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Learned: Taking Copenhagen Personally

12/17/09 5:55PM By Andrea Learned
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(HOST) Media coverage of the Copenhagen talks these past few weeks has commentator Andrea Learned thinking about climate change and the psychology of denial.

(LEARNED) There’s been so much in the news lately about the climate talks in Copenhagen that it is hard to miss the importance of the issue.  Or is it?

As with so many broad-reaching and complex social or health issues, ordinary people may not be able to see how climate change matters to them personally. All they may know is that it was really cold out the last time they thought about it. So, no - warming temperatures must not be a problem.

There are similar examples in the public health arena.  Take breast cancer, for one.  It’s been around a lot longer than most of us have truly been aware of it.  But it wasn’t until we each had either a family member or friend diagnosed that we actually paid attention - serious attention. Before then, we thought: It won’t happen to me.  But, with personal proximity, the "far away" issue quickly becomes local.

Or consider obesity, along the same lines.  Isn’t that really just the obese person’s problem?  Well, no - some would say that the problem becomes one for the whole society in terms of insurance rates.  Someone else’s problem becomes ours.

Whether any of those examples resonate with you or not, my point is that there’s an interesting psychology behind making broader societal issues matter to the individual.  An insightful article by George Marshall for Yes Magazine recently caught my attention on this topic.  From his perspective as a psychologist, he suggests that climate change needs to be framed in a way that makes it more accessible to the average person.  And that person is not following the twitter stream or the hourly online media updates of the Copenhagen talks.  

Essentially, the idea is that, if climate change were visible to the naked eye, people would feel threatened enough to act.  Instead, climate change is invisible.  Unless, of course, we consider an early December 59 degree Vermont day to be a neon sign, as some of us do.

Marshall also points out that people tend to respond to threats that seem immediate and have simple causes.  Alternatively, we tend not to respond to threats that are drawn out or are the result of complex causes. Climate change couldn’t be a more perfect example of this psychology of denial.  These changes have been building for decades; somebody else is in charge of managing them; and, let’s face it, we kind of like the occasional surprise of a warm winter day.

It's hard to see how to resolve this disconnect between individual citizens and socially or environmentally threatening issues.

But, what comes to my mind are those stamped metal or spray painted fish symbols placed near city street drainage grates.  The far away cleanliness of the water and its safety as one of our essential resources becomes local.  Seeing that fish makes it more immediate and simple: dump your leftover paint or let fertilizer run off down that drain, and that act may make you or your family sick.

So we need more than just policy debate in Copenhagen to make the invisible visible. With climate change, as the psychologist put it, the key may be in developing a culture of engagement that is visible, urgent and personal.

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