people came to know just one more person in their lives who was openly in a same-sex relationship or who openly benefitted from the use of cannabis. Perhaps we have more agency to create social change merely by living our daily lives than we sometimes perceive?
Too much focus, then, on the world we have as it stands today, on the paradigm the powers that be have established. Not enough focus on our collective successes
(even through the unlikely protagonist of government), whether on the
ozone layer or even on our belated transition to renewable energy. And not enough focus on the world we want. The world we would want if we could choose? Do we even know what that would be? Can we accept the victory of peace and reconciliation with Mother Nature? We have to claim the joy and victory of social change as if it has already occurred.
“Chris Mooney, an environmental reporter at the Washington Post, pointed out that rhetoric can quickly give way to action when people are confronted by serious impacts in their own backyards. For example, in Florida, four southern counties most affected by rising sea levels and storm surges are proceeding with serious countermeasures,” MIT reported in a summary of the forum. In these counties, for example, they are modifying their storm drainage systems to mitigate the impacts of climate change in terms of threats of flooding to people’s homes and businesses.
Professor Pat Parenteau said he thought there were some compelling reasons to take a “straight to the solutions” approach in his recent talk at Lewis & Clark Law School, “Now the Hard Part: Environmental Advocacy in the 21st Century”.5
The psychology of the problem and the psychology of the solution are not the same, even though to those of us who study the nuances of policy and law understand, the two are inextricably linked.
Numerous studies have documented that audiences generally reject fear appeals (or their close cousin, guilt appeals) as manipulative.
In order to get people to take action against risks, such as climate change, you can’t just scare them into action, you can’t just talk about the threat, you also have to talk about the ways in which their actions can make a difference in reducing that risk. Moreover, shaming people about the behaviors they engage in that contribute to the issue of climate change will never work to persuade them to change those behaviors, or more broadly, advocate for policy action on climate change at a wider scale. Shame triggers a defense mechanism in people, who will resort to justifications for their behavior and
exoneration from blame, rather than reflecting on the bigger picture of the issues.
Instead, be hopeful. There is a lot of fear, despair, and disillusionment in the climate change conversation, but hopelessness has never moved anyone to action. Hope on the other hand, is a powerful emotion, one that has the potential to transform fear into something productive, and one that can give us back agency and a plan of action to deal with this. Hope is one of the most powerful tools we have to move people to
take action. It is an emotion that can turn fear into something
productive, and mobilize us in the kinds of numbers we will need in order to tackle the challenges we currently face.
says the Climate Xchange.
But wait. Is this whole conversation a dreadful exercise in elitism at its worst? I somehow partially hate this even as I’m writing it. Oh, let us have the
experts figure it all out, because that worked out so well with the pandemic? Let the experts figure this out because we lack the time to do otherwise? Paternalistic much? Oh, the masses cannot be bothered with reality because they’re incapable
of responding properly? In other aspects of my professional life, I have gone so far as to say that there is no progressive public policy without the political participation of low-income people, that progressive public policy and political participation are one and the same; but now, I’m saying let’s skip straight to the solution devised by some kind of elites (as well-meaning as they might be).
Or is it really so black and white? Could we view our current predicament, really, instead, as an opportunity to take those first steps to bring the masses into the conversation, starting from where they are? People, first of all, have so many ways to adapt their lifestyles and consumption habits that would take massive pressure off of our rush to avoid the worst outcomes; and they also have opportunities to advocate for the adoption and implementation of collective solutions. Altogether, these are points of entry into a reiterative process where people’s voices in expanding solutions would be a natural outgrowth from their starting points of deliberate involvement in solutions that they did not personally develop. In the end, we must do both: we must move forward with promoting existing solutions that have been identified by experts, while also creating, through capacity building and education, more democratic participation in the creation of
more said solutions (the more, truly the merrier). Moving forward with one is not disregarding the value of the other; it is saying we cannot wait for the capacity building and education to be sufficient (however defined) to move forward with the solutions.
It’s okay. We should be okay with ourselves for taking the approach we have taken thus far. It was never unreasonable to want to proceed collectively from the problem to the solution. We just may not quite have that convenience available to us as an option at this juncture.
1 Dahl, Robert. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in the American City. New Haven: Yale University Press. (influence of local power elite on government in New Haven, Connecticut)
De Toqueville, Alexis. 1835. Democracy in America.
Preamble, Constitution of the United States of America.
Please see also: Almond, Gabriel, and Sidney Verba. 1963. The Civic Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (the importance of a culture of active citizen participation to the functioning of democratic institutions).
2 Climate Xchange. Year unknown. “Communicating the Climate Crisis.” https://climate-xchange.org/communicating-the-climate-crisis/
Ring, Wendy. 2015. “Inspire Hope, Not Fear: Communicating Effectively About Climate Change and Health”. Annals of Global Health. 81(3):410-415. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284913376_Inspire_Hope_Not_Fear_Co mmunicating_Effectively_About_Climate_Change_and_Health
3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April 02, 2015. Press Release: “Communicating climate change: Focus on solutions.”
4 Chiu, Alison. 2022, September 09. “People don’t really talk about climate change. Here’s how to start.” Washington Post newspaper.
5 Parenteau, Patrick. 2022, September 13. “Now the Hard Part: Environmental Advocacy in the 21st Century”. The 34th Annual Environmental Distinguished Visitor Event and Lecture.Lewis & Clark Law School.