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#LushSummit: Breaking the silence on climate change

 Experts warn our fear of the unknown is causing a dangerous lack of conversation about climate change.


The largest piece in world’s first underwater museum, The Museo Atlantico, shows a group of 40 figures walking blindly towards a gateway in a 30-metre-long boundary. Some are texting, others taking selfies paying little attention to their destination. The piece is called ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ - a reference to the point of no return made famous by Caesar’s crossing of the Italian river as he marched on Rome, and a statement that the artist says reflects our attitude towards climate change.

It must be hard not to be moved or even scared by so eerie and poignant an exhibit. But recent research suggests that this very anxiety we feel at the dreaded words ‘climate change’ is contributing to our silence on the problem and that, through our fear, we have self-imposed a dangerous taboo on the topic.

In their 2016 paper, ‘Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion,’ Geiger and Swim found that people concerned about climate change lacked the confidence to bring it up in conversation because they felt too uninformed to voice what they assumed would be minority views. This lack of information and indeed perceived indifference was a greater barrier to the conversation than the fear of being disliked.

The authors concluded “those who are aware of others' concern about climate change report greater willingness to discuss the issue than those with inaccurate perceptions of others' opinions” and that “correcting pluralistic ignorance increases concerned participants' willingness to discuss climate change.”

Their research reinforces the view of journalist, author and activist George Monbiot who suggests that lack of media coverage and information on the topic will be our undoing. In an article for The Guardian, he argues: “The media turns us away from the issues that will determine the course of our lives, and towards topics of brain-melting irrelevance. If humanity fails to prevent climate breakdown, the industry that bears the greatest responsibility is not transport, farming, gas, oil or even coal. All of them can behave as they do, shunting us towards systemic collapse, only with a social licence to operate. The problem begins with the industry that, wittingly or otherwise, grants them this licence: the one for which I work.”

Climate Outreach co-founder George Marshall, however, traces this media shutdown back to a social one, warning that what he calls a ‘socially constructed silence’ on climate change must be broken in order to deal with the topic. Speaking at the #LushSummit in Tobacco Docks, London, he argues, “[Climate change] is something I regard as an existential threat - something that could potentially wipe us out and certainly wipe out any kind of evolved society in this world - and yet we’re not talking about it.

“There is a demographic to the silence. Women under the age of 30 talk about climate change the very least, yet express the greatest concern about it. Interestingly, the other group that talks about it least are people with children. Why is that? I think it’s because, in root, climate change creates a sense of deep anxiety. It is something that is challenging to ourselves and who we are, to what we stand for and to our worldview to the extent that it feels so awkward we all contribute to it in measurable ways.

“But if we don’t talk about climate change, nobody does anything because they don’t think that anybody else cares about it. This is a very dangerous situation to be in. Politicians go and ask ‘What do you care about? What do you want to happen?’ And nobody mentions climate change. They then know that climate change is not on issue that will make a difference to what people vote on and therefore they don’t deal with it, or talk about it and so it doesn’t get talked about in the media.”

So, how can we ‘break the silence?’ George believes that leafleting, campaigning and the use of social media cannot overcome a lack of peer-to-peer conversation - something he describes as ‘hugely powerful’.

To emphasise his point, he argues: “Two-thirds of people cannot recall ever having a conversation about climate change. If you have a conversation with somebody that could very well be the first conversation they’ve ever had about climate change in their entire lives.”


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