How We Might Be Doing Ourselves a Disservice in the Climate Fight

Understanding Hans Rosling’s gap and negativity instinct to improve climate activism

Jerren Gan
Sep 27, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

In our fight to get more people concerned about the climate, most of us are guilty of spreading only the bad news.

“The world would be unlivable for us if the temperature rises another __ degrees”
“We’re going to lose more than half of the species currently living on earth in another __ years”
“At the current rate, we will burn through all our available resources by the end of the next decade”
And the list goes on…

While most, if not all, of these might be absolutely true, we are creating what Hans Rosling would call “the mega misconception that ‘the world is getting worse’” (Rosling 2018, 40, Factfulness chapter 2).

And although we think that this would help garner more support in the fight against climate change, we might actually be doing ourselves a disservice. But before I go further, let us first understand what the gap and negativity instincts are.

What the gap and negativity instinct are all about

In his book, Factfulness, Rosling introduces these two instincts to explain why we tend to be pessimistic about the state of the world and choose to believe in the “misconception” that everything is “getting worse”.

The gap instinct is created by our inclination to “divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups”, often with “an imagined gap” in the middle.

Rosling points out that we often like to draw comparisons using extremes or averages. While this allows us to make a quick contrast and study certain trends, Rosling rightly argues that there is often a wide spread of data, with the majority of individuals sitting right where the supposed gap is.

This heavily distorts reality and instantly changes the choices available to either and or, ignoring the fact that most people reside in the middle of the two ends that are being compared.

On the other hand, the negativity instinct is the impulse that makes us notice the bad more than the good.

Rosling points out that even if we are studying a gradually improving trend, we tend to notice the dips more than the overall trend. This is the negativity instinct in effect.

Relating the instincts to climate activism

Of course, we have to first acknowledge that things are indeed grim. Even Rosling himself pointed out in Factfulness numerous cases of environmental threats that are growing. The list of endangered and critically endangered species is growing at an alarming rate, the polar ice caps are melting and sea levels continue to rise, placing low-lying areas at risk.

However, by submitting to the gap and negativity instinct, we are discouraging many from joining the cause. Some might believe that it’s a cause that is too long gone to begin fighting for. Others might argue that activists are stretching the truth and that many of the worst-case scenarios will never happen.

And who could blame these people? With bad news being constantly blasted on the news and social media, it is understandable that some might have lost hope or believe that we are making things political by only sharing the worst news possible.

In reality, we need a fact-based argument that looks at the non-negative news and acknowledges the imagined gap. The situation can be both improving and bad. When we try to worry about every single worst-case scenario, we get in our own way of focusing on the current biggest threats.

The energy system doesn’t have to be either dirty energy or renewables or nuclear. It can be a combination of all three, with dirty energy providing the energy during the transition phase, nuclear energy providing the future base load and renewables providing the energy during peak periods.

We don’t have to force people to fully give up their lifestyles and go vegan to reduce farming and save the forests, we can work towards finding a middle ground where compromises can be made and the situation can be made better. It becomes extremely difficult to get people to make changes when we paint them as one extreme (energy-guzzling, heavy carbon footprint, etc) and offer them the other extreme (zero emissions, recycling every single piece of trash, etc).

By looking at the spread of data instead of focusing only on the extremes (how much energy the majority uses, the different lifestyles led, the spread of carbon footprint), better policy recommendations can be made. As we no longer focus solely on the worst environmental transgressors, recommended changes can be smaller and more acceptable while being more effective (larger groups of individuals targeted).

Similarly, in order to reduce the negativity instinct, we have to share and celebrate the indicators whenever we’re moving in the right direction. We cannot dump every piece of bad news into the public hoping that everyone is moved to take action based on their own goodwill.

When we share some good news, others may be inspired to take action as well, creating a healthy chain of action.

Some good news that you can start with

  • While a study by the University of Leeds suggests that wheat yields would decline by 6% for every one degree celsius increase in temperature, wheat yields have actually increased 100 to 300% around the world since the 1960s.
  • According to IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), arctic sea ice changes are reversible under suitable climate restorations. That means that if we put in the effort, we can reverse some of the damage that we have done.
  • Canada, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, has amped up its commitments to fight climate change. They will be reducing taxation on green manufacturing companies and will push for a plan that could help them exceed their 2039 climate targets.
  • Africa has been leading an initiative to build the “Great Green Wall”, an 8,000 km long corridor of trees in the Sahel region. Since its beginning in 2007, 15% of the ‘wall’ has already been completed
  • According to the WWF, renewables are on an exponential trajectory that could “halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030”. If more effort is made into responsible development, we could potentially scale it to “reduce about nearly two thirds of potential emissions in 2030”

The final word

Yes, the environment is being damaged badly and the climate is warming up due to human activities.

However, by giving in to the gap and negativity instinct, we might be unknowingly making it even more difficult to encourage change.

Instead of scaring others with bad news, perhaps it’s time for us to change course and begin to appeal to others with actionable steps and share the good news related to our climate.

By getting rid of the negativity instinct, we could encourage more people to join the cause, allowing them to realize that they are indeed making an impact. And by getting rid of the gap instinct, we can suggest feasible steps that everyone and anyone can take. That way, we would definitely do much more for the cause instead of simply scaring people into helping us win this fight.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Jerren Gan

Written by

| Freelance writer • Blogger • Poet | Loves writing about the environment, mental health and the beauty of language • used to write movie and book reviews

Climate Conscious

Bringing people together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

Jerren Gan

Written by

| Freelance writer • Blogger • Poet | Loves writing about the environment, mental health and the beauty of language • used to write movie and book reviews

Climate Conscious

Bringing people together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

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