How Decision Making and Judgement affect Climate Change

Is the issue that others ‘don’t care enough’ – or do we communicate our care in unhelpful ways?

I care about the climate. That word – care – expresses more than rational disinterest or professional obligation. I feel it. And, like almost anyone who has been in this space a while, I know that this care hasn’t always been well received. The impassioned speech, the lump in the throat, even the raised voice at times, have been met with a blank face. They just don’t care; I might have said to myself once. But is it always that simple?

I was confronted with this question when I spoke to Professor Sir Andrew Likierman, for our episode of the Conversations on Climate podcast. We ranged widely: the elements of good judgement; organisational decision-making in the public and private-sector; his time in government and heading the London Business School; leadership lessons from 19th-century vaccination science. When we turned to the question of judgement – or rather, the lack of good judgement – on climate change, he identified it as a problem of trust. Those undecided on the subject lacked faith in the good intentions of climate communicators – and that was a problem of emotionality, on all sides.

The trouble with TMI

Professor Likierman’s argument ran something like this:

  • Climate change suffers from ‘too much information’ – a ‘superfluity’ of content, in Likierman’s words. To make matters worse, a lot of this data is complex and expressed in the vernacular of academic science. This makes it difficult for non-experts to parse all this information – to sort out what is relevant from irrelevant, accurate from inaccurate.
  • As a consequence, rather than derive their own conclusions from the data, they feel they need to find intermediaries to explain and guide their attitude towards the subject. This requires exercising their judgement about whom to trust. However, as Likierman generously put it, there is ‘a very great variety of quality of intermediaries.’ So the question of whom a given individual trusts becomes critical to our collective success. There are a lot of false prophets.
  • Existing interlocuters across the climate debate are highly invested and often very emotional in their communication, from green activists to sceptics. This makes it harder for people to trust intermediaries because they seem to lack objectivity. ‘The evidence is brought to them [the undecided] in order to prove something…[consequently] that emotion has made it more difficult for the uncommitted to know exactly where they stand.’
  • On the other hand, the difficulty in coping with the complexity of the topic drives other towards polarising figures. ‘the fact that somebody is so certain when they are uncertain is quite reassuring,’ Likierman explained. This plays a role in elevating figureheads such as Greta Thunburg who offer strongly charged and absolute positions, which further reinforces the lack of trust experienced by the rest.

This explanation makes intuitive sense. Even for those of us who work in the field, the daily flood of information feels overwhelming; just keeping up-to-date feels like a full-time job. If it is exhausting to confront the complexity of the topic from the inside, it is no wonder that ordinary citizens turn to Cassandra’s and Pollyanna’s both, for cognitive and emotional relief. And, as much as I admire and applaud Greta and Extinction Rebellion and anyone who speaks hard truths – from Standing Rock to the Pacific Islands – it is a pyrrhic satisfaction, knowing in the back of my mind that their strength of feeling will alienate as many as they convert.

The obligation to truth

That said, there are two counter-arguments that I feel are important to consider, before turning to the question of how to solve Likierman’s dilemma.

Firstly, regardless of how the irrational human mind might receive a given message, we have an obligation to speak it as truthfully as we can. With climate change this is an obligation we owe to the earth, as much as it is to each other. Indeed, it is also at the heart of the unspoken vow of the scientist herself, to stand in objective relationship to things as they are. Such an obligation compels her to speak as frankly as the situation requires. If we begin to edit the way we explain climate breakdown, in order to suit the comfort and biases of those who understand it less – where does it end?

On a more human level, we also have an obligation to ourselves to speak our truth, from the heart. Activists and climate communicators accused of being too ‘emotional’ or ‘apocalyptic’ have arrived at such a moment after years, often decades, of difficult study, reflection, action, and sacrifice. Indeed, the strength with which they speak is often informed by their experience of being ignored, shouted down, and vilified by those who are now asking them to politely ‘tone it down.’ Just as we should not demand those agitating for justice in the face of generations of repression – be it a Pride parade or a Black Lives Matter march – to do it ‘politely’, so we should not burden environmental activists with the weight of our cultural failure.

Conversely, there is a good case made that our present predicament is a result of not having been emotional – honest – enough. Who amongst us can say that we have not self-edited in conversation? This is not merely altruistic – we are all driven by a primal instinct for self-preservation, which includes being accepted by the tribe. We have learned the hard way that people want to hear solutions rather than problems; want to be told we still have time; that it wont be hard, or cost much, or even be much of an inconvenience at all. Playing to these desires only extends the fantasy that things can continue as they are.

This arguably runs to the highest levels of the climate conversation. Many observers of the work of the IPCC (Professor Kevin Anderson, for example) have spent years critiquing its reports for effectively self-censoring the degree of radical change needed, to avoid challenging existing political and economic cultures. It is only very recently that the IPCC has publicly called for transformational system change – how far is that a self-fulfilling consequence of its years of soft-selling the challenge of reaching net-zero, with negative emissions technologies and the like?

Strategic care

To navigate these cross-currents, we need to become more supple communicators. I don’t think the solution is to stick to strict, scientific language – we have tried that, and getting undecideds to engage with the RCP 4.5 pathway, or marginal tax rates, feels like a dead end. If the numbers move you, you’re already on our side.

We need emotion. But what kind? Communicators should all be free to care, to express whatever truth we have arrived at. Self-censorship cannot be the answer. At the same time, we should be strategic about which feeling-tones we amplify in ourselves, on behalf of others. Those of us who care deeply about the climate have a knotted mix of emotional motivations. If we can find those which resonate best with an audience, then we can be both honest and effective.

Professor Likierman recognised the germ of this idea himself, when he suggested appealing to intergenerational care – that people may respond well to being asked to act on behalf of their children or grandchildren. This is a fairly universal emotional call, which resonates widely. Not everyone will care about other species, or even other humans in distant lands – the evidence is that the dominant baby-boomers of the global North aren’t moved by such appeals. But engaging with people’s feeling towards their families, local communities and landscapes; finding out what they want to preserve, and what in nature gives them joy and pride…these questions may unlock their hearts in a non-confrontational way.

Focus on feelings that work. That means understanding what they love, rather than triggering fear. This also matters because anger and fear are the natural home of the demagogue. If instead, we stand inside a positive vision of a future then we can pull others towards us, rather than forcibly pushing them ahead on the path to zero.


Originally published on Linkedin – Conversations on Climate Newsletter.

Publication: Hack your good judgement and deal with ‘TMI’ around climate change -Conversation on Climate Videocast with Sir Andrew Likierman

Read the full article here


Video: How Decision-Making and Judgement Affect Climate Change

Watch the video here


Podcast: Professor Sir Andrew Likierman. Decision Making & Good Judgement

Listen on Apple here


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