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Why talking about Climate Change doesn’t work

November 9th, 2007

The other day The Times and The Independent ran front cover headlines featuring the UN’s latest report about the state of the planet, but other papers seemed to ignore it. The magnitude of what we face is of course very hard to confront, and I was interested to read a perceptive analysis of why so many people simply don’t confront it at all in The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change by George Marshall. Here is an excerpt:

denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end they dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy it is not working.

Opinion polls reveal a high level of awareness with virtually no signs of any change in behaviour. Indeed there are plentiful signs of reactive denial in the demands for cheaper fuel and more energy.

A second conclusion is that the lack of visible public response is part of the self-justifying loop that creates the passive bystander effect. ‘Surely’, people reason, ‘if it really is that serious, someone would be doing something.’ The Herald article failed to inspire me to activity because I saw no evidence that anyone in wider society was paying any attention. Thirteen years later, we have vastly greater information with scarcely any more public action. The bystander loop has only tightened.

People will never spontaneously take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient numbers of people demand a response. To avert further climate change will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilisation across all classes and sectors of society.

For all these reasons, the creation of a large and vocal movement against climate change must be an immediate and overarching campaign objective. People will not accept the reality of the problem unless they see that others are engaging in activities that reflect its seriousness. This means they need to be confronted by emotionally charged activities; debate, protest, and meaningful, visible alternatives. Simply asking people to change their lightbulbs, plant a tree, or send in a donation, however desirable in themselves, will not build a social movement. These activities alone, although valuable, will persuade few.

Anyone concerned about this issue faces a unique historical opportunity to break the cycle of denial, and join the handful of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders. The last century was marked by self-deception and mass denial. There is no need for the 21st Century to follow suit.

George Marshall works with Risingtide, a recently formed network encouraging local action against climate change.
For more information on Rising Tide visit