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How to talk climate change across the aisle: Focus on adaptive solutions rather than causes

Talking about climate change as a mitigation problem, where society needs to use less energy from driving and other daily uses, has failed to get broad public support. septim/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

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Conversations about climate change often derail into arguments about whether global warming exists, whether climate change is already happening, the extent to which human activity is a cause and which beliefs are based in evidence versus propaganda.

Can we have more productive discussions? We think the answer is yes, but like so many things, it depends.

Many have argued it’s better to focus on strategic solutions to climate change than on science or politics or pundits. Solutions directly affect our future, whereas past-oriented debates focus on who or what is to blame and who should pay, and thus are highly polarizing.

Breaking from the old, stale debates sounds appealing, but new debates lie ahead. The solutions to our climate challenges differ from one another not just technically (cutting emissions, carbon capture, planting trees, erecting seawalls and elevating roads and buildings), but also psychologically and behaviorally.

What will be the major disagreements, and agreements, of the future? Are there different psychological and behavioral roadblocks and paths to different climate solutions, and if so, what are they? We have some initial answers to these questions, as well as important questions for going forward.

Underlying psychologies

To begin solving the dilemmas of climate change, two primary strategic approaches require discussion: mitigation and adaptation.

For years, the primary option and a lightning rod for disagreement has been mitigation, or actions that cut the amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. For many, mitigation is essential; for many others, cutting emissions threatens industry, jobs, free markets and our quality of life.

Now we are entering a period of adaptation, in which we must try to reduce the impact of the coming changes. Examples include changing agricultural practices, erecting seawalls, and new approaches to architecture and living arrangements.

In some ways it is a relief to articulate ways to adapt to climate change. More coping options are better than fewer, right? Well, not necessarily. Their costs and risks differ, their effects are uncertain and varied, and decisions that will drive their deployment can derive from radically different evaluations and judgments.

We should not choose between mitigation or adaptation because we need both. We cannot lose sight of this dual need. But we will continue to face very demanding decisions about how to allocate finite resources – money, time, effort and so on – across multiple strategic options. This is where tomorrow’s difficult conversations will unfold.

How will trade-offs be made, and what kinds of perceptions and biases will determine our choices? We will not be able to optimize our strategies, as objectively and effectively as humanly possible, without understanding the psychologies underlying them.

Research into the psychology of different climate solutions is in its infancy. A recent study showed how different political ideologies predict different levels of support for free market versus regulatory solutions for cutting carbon emissions.

Building on this foundation, we wanted to ascertain and test people’s differing perceptions of mitigation versus adaptation as climate solutions. Such differences, we presumed, will be crucial in shaping the nature of future conversations, decisions, and actions.

In surveys of two online samples in the United States, taken when temperatures around the country differed significantly, we asked respondents to describe their beliefs about global warming and climate change. We separated and defined mitigation and adaptation strategies, and asked how much people were willing to support these different types of climate solutions.

As might be intuited, support for mitigation and for adaptation were positively correlated – people who supported one were more likely to support the other. However, while the two overlap, they do understand and perceive the two strategies to be different.

Gateway strategy?

We found additional important differences. Overall, mitigation solutions received more support than adaptation strategies. Mitigation was also more divisive, showing the widest divide between conservatives and liberals. Adaptation was less divisive; perhaps this bodes well for future climate-solution conversations and action.

However, a key caveat is crucial for thinking about how we go forward. While we did find less disagreement around adaptation, and some general support, many people probably have not yet been exposed to information or debates about adaptation, or given it much thought.

Perhaps this novelty represents a naive stage among citizens about any issue before it becomes politicized and polarizing. On the other hand, adaptation more than mitigation is agnostic about climate-change causes; whether climate change results from human causes or natural ones is irrelevant. This may be one reason we found more agreement around adaptation.

But what will happen when adaptation is as prominent on everyone’s radar as mitigation has been for years? Maybe it will become polarizing like mitigation, in which case we should have more of these conversations sooner rather than later.

Looking ahead, certain questions are crucial: As we engage in more adaptation efforts, what will we do with respect to mitigation? We cannot stop engaging in those vital activities to reduce greenhouse gases. On the other hand, the climate change train has left the station, so we have to adapt. But beware the false choice; we still have to slow the train down through more mitigation.

Theories offer competing predictions on whether engaging in adaptation will reduce our mitigation efforts. People may feel less urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through mitigation if we interpret our adaptation as progress and preparedness, lessening our “felt need” to mitigate.

On the other hand, people may come to see both mitigation and adaptation as a commitment to doing all that is needed to cope with climate change, and view the two solution strategies as complementary rather than substitutes.

Ideally, adaptation is a gateway strategy for cooperation, a common ground for conversation and the beginnings of continued collaboration. Ideally, too, adaptation efforts will reveal more about the full costs of climate change. After all, action now and at the source (mitigation) is both cheaper and higher leverage than forever adapting into the future.

And now geoengineering – or deliberately altering the climate system, such as shielding the sun’s heat by injecting particles into the atmosphere – is looming as a possible third solution set. Crucially, geoengineering has a different risk matrix and unstudied implications, both scientific and psychological.

Only by understanding the psychology of climate change can we deploy optimal strategies and solution mixes that vary appropriately over time and across different geographies.

The ConversationThe authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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