Leadership by Example

Awakening from the “big sleep” No. 5—climate shyness is abetting the denial campaign.

I know a lot of people who are doing almost nothing to reduce their personal contributions to global warming. Many of them express despair about the futility of personal-scale responses to a global-scale threat.

I also know a lot of business leaders who are reluctant to talk about their significant carbon-cutting achievements in public. They fear a backlash, either for proselytizing too much or for having achieved too little.

If you are hesitant to make significant changes in your energy use or to tell your story in public, then you are suffering from the “big sleep.” You are succumbing to a form of peer pressure that the denial campaign has been using to manipulate public opinion.

On the Climate Report™, behavioral scientist Rob Gould illustrated the power of social conventions in shaping behavior with an anecdote from The Simpsons. Gould described a scene in which Homer tells Marge that he won’t wear a pink shirt to work, saying, “I can’t. I’m not popular enough.”

We are social animals who respond to signals from our peers about what is acceptable and what is not. Bucking social trends makes people uncomfortable because it puts a person’s social standing at risk.

Peer pressure can be much more powerful than knowledge. Why else would Americans behave as if four decades of warnings from the science community had never been issued?

The deniers understand this dynamic all too well. For example, the late novelist and climate change denier Michael Crichton invoked social norms to make his case that global warming isn’t a crisis.

Crichton said, “…all anybody really wants to do is talk about it. They don’t want to actually do anything. And the evidence for that is the number of major leaders who clearly have no intention of changing their lifestyles, reducing their own consumption or getting off private jets themselves. If they’re not willing to do it why should anybody else?”

By just “talking about it,” climate leaders are playing into Crichton’s hands and undermining public concern. Rob Gould described this phenomenon as the “bystander effect.” People get clues about the urgency of a situation from one another. If everyone is behaving normally, then there must not be an emergency after all.

But social norms cut both ways, and when enough people respond appropriately to the climate emergency, social norms will shift to favor rapid adoption of low-carbon choices, and elected leaders will sense a sea change in public opinion. Look, for example, at how social norms about tobacco use have reversed course.

The deniers know this, of course—that’s why they belittle and make fun of people who promote energy efficiency. Their strategy is to make you fear the social repercussions of championing norms that challenge their preferences.

This is also why reducing carbon emissions and finding the courage to talk about it are critically important. Crichton was right: if you want the public to take the climate crisis seriously, then it behooves you to behave as though you believe it’s true.

Conversely, signaling that nothing is wrong through your own behavior is also a form of action. Passive “climate shyness” actively propagates the myth that Americans can carry on as usual.

So, while the climate science community has been figuring out how to present data more clearly, the deniers have used social signaling to discredit public concern. Changing this dynamic is crucial, and it depends upon individuals and organizations finding the courage to step forward.

Social change relies on organizations cutting their energy use substantially and sharing their success stories in public.

A national grassroots campaign to embrace energy efficiency has the potential to slow the rapid rise in global emissions as well. There is nothing futile about picking the proverbial low-hanging fruit on a national scale.

But the real value is in the social signals that it sends, and the capacity to undermine one of the denial campaign’s most dangerous weapons.

Human psychology demands that leaders awaken from the “big sleep” and act on their convictions in order to demonstrate the urgency of the moment to everyone else.

The alternative—remaining “climate shy”—reinforces the dangerous, yet comforting myth that the deniers have been working so hard to promote: just move along folks, there’s nothing to see here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of SeanJCPhoto via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.