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Joe Nalven: We Must Confront Climate Change With Reason Rather Than Emotion

Times of San Diego

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” That danger has always been part of the human condition.

Writing about “climate change” is at once easy and difficult. The term is claimed by various groups as “weather,” “something that’s been with planet earth for several billion years” as well as “about to cause the end of the world.”

Spark Neuro, a neuromarketing firm, took a semantic approach to analyzing “climate change.” Six terms were examined with participants hooked up to measure galvanic skin responses, facial coding, eye tracking and electroencephalographs to track brain activity. Three groups were chosen to study reactions: Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

The company’s algorithm takes into account that we are not solely rational; we have emotions. Those emotions skew or load affect onto our responses to the world around us, including the words we use. That is as true of scientists as well as bus drivers, college professors and, well, all of us.

As you might imagine, alarmists who want to motivate a lackadaisical public would want something more dramatic than “climate change.” Most surveys that ask us to rate “the most important thing’”among a list of policy choices generally rank “climate change” at or near the bottom. Other priorities are seen as more important, including health care, the homeless, unemployment, education, and perhaps even fixing potholes.

So, ramping up the emotion of “climate change” is important if it is to have a higher priority, and especially if major transformations in lifestyle and government expenditures are required. The winning terms in Spark Neuro’s research were “climate crisis” and “environmental destruction.”

I asked Spencer Gerrol, President of Spark Neuro, if the company would be willing to analyze a different set of terms ─ for a client that wants to tamp down the emotional loading of a term like “climate crisis.” The political arena is populated by those promoting apocalyptic thinking.  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Jay Inslee each referred to climate change as an “existential threat” at a townhall sponsored by CNN.

A list of terms to describe those advocating for what is likely an implausible future include:  “alarmist,” “doom-sayer,” “scaremonger,” and “fanatic.”

Gerrol detoured around my request and suggested a different objective.

This is one of those polarizing situations with two groups locked into opposing understandings of climate change. I think it would be better to encourage people to be more like political independents. We found them open to different possibilities. Then, we could get more dialogue and possibly some meaningful things done. We should work to break up the prevailing group-think and seek out those willing to debate in the spirit of learning.” […]

The Danger of Exaggerating Climate Change

Our emotions affect how we use and react to words. That is what drove Spark Neuro’s investigation into words that would engender stronger emotional reactions than the simple phrase “climate change.”

Emotions can drive frenzied group behavior as well. Think of intense sports rivals with stands packed with their respective supporters. Think of a celebrity in the midst of a crowd of fans. Fans? Oh yes, that comes from the word “fanatic.”

Adulatory crowds also have negative versions: mob behavior. Think of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in the late 18th century. Think of the 21st  century Muslim man in India who was hung by a Hindu mob for eating beef and hurting religious sentiments. The examples are multiple and extend to all factions and to all nations. We are all potential converts to fanatic behavior.

The question becomes whether there is value in psyching up a community to any particular cause. Here I am not arguing the moral certainty of group X or Y, of whether one animated group is justified or not. Rather, the point is that environmental and social advocacy groups are, in fact, seeking to animate the public into a more visceral response. This is not a question of facts, but of animating what is perceived as a lackadaisical public.

Led by the organization Public Citizen, about a dozen groups from Sierra Club, Greenpeace to Progressive Democrats of America, have urged major media outlets to substitute more dramatic language than simply “climate change.”

“The words that reporters and anchors use matter. What they call something shapes how millions see it—and influences how nations act,” according to Public Citizen. “And today, we need to act boldly and quickly. With scientists warning of global catastrophe unless we slash emissions by 2030, the stakes have never been higher, and the role of news media never more critical.”

“We are urging you to call the dangerous overheating of our planet and the lack of action to stop what it is—a crisis––and to cover it like one.”

The real danger may not be spending trillions of dollars in a Green New Deal but its crowding out of other needs to more immediate problems with more visible chances of success. Also consider that developing countries may see this Green Deal emphasis as morally pernicious: First World countries built their countries on polluting technology but now want to deny that same opportunity to Third World or less developed countries. That rationale has driven the exemptions to China and India in the Paris Climate Agreement.

One can argue the rightness or wrongness of such prioritization of national and international expenditures, but the larger point is that discussions should not be short-circuited by hyped up language, especially in the age of social media.

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