Clear thinking on climate
How can we have clear thinking on climate change?
I’d like to take a helicopter view of the debate and get some perspective back about how we can move forward. How we can bring out the best in people with diverse views?
As an expert in decision psychology, I can see that people are unable to think clearly and make decisions on climate change. There are several reasons for this:
- The science is able to be manipulated to support different views. Both sides can wheel out selected stats which appear to support whatever they want to say.
- Media, and other influential corporations, have a vested interest. Many prominent media companies hold conservative views which filter down to their coverage of climate change.
- The advocacy problem. Advocacy is often a useful way to tackle problems, i.e. to have different sides argue their case. However it has many drawbacks, not least people tend to dig their heels in and fail to embrace any of the opposition’s views. This is where we should use a mode of “collective inquiry” where we look to solve the problems together. We establish what are facts vs assumptions and unknowns, and then move to solutions. In the case of climate change, the different views of the debate have more or less clustered into 2 groups which label each other as believers or alarmists on one hand, and deniers or skeptics on the other. Whilst we have these 2 polar opposites, each holding roughly equal access to media and political influence, it will be almost impossible to tackle climate change.
In order to tackle these issues, I suggest a series of better ways of thinking about the challenges.
The tragedy of the commons
A false argument often used is, “why would we act, when we are less than 1% of the problem and no-one else is acting”. This argument is self defeating, but carries a lot of political success. It is based on the tragedy of the commons, where in many situations where everyone has access to a resource, but there are no rules or regulations, it is in everyone’s own self-interest to keep wearing out this resource until none is left. Even when there is just one tree left in the forest, it is still in the interest of a single lumberjack to cut it down, in fact he or she will probably get an amazing price for it. And if they don’t cut it down the next person will. And it’s too late to save the forest now.
Jared Diamond wrote about this in reference to Easter Island where they did exactly this with their trees, they cut down every last one, and then the whole population dies as a result.
The way around this problem is to focus on the necessity for someone to take leadership and solve the problem at their local level, setting an example to others. Even a country like Australia taking a lead could make a big difference to other countries’ actions.
On being wrong
Kathryn Schulz gives an amazing TED talk called On Being Wrong. It is particularly pertinent to the polar opposites in climate change debates who would rather go to hell in a handbasket than admit a single iota of anything they’ve ever uttered might be wrong. Sorry everyone, it doesn’t work like that, we’re wrong all the time, it’s a massively important part of being human. If we could never be wrong, then we’d never get anywhere.
One way to bring bickering groups together is to focus on small wins – identify the common ground piece by piece, building up consensus slowly, instead of doing what we often do and focusing on the differences.
Another way to avoid clashing ideologies is to use Edward de Bono’s thinking hats approach which removes us from advocating our positions and undermining our opponents – and it takes us towards using different approaches to the problem together, at the same time. No more just waiting for your opponent to finish so you can say your piece or belittle their idea. We solve problems together.
One thing you need to be aware of though – trying to persuade someone to change their opinion is almost impossible – a recent study showed that the brain is appalling at understanding statistics which don’t support its current view of the world. Makes for depressing reading here – but we need to understand the size of the psychological problem of changing minds, and admitting we’re wrong.
Understanding vested interests and biases
One of the thing that worries many people is the idea that people who work for oil companies might be secretly funding people who advocate doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. I have seen evidence that this does happen, and to be fair it would be surprising if it wasn’t. So how do we spot it?
First, I think we need open disclosure of the vested interests of people who comment in public or who lobby in private. We should be constantly looking at what people stand to gain and why they are making the points they do.
Second, I think it is important to understand that the weight of evidence accorded to people who have self interest should be different to the weight of evidence from people who are more impartial e.g. independently funded scientists. Sorry, but a member of the Business Council or Mining Council doesn’t get the same weight as a Climatology Expert when it comes to the science.
We all need to recognise our own biases too. There are certain groups who we trust everything they say, and other groups who we don’t believe a word of what they say – this implies we have a bias before they even open their mouths – and that’s not going to get us to solving the climate challenge.
If we’re going to get it wrong, in which direction should we go?
George Monbiot makes a clear and compelling point in his book Heat.
Say we act on climate change, but it turns out the problem wasn’t as bad as we anticipated. We will have spent a lot of money. But we will still be here, and we’ll probably have cleaner air, a more reliable mix of energy, cleaner oceans, more forests and wildlife, ability to support a larger population on the same resources. Let’s call this a false positive.
What about the opposite? We sit here and do nothing and it turns out that climate change creates real issues. Food and water become scarce. Wars are fought. Drinking water is polluted. Air is hard to breathe and asthma rates skyrocket. No fish to eat. Let’s call that the false negative.
Underlying this is the fact that climate change is bundled up with a whole other range of issues about how we treat our environment. Anyone who has lived in a large Asian city and seen the pollution must be sensitive to the idea that not only do we want to avoid climate change, but it would be nice to still see blue sky, hear birds and swim in the ocean in 50 years too.
Let’s get rid of the vested interests, get consensus through small wins, be open to being wrong, solve problems with collective inquiry and scenario plan for getting it completely wrong anyway.
Many of these are thinking techniques I use to train decision-making, it would be brilliant to see some of them get used on such a tough divisive issue as climate change.
Please share this article if you like it, let’s see if we can build some clarity amongst the spin and smoke!
Written by Rob Pyne.