How can insights from social scientists and cognitive researchers inform climate communication?

GARRISON, N.Y. — A growing number of scholars has been arguing that the greatest impediment to action on climate change is not Big Oil, the Tea Party, libertarian/conservative think tanks, or climate skeptics. Rather, they say, it is the human brain.

Simply put, the argument goes, evolution has hardwired us to respond to immediate dangers (think tigers and bears), not slow-moving, hard to grasp threats like melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

As one UK-based researcher explains, psychological research shows that most people “don’t feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract, and difficult to visualize.”

Additionally, for most of us, more pressing concerns grab our attention, like car payments, school loans, an ailing child, and health insurance. Those crowd-out space for future threats. Cognitive scientists have referred here to the “finite pool of worry.” In other words, our brains can handle only so many problems at a time.

So how exactly can insights from social scientists and evolutionary psychologists help move the ball on climate change? Making sense of this convergence has been the mission of a multidisciplinary initiative called the “Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project (CMB).” The Garrison Institute in New York is the seat of the Project. Its objective is to apply emerging research on human behavior to climate solutions, and come up with new approaches. (Not a bad idea, given the paralyzed and increasingly rancorous state of affairs on the climate front.) Since 2010, the Institute each year has hosted a symposium bringing together a mix of cognitive researchers, policy wonks, communication experts, climate activists, and environmental writers.

Along with other journalists, I attended last year’s event and wrote up an overview of a number of the sessions. As Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times noted in her coverage of the 2011 symposium, the larger goal of the annual CMB gatherings “is to discuss ways of effecting wholesale changes in people’s energy consumption to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and help stave off climate change.”

This year’s conference has continued with that aim, but with a bigger-picture view of climate communication and outreach. A number of speakers recommended pursuing efforts to broaden the audience for environmental issues, particularly climate change. For example, George Marshall, director of the UK’s Climate Outreach and Information Network noted that “major constituencies have been absent from the climate change discussion.”

Similarly, Mary Evelyn Tucker, who oversees the Yale Forum on Ecology and Religion, said in her plenary session that scientists should strive to engage with religious faiths, many of which have expressed strong concern about climate change, she noted. Tucker also pointed out that “religions are drivers of behavior and values,” underscoring the need for faith communities (see Yale Forum articles here and here) to be taken into account by social scientists and climate communicators.

Others, such as Paul Hawken, emphasized the importance of cities as a uniting force in the larger quest for sustainability. Urban centers, he said, “can be the seedbed of innovation and action.”

A seedbed is also a good way to describe the work of the Climate, Mind, and Behavior Project. Its annual eclectic gatherings infuse a wave of fresh ideas and optimism into a normally stale and unproductive conversation. More on this year’s symposium in an upcoming post.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.