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Focus on the Benefits of Combating Climate Change

10/06/2015 05:33 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT
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solar panels and wind turbines under sky and clouds with city on horizon. Sunrise

Many of us, including this author, believe that climate change and sustainability are perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced in our time on Earth -- and how we respond to it may define us as a generation. Even though there has been some real progress across the globe, it is clear that much more needs to be done, and much more quickly. Yet large pockets of skepticism remain, especially in key nations like the United States, and the will to take bold action has been lacking around the world.

Obviously, something is missing. What are we doing wrong in terms of our communication about climate change and the broader issue of creating a more sustainable future?

To explore that issue it might be helpful to think about what we know about changing behaviour in general, whether in organizations or personal health habits, and how this might relate to the issue at hand.

First, almost all of our communication about climate change and sustainability is about how bad things are going to get if we don't change our ways -- floods, droughts, crop failures, coastal cities underwater and so on. Research on changing personal health behaviour has shown that focusing on the benefits of making health changes is a much stronger motivation than fear of the consequences of not changing. For example, Dean Ornish found that having heart attack patients focus on the benefits of changing their health habits rather than the fear of dying motivated far greater change.

Al Gore, who has been the leading siren on these issues for decades, said at a recent "climate reality training" that he finds that people really get excited when he talks about all the amazing progress we are making on solar energy and the ways this shift will benefit all of us. All the evidence of how we are screwing things up can overload people, but when they see a new world arriving that might be better than the old one, they get excited.

A recent article by CNN correspondent John Sutter who visited Oklahoma to explore climate change skepticism discovered that climate change deniers could still be very excited about solar and wind energy when presented an argument in the context of becoming less dependent on energy companies. When we talk about solutions we can all agree make sense, we are more likely to make real progress.

Another thing we know about changing behaviour is that we need to normalize what we want to see more of. Humans are herd animals and we like to feel we are fitting in with the pack. Research shows that the more people feel that others are acting in a certain way, the more likely they are to follow suit. A prime example is that when hotel guests are told that 75 per cent of people who stay at the hotel they are at make green choices, they are much more likely to do the same.

Rather than focusing on all the individuals, organizations and countries who refuse to change their beliefs on climate change, we need to highlight those that are -- the growing number of evangelicals who ARE on the bandwagon of sustainability (big time!) and people "just like you" who are taking the topic very seriously.

Perhaps we also need to work much harder to find common ground. Rather than focusing on the areas of disagreement, we need to focus much more on what we AGREE on. A prime example is science. Many in the religious community are skeptical about science and the intention of scientists. They may well feel like science has been an enemy of their religious beliefs. Science is critical but it is also a flash point.

We keep focusing on science instead of focusing on issue of stewardship, which is the way Pope Francis took on climate change and broader sustainability issues in his encyclical. Regardless of how we may disagree on science, we can agree that we have been gifted with a beautiful, unique planet. As the Pope poignantly reminds us, we were given "the responsibility to care for the Earth, our common home." Most everyone can probably look around and agree we have not done a stellar job as stewards without even consulting peer-reviewed journals.

As someone steeped in communicating on this issue, I am heartened by new conversations not about why "they" don't get it, but what's getting in the way of progress. To me, this is just the beginning of an important conversation we need to have about how to communicate more effectively about these issues. We can begin by focusing on the new world that is emerging, on how this new world will be even better than this one, show how this is an issue of stewardship not just of science and letting people see how people "just like them" are making changes.

Sutter's visit to Oklahoma shows us that individuals on both sides of the climate change debate must be conscious of the assumptions we make about those who disagree with us. He took the time to go and have real conversations. We need much more of that -- human to human conversations that get beyond the way the issue of how we treat the Earth has been politicized.

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