Our Innate Psychology Is Fueling the Climate Crisis — Here’s How to Combat It

Psychology climate action

We can’t keep communicating about climate change in ways that feed our evolutionary prejudices and continue kicking the can down the road. We must outsmart our biases using strategic communication tactics so we can take action when it matters — which is now. Here are 3 ways to hack our brains for climate action.

Originally appeared in Sustainable Brands

Our brains are wired to pay attention to whatever is happening right here, right now. And for many, the relative invisibility of climate change in our lives relegates the crisis to a problem for distant generations. Most of us simply don’t have the time, diligence or scientific knowledge necessary to decode the complex, interconnected details that make up the climate crisis.

But we can’t continue communicating about climate change in ways that feed our evolutionary prejudices and continue kicking the can down the road. We need to outsmart our biases using strategic communication tactics so we can take action when it matters — which is now.

What is bias?

Biases aren’t always a bad thing. They’re tools that have kept our species alive for 200,000 years. Our ancestors used “distance bias” to judge the relevance of threats by gauging physical proximity. If a prehistoric hunter saw a saber-tooth tiger several miles away, he might feel a tad uneasy; but he wouldn’t scrap the hunt. However, if he woke in the night to a tiger entering his home, his brain would recognize the physical proximity of the threat and he’d respond immediately.

Distance bias also applies to time. Think about the differences in your feelings if you were told to make a speech in front of a massive audience today versus in two years. Savvy business leaders already know how to account for delays over time using evaluations such as net present value and discounted cash flow to assess future risks and opportunities. Yet for years, we’ve communicated that the climate crisis is like a saber-tooth tiger miles away. It’s a problem that will affect us in 50 years, 20 years, maybe 12 years — not today. So, when the spreadsheets calculate those risks, we may feel a twinge of unease at the tiger down the road; but we’re not willing to scrap the hunt. Instead, we continue business as usual.

While we can’t (and don’t want to) bring the most disastrous effects of climate change to our front door tomorrow, we can communicate more effectively to colleagues and stakeholders to mitigate distance bias; tamp down complexity; and bring the metaphorical tiger to the center of our attention, where it belongs.

3 ways to hack your brain for climate action

We can work around distance bias to address environmental factors in the boardroom; but it requires using a special mix of languages — including speaking to business leaders in business terms, honing in on the financial cost of unmitigated risks and driving the impact home with meaningful examples.

1. Tug on the heartstrings

Psychologist Fréderic Laloux proposed a simple exercise to make the future feel closer: Consider what age you and a child you love will be in 2050. By 2050, you may be approaching the later years of your life, but that child will be starting a career or family. Now, imagine the catastrophic effects of unaddressed climate change — including skyrocketing food prices and extreme weather events — destroying their life milestones.

This perspective-taking allows us to connect emotionally to the future and simultaneously invokes instincts for protection and stewardship. It gives us a direct channel to care more and to feel like we have a responsibility to act on behalf of someone, or something, we love.

2. Demonstrate why 1.5° matters

To most, 1.5 or 2 extra degrees of heat feels inconsequential. But imagine you have some ice cream at 1° below freezing. What happens when the temperature ticks up 1 degree? It begins to melt, eventually becoming a sticky puddle. Problem-solvers might say to just put it back in the freezer and it’ll be good as new. But it isn’t. Not only does bacteria grow while it’s melted — making it unsafe to eat — but the ice cream’s structure has permanently changed.

Similarly, our ecosystem is full of one-way boundaries sensitive to small temperature changes. Warmer springs trigger birds to migrate from Europe to the Arctic before the plants they eat have sprouted, leaving them to starve. When someone laughs off 1.5° of global warming with a recommendation to “just wear shorts,” use an example like this to change their frame of reference.

3. Practice losing your favorite things

At a recent team retreat, the climate crisis was presented in a memorable way. A colleague came onstage wearing a cotton jacket and holding a water bottle and a chocolate bar and asked us to imagine it was 2050. First, she removed her jacket. Cotton is highly susceptible to rising temperatures, drought and unpredictable rain, so it will grow increasingly unproductive and harder to access. Then, she tossed her bottle. According to the World Meteorological Organization, more than 5 billion people will have inadequate access to water by 2050. Lastly, she dropped her chocolate bar. Rising temperatures threaten cacao trees; they’re predicted to go extinct by 2050, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Witnessing everyday items disappear is surprisingly powerful. Practice this with your own business model. What elements are in danger? How will losing them impact other aspects of the business?

Now what?

I once thought it was crucial to get everyone to understand the crisis we’re facing. Today, with climate change now an “identity politics” issue, that’s an unrealistic goal. A lot of people aren’t ready to face our future, but we can’t wait for them. We need to focus on those who can move quickly and with impact: the business sector.

Many business leaders are poised to act but are held back by a lack of stakeholder support. We need to equip these leaders with tools like these that quickly mitigate distance bias and decrease complexity without triggering immediate rejection. We do this by framing the crisis in their terms — convincing them and their teams to act today. These techniques work because they ground distant and challenging concepts in simple terms, present tense and business realities.

Ultimately, we can’t change the ways our brains are wired to protect us. But we can change the way we communicate to effect change.

The saber-tooth tiger isn’t 30 years away — it’s lurking outside our door. While we argue over its existence, it’s growing stronger and will be much harder to stop with every passing year.

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