Changing the narrative – how to talk about climate change

3개월 전

Considering the renewed debate surrounding the relevance of climate change, it seems almost tragicomical that few actors are willing to allow some degree of dispassionate distance to develop strategies that are actually helpful. After all: this is possible.


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In an increasingly complex world which makes it difficult for the human mind to find its way around, simple proposals for solving complicated problems become increasingly attractive. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever been concerned with how people perceive the world and base their decisions on this perception.

In the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky developed a theory that tries to explain how people decide in situations that involve a certain risk for themselves and for which the outcome is not obvious. In 1979, these considerations finally led to the paper "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk"[1] - a work that to this day is one of the most influential in economics and which has provided the foundation for the new research field of behavioural economics.

Before Kahneman and Tversky, economic models were dominated by the view that people were always able to make rational decisions to their advantage. This kind of person is usually referred to as homo economicus. While scientific psychology at this time had long been aware that people were anything but brutally calculating, always rationally deciding actors, this insight did not yet seem to have reached the economists of that time. But the pioneering work carried out by Tversky and Kahneman and later continued by Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and others was soon undeniable. The credo of the always rationally deciding individual began to crumble faster and faster. Consequently, Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 and Thaler in 2017 for their research. The work on decision-making processes led to two central aspects that are important for understanding the public perception of climate change.

Less is not always more


One of these basic assumptions is described as "loss aversion" - in other words, the tendency to be more anxious to avoid losses than to make profits of comparable value. A concrete example: For the personal perception, the loss of satisfaction when losing 100€ weighs more than the gain in satisfaction when the same amount occurs as an unexpected windfall. The emotional evaluation of the loss-profit calculation therefore shows an asymmetry in favour of avoidance behaviour. Closely connected with the term loss aversion is the so-called "endowment effect". According to this, people attribute a higher value to those things they perceive as their property than to foreign objects of similar value. Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990)[2] considered that loss aversion offers a possible explanation for the often observed endowment effect.

If one takes this idea as a starting point, it comes as little surprise that many people are repelled by the often communicated restrictions in their personal lifestyles that are demanded for the prevention of climate change. While climate change is an abstract phenomenon that is emotionally difficult to comprehend, the required renunciation of meat, air travel or children reveals itself as a concretely perceived loss of quality of life. Apparently objective projections that calculate price adjustments for many amenities - measures that are supposed to be necessary to reduce consumption and thus its impact on climate - understandably cause rejection and anger among many people. It is among the great tragedies of political ideologies that they have to work with the people they have, not those they seek.

The widespread call for more renunciation, more taxes and more restrictions will therefore only be met by those who are already willing to accept personal losses in favour of a superior idea. In many cases this is due to the fact that they do not perceive the recommended restrictions as such at all, as they already follow the proposals themselves voluntarily. However, assuming that all other people are just as willing to change their own lives is too short-sighted.

Strategies are needed that recognize that different people have diverse needs and that a "one-size-fits-all solution" will only work in the manifestos of revolutionary ideologists. Much would already have been done for public perception if there were no longer so much talk about what we must sacrifice, but what we can actively do without compromising the perceived quality of life.

In Germany, for example, one of the good news in recent history has been the idea initiated by the state of Schleswig-Holstein and the cartoonist Ralph Ruthe to plant trees or donate money for the Day of German Unity - without any coercion or scaremongering. The positive response was accordingly high. Presumably it would have looked differently if the introduction of a "tree tax" had been considered, which would be used for the same purpose, but without providing the public with a decision-making option.

The idea behind this is not new. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein popularized the concept of the so-called "Nudge"[3], which they also refer to as "libertarian paternalism", with their same-named book in 2008. One of the basic assumptions is that it often makes sense to increase the number of possible options and to present certain positive alternatives in a way that makes them more obvious to the user. For example, instead of banning fast food in canteens, healthier offers are set up in a place perceived as more accessible. Every customer still has the freedom to decide whether or not to order a burger with fries on his plate, but from now on he may consider more often that a vegetarian alternative is occasionally not completely wrong. Private companies have been familiar with this type of customer influence for years and exploit it wherever possible.

The question therefore arises why political actors too often resort to fear as a motivator instead of looking for ways to provide people with more options to act or at least make them more aware of them. Because in many cases it is not so much the intensive search for a panacea as the focus on already existing possibilities that is needed. Instead of pointing out on Earth Day that the resources for the current year have theoretically been used up and that we all, once again, have to renounce, abstain, abandon, it would be much smarter in terms of communication theory to show the amount of electricity costs a private household can save through simple methods. The goal and the result are the same, but the way is completely different.

Climate change, shmimate change

Many people are annoyed with the debate about climate change. They think it's all just a big media hysteria and Greta, Fridays for Future and others have no idea what they're talking about. And anyway, there have always been warm and cold phases on earth.

These thoughts exist and it is important to take them seriously. A sweeping condemnation with the indication that such people are just some right-wing conservative conspiracy types after all, is not very effective.
Instead, it is worth considering the second basic assumption of behavioural economics: a dichotomy that Kahneman describes as "System 1" and "System 2"[4].

System 1 is the unconscious, intuitive mechanism that reacts quickly, automatically and emotionally and provides the basis for most everyday decisions. It would be extremely impractical for people to consciously think about every decision because life as we know it would probably be impossible. However, we should not identify System 2 as the actual decision maker. This second, logically calculating, consciously thinking system gives us the illusion that we are always master of all things and, of course, can always make rational decisions that benefit us. It is not surprising that the idea of homo economicus survived for so long. We often perceive it as our reality of life, simply because we lack knowledge of the unconscious processes that determine our own existence.

The reason why nudging can often be a useful approach to promoting desired behaviors is due to the fact that our system 1 makes many of the decisions influenceable by it. Climate change, however, which takes place as an abstract, perceived distant phenomena somewhere beyond our reality, is more accessible to the more cumbersome System 2, and only if the arguments presented are convincing and do not confront the perception of System 1 too much. Who has the time and motivation to deal with technical discussions on climate theory? This should not be understood as a criticism, but as a simple representation of the status quo as it presents itself to many people. It is completely normal that we often try to avoid stressful situations when it doesn't seem necessary.

So should we just slap our hands above our heads, because there is no point in anything anyway and nobody really knows what he is talking about? Not quite.

Black swans and complex systems

In 2007 the statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb published the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable[5]. One of the book's key messages is that human life and the ecosystem that surrounds it is an unbelievably complex system of countless variables that we cannot possibly all include in the assessment of the world. Hence: There is a possibility that events will occur that contradict all statistical predictions but sometimes have catastrophic consequences - the eponymous Black Swans. It is part of the irony of history that one year later an unexpected world economic crisis had very disastrous consequences in many countries - hardly anyone had expected such a far-reaching event at the time. The forecasting models used did not indicate anything. This does not mean that statistical methods are useless, quite the opposite. There are many areas in which statistical observations can be very helpful. However, it is no less important to occasionally consider the limitations of these methods and understand what can be reasonably predicted and what cannot.

According to Taleb, climate models belong in the latter category. Since it is impossible to know all relevant factors, derived forecasts based on incomplete information are also relatively worthless. Interestingly, this consideration does not lead him to the same conclusion as many critical commentators writing below the articles of numerous climate change reports.

Following his reasoning, it is absolutely necessary to be as conservative (in the literal sense of the word, meaning "preserving") as possible with regard to environmental aspects. The possibility of a catastrophic Black Swan event exists and its effects can be so devastating that we will never recover. So even if all the models and predictions are useless (a position about which there is likely to be a good deal of controversy), it is precisely this uncertainty that makes risk-avoiding behaviour very reasonable.

One does not have to share Taleb's rigorous rejection of statistical forecasts in complex systems to recognize the attractiveness of the argument. Sometimes it doesn't take complicated mathematical procedures to admit that you don't understand most things, but it may be a good idea to reduce the risk of a devastating event.

Hopefully, public discourse will shift in favour of a positive, less fear-centered debate. Instead of insisting on more and more prohibitions, restrictions and taxes, thinking about more attractive alternatives would be a very welcome change. Nobody will benefit from rejecting the major global issues of our time because we have failed to adequately illustrate their significance. Most people do not like to feel that their freedom of choice is being restricted. That is normal, that is human. We therefore need more good options, not less.


Sources

[1] Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk". Econometrica. 47 (4): 263–29

[2] Kahneman, D.; Knetsch, J.; Thaler, R. (1990). "Experimental Test of the endowment effect and the Coase Theorem". Journal of Political Economy. 98 (6): 1325–1348.

[3] Thaler, Richard H.; Sunstein, Cass R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press

[4] Daniel Kahneman (October 25, 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

[5] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House

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Great read..thanks!

There is a saying that - if you want someone to do something make them think they have come up with the idea.

I read Thinking, Fast and Slow last year, had to re-read it a few time to understand some parts was an amazing book.

One of the best on meta - metacognition.

I am very happy to see you back on steem @egotheist ! Coincidentially I am reading your reference 4 (Thinking, Fast and slow) at the moment. I am a bit sad haven´t found this excelent book earlier in my life. Thank you for this wonderful article and welcome back to steem - or STEM (because I switched to this frontend) :-)

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I'm not sure how much I will write in the future, this was just something I had in mind for quite a while now and I was curious about other people's take on this.

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That’s an amazing book indeed. For a while now I’ve been thinking about reading it again. You might just have inspired me to do so @fragmatation :) If I may, I recommend the The Black Swan - also from Ego’s reference list.

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Thank you for the recommendation @abigail-dantes. I will give it definitely a try.

It is great to see you back around here! Where have you been during those long months? Will you also reinitiate your debunking Tuesday series (maybe it was a Thursday series, I do not remember well and I am too lazy to check in your profile) :D

the tendency to be more anxious to avoid losses than to make profits of comparable value

I totally agree with this!

These thoughts exist and it is important to take them seriously. A sweeping condemnation with the indication that such people are just some right-wing conservative conspiracy types after all, is not very effective. Instead, it is worth considering the second basic assumption of behavioural economics: a dichotomy that Kahneman describes as "System 1" and "System 2"

A condemnation is very bad in the sense one cut all options to dialogues. If we want mentalities to evolve, discussions are highly needed, to explain people where are the flaws in the thinking. We need also to emphasize the fact that the planet does not need two or three persons doing a lot, but millions doing a little.

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Where have you been during those long months?

Trying to find myself. Literally. I needed a lot of time to think, reflect, read and deal with my mental health issues. I was figuring out what kind of purpose I'm after. Don't think I have an answer, yet, but at least I have some new ideas to think about.

Will you also reinitiate your debunking Tuesday series

Not sure about that. I still really want to create videos at some point, but this is merely a vague idea. Maybe I will pick it up again, if I decide to do so.

We need also to emphasize the fact that the planet does not need two or three persons doing a lot, but millions doing a little.

I agree. But this is easier said than done.
No matter how clever or rational you think you are: a good argument will usually never be as convincing for you as a good story. That's a hard truth we all have to accept, that's why alt-right and conspiracy content creators are often so much more successful and the only way to pull people back is by telling them the better story.

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It is indeed easier to say. However, there are always ways to do a little something. A.L.W.A.Y.S. It is hard to me to admit that we need a story for that. But you are right, it is so easier to ignore things.





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Ego <3, how wonderful to see a post from you. And what an excellent integration of the works of these scholars you've presented us with here!

I smiled while reading the beginning of your post, specifically when you talked about the believe that people were always able to make rational decisions when it comes to the economic world.

Only this afternoon I came across a study that looks into how rather than governed by rational deliberation, the act of purchasing something is rather guided by emotions. Upon having to make a decision on whether to purchase an item or not, the brain areas which are activated are the ones associated with feelings (nucleus accumbens - pleasure, and the insula - pain), rather than parts that are mainly linked to rationality. Basically, the decision in the end results from a contest of conflicting feelings ref. Ha! And I thought I was a homo economicus :P

I like the question you raise here: why resort to fear instead of providing people with more options? I suppose that, as Thaler and Sustain argue, putting people in the position to choose is not always wise, and remaining neutral is not always possible! In the end it comes down to governments and institutions being able to provide populations with effective, honest choice architecture and nudge them towards the right direction. Especially when it comes to education and the environment. In a model that still retains freedom of choice.

Much love to you Ego,
It's so nice to see you writing for your Steemit blog once again :*

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I suppose that, as Thaler and Sustain argue, putting people in the position to choose is not always wise, and remaining neutral is not always possible!

Yeah, I thought about that as well. But this mainly refers to situations with too many options to choose from and no idea about which might be the beneficial one. I tend to think that many public officials don't even know about it - but I somehow doubt that, especially in the US. Sunstein was even working with the Obama administration a couple of years ago, so there should be at least some kind of awareness.

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Thank you for your reply Ego. It's very nice to have you around Steemit. It means more quality content among us :)

I didn't know Sustein worked with the Obama administration. I knew he was doing some advising work for the British government a while back. It puzzles me how these governments have people like that working for/with them and their policies and approaches, in the end, don't seem to reflect much of their work.

Well, to be fair, I am saying this based on just my very narrow perspective. What I gather from the media, really.

I do hope you find the time to write more for your Steemit blog in the future Ego :*

Much love to you always!

Great to see you writing stuff again, and I really appreciate this very article, too.

I don't necessarily agree with Taleb's rejection of statistics. Yes, black swan events are occurring from time to time, but that does not mean that calculating the most probable development (and this is what statistical forecast is) is useless or worthless. If the most probable development is catastrophic enough, why argue with a black swan?

The point where I really agree a lot with you is that science needs to "sell" its results, forecasts and solution proposals in a much more attractive way.

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I don't necessarily agree with Taleb's rejection of statistics. Yes, black swan events are occurring from time to time, but that does not mean that calculating the most probable development (and this is what statistical forecast is) is useless or worthless. If the most probable development is catastrophic enough, why argue with a black swan?

In his books his main argument against forecasts in complex systems is against positive predictions, since a negative black swan can have huge and possibly catastrophic impacts. Climate change is different in that regard, since even the forecasts predict a catastrophic negative outcome. But this is exactly why I really like his argument regarding that - the models simply don't matter, because we should protect the environment regardless. It takes away one of the main counter-arguments made by climate sceptics: "The models are not correct/cannot predict the future" - well, they don't even matter.
Personally, I think some in-between persepective can be really helpful. Keep on using statistics, know their limits, design your social, economical, ecological environment in a way which makes them able to withstand and even benefit from negative black swans (Taleb would call that antifragile).
When I published the German version of this article at another blog with way more readers I received an email by a "climate sceptic" who thanked me for this nuanced take on the whole debate. And although I don't agree with most of the things he wrote, he gave me the impression that he was at least willing to think about the arguments I presented. I don't know whether he will change his behavior, but this experience taught me a valuable lesson: take the sceptics seriously. I know it can be frustrating but people don't like to be devaluated and if we manage to find a way of talking about important issues without pointing fingers and condemning each other, we might actually stand a chance against conspiracy theorists and alternative facts apologists. As I said earlier: we desperately need the better stories.

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The problem I see with arguing solely "black swan" based is that it allow people to say that such an event can't be 100% prevented anyway. Imagine the supervolcano below the phlegrean fields erupting or the likes.
I would rather use it as an additional argument, to say "even if the statistic chance of 0.1% that the models are wrong comes true, there is still the chance of a provoked black swan event"). That doesn't devaluate evidence-based predictions.

One thing else: "take the sceptics seriously"
If "taking serious" means staying polite and not to argue ad hominem, I am with you - even though climate sceptics use those tactics a lot. But in a discussion, I still have to tell them that they are wrong. Anything else would be an appeasement tactics that would be a breach of my oath as a PhD.

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I would rather use it as an additional argument, to say "even if the statistic chance of 0.1% that the models are wrong comes true, there is still the chance of a provoked black swan event")

That's exactly the point I was trying to make, it seems I have failed^^

If "taking serious" means staying polite and not to argue ad hominem, I am with you - even though climate sceptics use those tactics a lot. But in a discussion, I still have to tell them that they are wrong. Anything else would be an appeasement tactics that would be a breach of my oath as a PhD.

Totally agree. I was mainly refering to the tone of the debate, not about the factual arguments.

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then we're at the same page ;-)

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Somehow I got stranded here and read this blog post with great interest. It's true, statistics are never able to represent a situation as it actually is in reality. You may know the book "Freakonomics", where it is also discussed in a very humorous and inspiring way. The causal relationships that politicians like to work with often do not correspond to the predicted consequences of certain actions (in a way, they have to do that since the societal model is still the same).

Many people who have dealt with this have also known and understand this. Funny that you point to the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb here, I didn't know him until another blogger mentioned him this morning.

We modern people have been growing up with programmes and documentaries about flora, fauna and the ecosphere ever since the advent of television. Such a message is stored in the field of a society and no one really remains unimpressed by it. It is even so strong that it leads to the fact that one rejects or ignores the climate change. This is due to the subjective (false) feeling that nothing has actually changed since the 1980s. Which of course is not true, but the more you look at the world as a global place, the more it seems as if one' s own country is sinking into meaninglessness.

But the anchoring of this field message has long since happened and is gaining strength, at least in the industrial nations that have been calling themselves that for quite some time and consciousness has steadily increased. Now the people are differently fast and do without different things. If one leaves the competition aside, that who is vegan is a better person than another, who perhaps eats meat but does not own a car, does not travel by air or has a solar-powered heating system in his cellar... you see what I mean. Ultimately, it is sensible to practice voluntary renunciation - it can even be fun and why not?

The fact that one exercises better caution, adjusts oneself to less instead of more, is a good advice that applies to the material as well as to the interpersonal: Since I never really know exactly what is going on, it is better to expect the best from each person and to give confidence and to get used to a reality that will be different from today.

The car as a status symbol: I'm sure it will change radically. The younger generation in the cities is now very indifferent to the subject of "driving licences". Many no longer consider it cool or necessary to make one at all.

I used this example because you said we need a better story. I agree.
Like roads and cars are not the bringer of great freedom and adventures any more. I guess many people see them now also as intruding humans lives and want more innovative and better solutions for transportation. Blockchain-technology will also do it's thing there. Maybe you find that interesting: The part where it says:

Mobility after Uber & Co
https://www.vditz.de/fileadmin/media/bekanntmachungen/documents/vdi_publikation_blockchain_RZ_web_neu.pdf

You talked a little about decision making.
I would like to see the systemic consensus started to be used as an aid to group decision-making. The advantages become clear through the continuance and experimentation of this formalized method (which goes much faster than the consensus reached through strenuous debate). Join my little experiment if you feel like it (my latest blog entry).

I really like your new writing style. It works without effects and it is clear, enjoyable and good to read. More from "Theist", less from "Ego". :-)