Motivational conversations on climate change and climate action (More thoughts on denialism)

Note: After receiving several insightful comments on my previous blog  [0]  and I had some more time to reflect, I have written the blog below.

The climate crisis and the implication of massive changes of our lifestyle means that a climate activist will often encounter opposing opinions, when discussing climate science, climate goals, and required climate action. Therefore, I would like to discuss some personal experiences, obtained advice, and some more theoretical models, which also relate to so-called denialism, to make such conversations more constructive on both sides.

1. Elements of a motivational conversation on climate change and climate action

First, I want to be frank that a climate activist has certain cognitive beliefs about climate change, climate goals, and required climate action, which he/she wants to share and also convince others to adopt. Therefore, the conversation which a climate activist will have with others will always be a motivational (“evangelizing”) conversation to a varying degree.  However, openness to new facts and alternative sets of values are still crucial for any climate activists, to avoid ending up as a ignorant and arrogant climate fanatic.

It is helpful to break down the elements of a motivational conversation on climate change and climate action from the view of an climate activist. These elements can be put into two categories, which can be described as scientific or normative:

  1. Scientific:
    1. Planet Earth has a global climate.
    2. Global climate is getting warmer.
    3. Human actions are the major cause of global warming, esp. carbon dioxide emission from use of fossil fuels.
    4. The consequences of continuous global warming are likely to be very negative.
    5. Humans can (still) mitigate causes and consequences of global warming.
    6. Humans will have to perform major changes to their way of living to limit global warming to a non-catastrophic level.
    7. Humans will have to start changing their way of living now to limit global warming to a non-catastrophic level.
  2. Normative:
    1. Humans should limit global warming.
    2. Humans should start acting  now.
    3. An individual (You!) should contribute to limiting global warming.
    4. An individual (You!) should start acting now.

This distinction is very important because scientific elements are cognitive beliefs which are based on a shared reality and, therefore, rational individuals should be able to reach a consensus within the given level of uncertainty. However, normative elements are not based on science but on personal preferences and decisions based on one’s philosophy, how to live one’s life. To put it bluntly, it is one’s own decision “to not give a damn”, and no science in the world can provide a “moral proof” that one is wrong.

In the following I would like to explore models to explain why such conversations may not result in a consensus (based on the assumption that the climate activist is right 😉

2. A cognitive perspective

Failure to reach a consensus in a motivating conversation may be caused by misunderstandings in  sending and receiving of information on different levels, which the following communication model may help to resolve.

2.1 Problem

First,  a simple theory of communication called the Four-sides Model by Schultz von Thun [1] states that there are four sides of a message:

  1. fact
  2. self-revealing
  3. relationship
  4. appeal.

Any message contains all four aspects, and the sender and receiver decides to “tune in” one or more of these layers of the “signalled” message. This model can be helpful to analyze sequences of any communication, especially, if there is a feeling of misunderstanding or some dysfunctional dynamics. In the context of the climate crisis, one can imagine the following example:

Sender: “Flying has a severe negative impact on global warming.”

Receiver: “Stop being so condescending! Don’t tell me what to do!”

Here, the sender shares a piece of information (fact level), which is perceived by the receiver as if the sender is putting himself in a morally superior position (relationship level) and appeals to the receiver to stop flying (appeal level). Since defending one’s individual positive self-image and freedom are very basic human needs, such a communication is very likely to become dysfunctional.

Common indicators of a dysfunctional conversation, are the use of the following rhetoric strategies to avoid following the logic of arguments (ie central route to persuasion) or adopt an opinion based on the social status of the speaker (ie peripheral route of persuasion). Hereby, the logic of arguments is actively manipulated in the denialists favour by reductio ad absurdum [5], ie extrapolating the arguments of the speaker to a degree which makes the argument easy to reject. For example, “If there was global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions, why have we not all gone up in flames?” (fact level). Alternatively, the status of the speaker is actively manipulated in a negative way to weaken the likelihood that his argument is actually correct or to make it more unattractive for somebody to be socially associated with the speaker. For example, “He is a looser! She is ugly! He is stuttering!”, “He is still using a fossil-fuel car!”, “He has used a plastic cup!”, “He has some vested interest!”, “He is an protester actor payed by the climate change industry!” (relationship level).

2.2 Potential Solutions

First, I would recommend to establish a connection with the conversation partner and demonstrate that one respects and appreciates thoughts and feelings, maybe on an uncontroversial topic, e.g. weather, sports, family (relationship level). Second, I would adjust my factual arguments or examples to the background of the person (fact level). Third, I would talk about my own beliefs and actions I have taken (self-revealing level). Fourth, I would ask what the person thinks about climate change and what actions the person may already have taken, and starting from there, explore what aspects he/she is interested to learn more about (appeal level).

In addition, I would dose one’s (diverting) opinions in a modest form, which allows the conversation partner to adapt new knowledge (cognitively and emotionally), and allows oneself to stay within the partner’s social peer group, which maximizes the impact of one’s statements and allows one to repeat and explain them later again. It can  also be helpful to crack the conversation up a bit with a joke, if things are getting to tense, or steer the conversation back towards an uncontroversial topic again.

To reduce the potential of  conflict one can avoid facts because they limit the personal freedom of the other person and increase the risk of potentially losing “face”. Alternatively, on can focus on feelings and emotions. In addition, one can avoid talking about the other person, because it puts pressure on the other person (“putting the person on the spot”), especially in a social situation when other people are participating. Alternatively, one can focus on oneself, and one’s (subjective) thoughts,  worries, or feelings of guilt.

Finally, in my opinion, however, independent of how artful one is guiding a conversation, it comes down to the hard numbers of science and the need for humankind to change its way of living.

Warning! I think that that as climate activist there is a risk of dropping the burden of one’s own worries and responsibility for acting on another person, which is – quite understandably –  often not received well.

3. A psychoanalytic perspective

However, even when cognitive issues in communication are resolved, a consensus may not be able to reach for psychoanalytic reasons.

3.1 Problem

Asking for major changes in one’s lifestyle can disturbe the psychodynamic balance of a person, ie the interplay between the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the disorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives. The ego acts according to the reality principle; i.e., it seeks to please the id’s drive in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term rather than bring grief. The super-ego reflects the internalization of cultural rules, mainly taught by parents applying their guidance and influence [3].

The great challenge the climate crisis is posing onto an individual is now, that the ego has now the burden to integrate the needs of the id (eg have fun on a beach in Thailand) and the cultural rules of the super-ego (eg be a good boy/girl, have an (international) career, fly to visit one’s sick parents in Australia) with the harsh realities of climate change and required climate action. If the ego has to prevent the id from satisfying its drives (eg not flying to Thailand to have fun on the beach), or breaking the learned rules of the super-ego (e.g. not flying to Australia to visit one’s severely ill parents), the individual may experience severe distress by missing pleasure or feelings of guilt.

Here, psychoanalysis proposes that this conflict can now be solved in a mature/functional way by rational choices by the ego integrating id, superego and reality. However, the ego can also fail to integrate and can now try to solve the conflict in immature, dysfunctional way using defense mechanisms, one of which is denial. According to psychoanalytic theory [3]:

Denial … is used for a psychological defense mechanism postulated by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.

Similarly, scientific denialism is defined as [4]:

Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.

3.2 Potential solutions

First, regarding the scientific (cognitive) elements of a climate discussion, the resistance can be overcome by showing clear evidence by persons or organizations with high social status. This evidence may overcome the denial of the person, but may not help to reduce the conscious or subconscious experienced distress. Therefore, one should also provide strategies for the person to handle the distress by providing positive evidence and alternatives for action.

Second, regarding the normative (emotional) elements of a climate discussion, the resistance can be overcome by showing support for the other human being (ie respect, solidarity, love, empathy, what ever you call it), to allow the individual to overcome its distress. In my opinion, the reason is that many negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are tightly connected to the perspective, that an individual is limited in time (ie birth to death) and space (ie my body) and the need to satisfy one’s needs from limited resources, for which the individual is competing with others. However, by offering support these barriers can be lowered (maybe even removed) and the experienced distress reduced, so the defense mechanism are not required anymore to protect the well-being of the person. New information may then be integrated and new energy to actually change one’s behavior maybe released (instead of being used to ward off anxiety or control anger). In addition, lowering the barriers of the individual may allow it also to experience joy by sharing its resources with other (present or future) human or living beings.

4. A normative perspective

Even after agreeing on the scientific aspects in a conversation,  no consensus on the implications for an individual’s actions may be reached.

4.1 Problem

According to the model of moral development by Kohlberg [2], humans can be assigned to a typical way (stage) of moral reasoning:

  1. Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
    1. #1 Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
    2. #2 Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)
  2. Level 2 (Conventional)
    1. #3 Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms, The good boy/girl attitude)
    2. #4 Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
  3. Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
    1. #5 Social contract orientation (greatest good for the greatest number of people, majority vote)
    2. #6 Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)

In addition, I would  like to argue that depending on the social context (personal, private, public), a person can argue  on different stages of morality. For example, one may make decisions based on self-interest (ie “to want more money and power”) in a private situation, but rationalize the decisions on a “higher” (more socially acceptable) moral stage (ie “to want more responsibility”, “to implement one’s own ideas for the benefit of the public”) in a public setting.

In the context of climate discussions, the necessity of climate action can in most social systems only be derived from arguing from a post-conventional level of morality, which confronts many people with their genuine self-interest. Therefore, demanding climate action means to argue on a post-conventional moral stage which may be perceived as condescending and may even perceived as an act of aggression by “ripping of the mask” of previous socially acceptable, if not desirable, decisions (ie long-distance traveling) as socially unacceptable, shining a bad light on the person. This may be especially risky, if there is a (silent) consensus in society that pre-conventional behaviour, ie  self-interest, is acceptable (“Everyone does it! Why are you picking on me?”).

3.2 Potential solutions

My personal suggestion would be to adapt to the moral stage of development of the person, and adapt one’s arguments to the respective moral stage, for example:

  1. “You may be punished by future generations for your behavior, e.g. by cutting your pension.”
  2. “You may be rewarded by future generations for your behavior, e.g. by support from your kids.”
  3. “People will look down on you for your behavior or shame you (cf flight shame).”
  4. “Global organizations, like the United Nations, have clearly warned about climate change and recommend urgent action.”
  5. “All future generations will depend on the behavior of the current generation.”
  6. “The balance of the biosphere has to be maintained.”

However, at present in many societies moral stages 1 to 4 do not state that individuals should take climate action. For example, social norms still support behavior associated with high emissions, e.g. large car, long-distance travels, by awarding higher social status. Therefore, one has to argue from a post-conventional moral stage to convince individuals, who cannot relate to the value of such arguments. In my opinion, one has to work “backwards” so post-conventional moral ideas are implemented in society in such a way that individuals arguing on stages 1 to 4, have sufficient incentives to change their behavior.