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Cracking the Climate Change Brain Barrier

Media Psychologist Explains How Emotion, Not Data, Is the Key to Action

Augmented reality is a powerful visual tool that instantly communicates the dangers of climate change to the public, argues Dr. Garry Hare. This image shows a simulation of East Boston swallowed by sea-level rise.
Courtesy Photo

Climate change may occasionally rear its head in very obvious ways  ​— ​ hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather events  ​— ​ but mostly it arrives in increments so small they’re easy to miss. In fact, we humans are programmed to ignore such diffused, drawn-out processes, especially if we don’t think they affect us personally. That’s a dangerous dynamic, though, as willful ignorance and delayed action pushes the planet further into permanent disrepair.

Media and political psychologists like Dr. Garry Hare, a Fielding Graduate University faculty member, are studying how to adapt public communications to keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds, even as their minds are pushing back. He’s currently writing an article, called “Data Doesn’t Cry ​ ​— ​ ​and Seldom Causes Others to Do So,” on why climate data seldom leads to climate action. He spoke to the Independent from his home in Goleta.

Why is this issue so hard to wrap our heads around? When we look at ourselves as a society, we’re pretty good at addressing short-term crises. For instance, I got evacuated during the Holiday Fire, and the fire department was on top of that in about 10 minutes. It was truly amazing. And in Montecito, first responders and the community responded in a way that was extraordinarily admirable. But those are short-term things. Long-term problems are different. The brain is hardwired for easier stuff that doesn’t require too much thinking. It’s more reactive, and as human beings we try to avoid as much of the hard stuff as we can, because it’s work.

If you look at the federal climate study that came out recently, it was hundreds and hundreds of pages of charts and tables and graphs and the best thinking of climate scientists, governmental organizations, and academic institutions. They all pointed in the same direction. They all said we have to wean ourselves off of carbon, post-haste, and we should have started 20 years ago. It’s such dense information and so overwhelming that it’s paralyzing.

How do you break through that paralysis? By triggering an emotional reaction. The idea is to simplify data to the point where you take a lot of the workload out of it. We can’t be subtle anymore.

But what’s more emotional than the end of the world? Well, it’s difficult because mostly what we’re looking at right now is small changes in climate. It’s a long-term problem that doesn’t lend itself to short-term solutions. Because I teach political psychology, I study what kinds of exposure to information and media is more likely to elicit a reaction, and visual memory is great short-term memory. Imagine one more platform off Santa Barbara, or somebody putting a [drilling] rig in Goleta. That kind of stuff.

How do you leverage a visual that doesn’t exist yet? I also work a lot in immersive media  ​— ​ augmented reality. For example, the Surfrider Foundation has done a great job over the last 20 years of uploading water test results to a database, but it just sits there. What if your smartphone was able to access that database and overlay data in real time? Before your child sticks their toe in the water, you could point your phone’s camera at a creek or beach and see if it’s polluted. Or what if you had an app that showed what it would look like on State Street or in your backyard if the ocean were to rise by 18 inches? That fundamentally changes the way that people see data. They’re not being asked to read a white paper on agricultural runoff hundreds of miles away. They’re seeing the impact in their own neighborhood, which makes it easier on the brain to understand.

Okay, once you trigger a reaction, then what? When we make it clear what the public can do today, they do a pretty darn good job, from recycling to installing LEDs to putting solar panels on their house. Maybe even buying a hybrid or an electric vehicle. We say, “Here are some options if you can afford them, and if you can’t afford them, perhaps we subsidize them.” The public gets behind that. We don’t see a whole bunch of people hanging signs saying “I refuse to recycle” or anything like that.

Why, then, doesn’t individual action necessarily translate to public policy? I don’t think most of our elected officials, regardless of the political spectrum they’re on, are truly stupid. A few are, but many others are paid to be willfully ignorant. There’s a whole lot of money in the fossil-fuel industry.

Are there any long-term problems we’ve actually been good at solving? I’m old enough to remember when you could stand in Los Angeles and not see the mountains because the air quality was so bad. We’ve been extraordinarily successful, when you think about it, in terms of emissions control and cleaning air in some of our urban centers over the last 25 years. Now if you go into the Central Valley, that’s not true. The air quality is terrible, and the health rates are awful. But that’s not a scientific question at all. It’s a political issue ​ ​— ​ ​we don’t care as much about farmworkers as we do folks who live in Santa Monica. The other equally interesting long-term problem right now is water.

Have you seen any smart media strategies reminding people to conserve water? I used to live in Marin County, and one of its newspapers, the Marin Independent Journal, put a graph on the front page that linked water rates to the reservoir capacity. So if the reservoir capacity dropped down to say 20 percent, then the rates would start to go up. And so on. That visual information was right in front of everybody every day. And eventually, it started to change behavior.

We’ve talked about visual cues, but what about language? What’s the best way for print media to cover this heady topic? It was unfortunate that for the first 10 years of us looking at this as an issue, people were calling it “global warming.” It all came home to roost when that senator held a snowball up in the senate chambers to prove that the earth wasn’t getting warmer. So the other side got smart, and NOAA and others started calling it what it is, which is really uncontrollable swings in the climate.

Now, one of the things that I would do if I were in the local media is to really invite readers’ responses as to what they would propose as solutions. You pick the top three or five and discuss them. Basically, be kind of a public involvement policy arm. You need folks to say, “Listen, here are our top priorities in Santa Barbara,” whether it’s banning Styrofoam or plastic bags, or building more bike lanes. Because in the big scheme of things, those little changes are good to make. It’s good exercise. Because if we succeed in two or three of them, we’re more likely to roll up our sleeves and tackle the bigger ones. We start to believe in ourselves more when we can do that.

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