Why Are We So Bad at Talking About Climate Change?

If an alien species wanted to destroy human civilization, the perfect plan would be slow enough to be ignored (but fast enough to get the job done within a few hundred years), and uncertain enough to play into our sense of unbridled optimism that it won’t be so bad. Climate change, in other words, would be perfect.

As a scientist who has spent my whole life working to protect our planet, I am passionate about fighting climate change. I care deeply about polar bears and melting ice caps but I must admit I often seem to tune it all out.

It has been a great puzzle to me. How is it that I can say with complete confidence that climate change is the greatest and gravest issue of our generation and still fail to consistently act?

What I learned through Climate Lab, a new video series I’m hosting in partnership with the University of California and Vox, is that most climate change messaging is filled with doom and gloom. This has the opposite effect in getting us to care and take action. Human nature is hard-wired for optimism, and we shut down when we hear how we are destroying the planet. This messaging is not motivating us to act.

In our first video “Why are humans so bad at talking about climate change?”, out today on climate.universityofcalifornia.edu, I had the chance to talk with scientists at UCLA working on the Engage Project; one of the nation’s largest behavioral experiments in energy usage. A UCLA student apartment complex was used as a test case; Engage informed each resident of their energy usage and compared it to that of other residents. Engage tracked residents against their neighbors with awards given as to where they placed within the building. The study showed that people were more motivated by this competition than by saving money. They were also motivated by messaging in their energy bills about how pollution affects kids’ health. We are social creatures — this study showed that we care about each other… and how we compare to our peers.

I experience this in my own life when I see how much the solar panels on my roof have saved me in “tree equivalents,” or how my hybrid car shows me what mileage to beat since my last fill up. The 50 cents per plastic bag local restaurants charge irritates me just enough to bring my own.

Conquering apathy requires more than simply caring about the planet or knowing what we “should” be doing. By giving instant rewards and using social competition, we can tap into two powerful motivators: instant gratification and competition — to tap into the hard wiring of our brains to get us to move from talk to action.  

M. Sanjayan is Executive Vice President and the senior scientist at Conservation International