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This article is cross-posted (with permission) from Desmog Canada. Rolly Montpellier ~ BoomerWarrior Managing Editor).

Moving the Needle on Climate Action

Summer of 2015 - Moving the Needle on Climate Action, boomer warrior
B.C. Wildfire In Oliver (Aug. 15, 2015), Brian Webb,

Smokey haze, intense heat, encampments of evacuated residents next to the highway: these were the conditions that greeted Renee Lertzman when she recently drove through Oregon. It’s no wonder why the environmental psychology researcher and professor resorts to the term “apocalyptic” to describe the scene.

It was a surreal experience,” says Lertzman, who teaches at the University of San Francisco and Victoria’s Royal Roads University. “We’re all driving along and it’s so smoky and it’s terrifying. Yet we’re all doing our summer vacation thing. I couldn’t help but wonder: what is going on, how are people feeling and talking about this?”

It’s really the question of the hour. Catastrophic wildfires and droughts have engulfed much of the continent, with thousands displaced from their homes; air quality alerts confine many of the lucky remainder behind locked doors (with exercise minimized and fresh-air intakes closed).

Firefighters have been summoned from around the world to battle the unprecedented fires, which are undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change. Yet the seemingly reasonable assumption that witnessing such horrific natural disasters may increase support for action on climate change is vastly overestimated, Lertzman tells DeSmog Canada.

I think it’s a fantasy that the worse things get and the more intense the effects are … that will magically translate into a public and political recognition and engagement and getting on board,” she says. “There’s an abundance of evidence that’s not the case and that humans have enormous capacity to avoid and deny reality and what’s staring us right in the face.”

34 ‘Dragons of Inaction’ Impede Climate Action

Summer of 2015 - Moving the Needle on Climate Action, boomer warrior

Humans’ tendency toward denial and avoidance is incredibly complex and entrenched.

Robert Gifford, professor of psychology and environmental studies at University of Victoria, has charted 34 (previously 29) ‘dragons of inaction,’ which prevent people from responding to evidence of climate change, ranging from a naive belief in “technosalvation,” to lack of attachment to geographic place, to straight-up denial.

While often tangled and deeply rooted, Gifford optimistically concluded a 2011 paper for American Psychologist with the statement: “The dragons of inaction can be beaten back, if not slain.”

In an interview with DeSmog Canada, Gifford says he experienced an epiphanic moment about climate change while gazing out at Victoria’s inner harbour and noticing a brown pelican, a bird uncommon in the region. Recent events, such as limbs dropping from Garry oak trees due to drought conditions, may serve as “the brown pelican moment for a lot of people in Victoria,” he says.

But it’s a very delicate situation. If large environmental organizations resort to overkill in responding to such conditions (as they have in the past, Gifford says), such efforts may alienate supporters instead of confronting the aforementioned dragons.

Going back to the old anti-smoking literature, fear messages can go too far,” he says. “Not that they’re always wrong but if you show pictures of people who are on their death bed, people just block it out. You have to get people concerned, but can’t go too far. And you especially can’t give wrong information: not only does it not work, but it gives fodder to the bad guys.”

Moving Beyond Paralysis

It’s an issue many environmental psychologists are concerned about. Lertzman contends that plenty of people care deeply about climate change but are often paralyzed by the sheer enormity of the issue.

Visual representations of Alberta’s oilsands are frequently juxtaposed with images of devastating fires and floods, a combination that fails to acknowledge the “lived experienced or texture in our lives related to carbon and fossil fuels and coal” and creates a “huge vacuum where people can get mired and really stuck.”

Much of the issue returns to perceptions about the potential for individual and communal impact to help adapt and mitigate climate change (a concept broadly known as the internal locus of control).

Gifford stresses that empowerment messages are far more successful than calls for sacrifice. Lertzman echoes that sentiment, pointing to three ‘As’ that anchor responses to situations like the summer of 2015 — anxiety, ambivalence and aspiration — and that many environmental efforts can miss the mark if they fail to recognize the emotional significance of each.

She suggests it’s very important “to lead with that really human response: I’m really scared or I’m feeling really sad or confused or overwhelmed. The more we name and acknowledge that, the more it really does help us leverage the burning platform — an awful phrase given the situation — to leverage the crises that are merging and are only going to continue.”

It’ll also take a lot of compassion, she says, beginning with compassion for ourselves: most North Americans live very carbon-intensive lives. This fact is further convoluted by the “dragons” — Gifford points to two in particular as plaguing energy-producing provinces like Alberta: sunk costs (if you work or hold investments in the oilsands, you’re more likely to rationalize it) and system justification (if things are working, don’t rock the boat). Yet both are optimistic that encounters with wildfires and droughts — whether in person or via the media — can help move the needle on climate change action, if communicated correctly.

There’s real opportunity there because it can force us to really think creatively and critically about how we live and how we want to live and what kind of future we want to have,” Lertzman concludes.

This article By James Wilt is cross-posted (with permission) from Desmog Canada.

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Rolly Montpellier is the Founder and Managing Editor of BoomerWarrior.Org. He’s a Climate Activist, a blogger and Climate Reality leader. Rolly has been published widely – Toronto Star, The Hill Times, Kingston Whig, the PEN, UnpublishedOttawa, Climate Change Guide, Examiner, The Canadian, 350Ottawa, ClimateMama, MyEarth360, GreenDivas, The Elephant, Countercurrents, County Weekly News.

He’s a member of 350.Org (Ottawa), Citizens’ Climate Lobby (Ottawa) and Climate Reality Canada. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and Linkedin.

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  1. OK let me really try to zero in on this issue this time and get it right.
    To quote:
    “She suggests it’s very important “to lead with that really human response: I’m really scared or I’m feeling really sad or confused or overwhelmed. The more we name and acknowledge that, the more it really does help us leverage the burning platform — an awful phrase given the situation — to leverage the crises that are merging and are only going to continue.”

    This is the right track, something like this helps in getting it right on how to communicate climate change. It’s not all of it, but is an integral part.

    OK and then there’s this from the article, “fear messages can go too far”. Yeah they can if you don’t use the approach mentioned in the paragraph above, you gotta make it personal, you gotta have the compassion AND the passion both when delivering the fear message. If you have those, then there is no limit to how effective fear messages can be. But will it hit the mark every time with all types of people? No, it’ll miss a lot. But it will hit more than we are hitting now with the half baked ideas about communication floating around currently.

    In other words, I am saying that we have not gone far enough with fear messages. they are our best tool if done right. Another part of the process not mentioned here is the amount of fear messages, you gotta have them going 24 hours a day. You gotta have the president of having daily talks to the public about the grave danger we are in. You literally gotta have town sirens going off at least an hour a day to remind people we are in grave danger. You gotta never let up on it, you gotta repeat it and prove it over and over again without creasing and do all that with compassion. It’s gotta dominate the airways, the internet, the newspapers, the classrooms, the church pulpits every freaking where. See, if this thing don’t get emotional, then it ain’t gonna go anywhere. It is just the opposite of what many communicators think these days, we got it backwards.

    They do these surveys and find that people shut out bad news. Well duh, that’s nothing new. But just because they shut it out when confronted occasionally, doesn’t mean that they’ll shut it out if they are confronted constantly. Sooner or later people will break down, especially if it is coming from the powers that be. Would it go perfect, hell no. A lotta people would probably commit suicide, but as a collective we are doing that already anyway. But it might work enough on enough people to possibly make a difference. See, a little of fear messaging backfires, but a huge amount of it breaks minds.

    However, even this approach will likely not work, but it is really all we have left. We will start the shouting at some point, our governments will finally get on a panic and start the loud speakers going on the streets. It’s a natural process that will take place, eventually panic takes over and butts start moving. I’m saying we could possibly avoid that delay of action by communication alone, but it would take a massive campaign effort of which we are not even close to yet. Sad to say, NGO’s and other communicators are relying on rational and poised thought, they ain’t gonna get it, and if we keep waiting for it we’re gonna die. So, shout, shout, shout.


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