Can climate change be made simple enough to solve?

Two Steps Forward

Can climate change be made simple enough to solve?

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

I've been fascinated and more than a little perplexed by a statistic from Suzanne Shelton, whose well-regarded marketing firm has helped shape the agenda for companies speaking up on sustainability issues.

At our recent Circularity 19 conference, Shelton shared her firm’s research showing that Americans are more concerned about plastic waste than about climate change. (The research originally was published in March, although Shelton’s terrific presentation on the closing day of Circularity helped dig it out of the pile of mind-numbing reports that regularly cross our in-boxes.)

The research was based on a survey of 1,013 Americans, who were first asked which environmental issues they’d been hearing about the most — from news, social media, family and friends. Plastics and climate change roughly were tied: 57 percent of respondents said they were aware of the problem of plastics in the ocean while 59 percent said were aware of climate change. (The survey’s margin of error was 3.1 percent.)

Awareness was one thing; concern another. As Shelton explained:

When offered up a list of 10 environmental issues, 65 percent of Americans say they are concerned/very concerned about plastics in the ocean, compared to 58 percent for climate change.

What in the name of Al Gore is going on here? While the plastic waste problem seems to have hit critical levels, with debris choking rivers and other waterways, how could it possibly be seen as more concerning than stabilizing the climate, the changes to which could have existential implications for countless millions, for generations?

One explanation may be found in something called "solution aversion."

In my quest to understand this state of affairs, I stumbled upon a 2014 study conducted at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. It explored why people looking at the same scientific information about climate change could come to wildly different conclusions about the existence of the problem, with one group accepting it and the other denying it, or at least strenuously questioning it.

The Duke researchers proposed a "solution aversion model" to explain why people are often so divided over scientific evidence, and why this divide often occurs across political party lines.

Interestingly, they found that one’s acceptance of a problem can be correlated to their acceptance of the solutions to that problem. In other words, if people don’t believe a problem is solvable, they’re more likely to deny the problem’s existence.

Wow. Maybe it should be called "solution delusion."

All of the above

The Duke hypothesis hits home when you consider the complexity of climate solutions. Stemming the worst impacts of the climate crisis will involve an all-of-the-above approach: scaling renewable energy and other clean technologies; making significant dietary changes; and fomenting revolutions in land use, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, finance, buildings, food systems, infrastructure and pretty much everything else we buy and do. Plus, all of the policy decisions and market mechanisms these changes will require.

That is, it’s not so simple. Far from it. Especially when compared to banning plastic straws and shopping bags, two relatively simple actions to end plastic waste that have gained widespread public and political support, and which seem to sync with consumers' willingness to make behavioral changes in the name of Mother Earth.

It’s not surprising, then, that getting one’s brain, let alone one’s heart, wrapped around solving climate change has been such as Sisyphean task. Pondering all that needs to be done, and all of the changes we need to make, individually and collectively, is perplexing even to those of us who grok the magnitude of the climate challenge and have committed to solving it.

For everyone else, there’s "solution aversion."

"People may deny problems not because of the inherent seriousness of the problems themselves but because of the ideological or tangible threat posed by the associated policy solutions," wrote the Fuqua researchers. "It suggests that debates that appear to be about scientific evidence may instead be fueled by something entirely unrelated to the veracity of the science: the policies most commonly proposed as the solution."

The most commonly discussed policy solutions to climate change, note the authors, "have overwhelmingly been pollution taxes, emissions restrictions and general governmental intervention" — not particularly aspirational stuff compared to, say, buying a snazzy electric vehicle, installing solar panels on your roof or ingesting an uber-hip plant-based burger.

The opportunity, then, is to make climate solutions seem within reach, without necessarily sugarcoating things. That’s hard to do, especially as people want simple solutions to complex challenges — not just to climate change, but to health care, immigration, poverty, hunger, job disruption due to technological innovations and all the rest.

And with climate change, simple solutions for individuals tend to be, almost by definition, small in nature, necessary but insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem: taking shorter showers; swapping out light bulbs; carpooling; reducing meat consumption; recycling; planting trees; flying less. The bigger, systemic solutions — decarbonizing the electric grid, buildings and cars; tropical forest restoration; family planning; expanding carbon markets worldwide; ending fossil fuel subsidies, among others — are downright knotty and expensive things to do.

Uncommitted on-ramp

So, can climate change be made simple enough to gain the engagement and support of those who, to date, have been sitting on the sidelines or opposing action altogether?

That’s an open question. What would a set of solutions look like that could serve as an on-ramp to the uncommitted? Could these solutions be made to seem not just important, but cool? Could they be rationalized as no-regrets measures that would be worth the effort even if, in the immortal words of one denier, climate change turned out to be the "greatest hoax" ever perpetuated on all us rubes?

I truly wish I had answers, but I don’t. If they’re there, they’re hard to see. Perhaps it’ll take a phalanx of social scientists working with policymakers and marketing mavens to create the kind of framing and messaging that will overcome solution aversion. But then again, all the marketing minds in the world haven’t yet managed to do this, and a number have tried.

What will it take to transform this state of affairs — to make societal solutions to climate change simple, attainable and compelling enough to overcome solution aversion?

Or is solution aversion itself one of those wicked problems that leads us to deny its very existence?