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The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?


(Just to encourage you to read the comments on this piece, as well as the piece itself - useful contributions by Ed Cameron, and some additional material by me, including an application of Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind) (SM - April 2013)

Sam Bickersteth and I had an article in Open Democracy on 11 October, reproduced below. Among other things, it asked what would happen if leaders like Barack Obama, Manmohan Singh and Angela Merkel really believed, viscerally, that climate change was something they had to fix as a top priority – and explored how they might be converted. How, we asked, might we disrupt the psychological status quo?

The importance of the question was reinforced for me when I attended the first day of the always excellent Chatham House climate change conference on 15 October. My notes on that are also reproduced below. The theme is that the pessimists and optimists are far apart. Personally, I thought the pessimists had a pretty good case.

So, what can be done? Of course, some will say that the political conditions make it impossible for politicians to raise their game. Climate change appears to be a toxic topic in the US, for example, certainly in election year. India is hobbled in negotiation by its attachment to casting blame on developed countries for their ‘historic responsibility’. But isn’t leadership about changing the public mood rather than just accepting it? Making the weather, rather than just responding to it.

Two things then come into play. The first is that leaders really have to believe that climate change trumps other issues. The second is that they have to deploy high-level political skills to make the case. Usually, in the think-tank world at least, we focus on the second question, how to frame the debate and craft the message. There is a literature on that. I like Chip and Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’, and Drew Weston’s ‘The Political Brain’. George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ is also a good read. Committed leadership can make a difference, even in hostile circumstances. I often cite President Museveni, battling HIV/AIDSHuman Immuno-Deficiency Virus/Aquired Immuneo-Deficiency Syndrome in Uganda, who instructed every minister that every time they made a speech, on whatever subject, they had to start by saying ‘wear a condom’. Imagine if President Obama and the rest were so concerned about climate change, that they talked about it all the time.

But what about the first question? What does it take really to convince world leaders from different cultures, with different training, and with different personalities?

My first thought was St Paul on the Road to Damascus: travelling from Jerusalem, where he had been persecuting Christians, to Damascus, for more of the same, but stopped in his tracks by a vision. I suppose that we can’t expect personalised miracles for every world leader. I am interested to know, though, how conversion works. Does there need to be a susceptibility? And are there some tricks of the trade? V.S. Naipul’s The Mystic Masseur certainly had a few, mostly involving the family letting off fireworks in the back bedroom, to impress clients with the power of his treatment. Would that work?

A second thought was that the message needs to be tailored to the personality type. A Myers-Briggs analysis would be useful. Some people will only be impressed by hard facts and equations; others will need empathetic stories. I wonder whether we can guess at the Myers-Briggs profile of different leaders? I’ve never tried to do this, but I do remember being in a meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister. There were half a dozen of us in his room in Moncloa, the government compound, to talk about the food crisis. Five of us had arguments, backed up by statistics. The sixth had a photograph of a starving child. Game over.

I remember Matthew Taylor, who ran the Policy Unit in No 10, saying that a key lesson was that you had to win the pubic argument about what the problem was before you could win the argument about the solution. Tony Blair took all the G8Group of Eight leaders down to Exeter, to the Hadley Centre, to try and achieve that objective. We should ask him whether he felt he succeeded.

Meanwhile, there are other books that might help. I’ve acquired, but haven’t yet read, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. I’m told I need to read Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’. What else?

Or perhaps we should just rely on social movements to move the debate? The World Resources Institute is doing interesting work on that.


*   *    *

From Open Democracy: Latest climate signs should jolt leaders into global action

The evidence is hardening that climate change presents a clear and present danger, rather than one which is uncertain and distant. At the same time, the UN climate talks roam around the world, marking time to match electoral cycles, hoping that a quasi-legal agreement will come into force in 2020. We are forcefully reminded of Giddens’ paradox: that people will not act until they come face to face with the consequences of climate change – by which time it will be too late.

Disaster is certainly close. Four recent pieces of evidence give pause for thought.

First, advances in the science of attribution suggest it is now more likely that extreme weather events are the results of long term climate change rather than just being random examples of shocks consistent with historic trends. The UK Met Office reports, for example, that November 2011 was the second warmest since records began in 1659, and was sixty times more likely to have occurred even than in the 1960s. Not all extreme weather events are climate-related, however. The 2011 floods in Thailand were just weather.

Second, longer term transformation appears to be imminent. Professor Peter Wadhams observed in September not only that Arctic summer sea ice had shrunk to its lowest level ever, but that the Arctic would be ice-free in summer by as early as 2015-16. Prof Wadhams said that the implications would be ‘terrible’, because the melting of undersea permafrost would release huge quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Research at the University of Reading has linked the wet UK summer of 2012 to warming of the Atlantic, partly cyclical and unrelated to climate change, but partly linked to long term increases in global concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Third, the global interconnections are increasingly evident. The US drought of 2012 is directly implicated in a food price spike affecting millions. Prices are not yet as high as in the major food crisis of 2008, but the FAO food price index rose 1.4% in September alone. According to the World Bank, maize prices more than doubled in some markets in Mozambique; sorghum prices tripled in Sudan and South Sudan. As the new President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, has observed,  ‘we cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food’.

Fourth, the economic costs are rising. The new Climate Vulnerability Monitor argues that climate change, and the associated costs of reliance on fossil fuels, already cost the world economy $US1.2 trillion a year, equivalent to 1.6% of global GDP. The losses are proportionately higher in least developed countries – already amounting to 7% of GDPGross Domestic Product in 2010. Higher temperatures will have a devastating impact on labour productivity in hot countries. Some five million lives a year are already lost to climate and carbon impacts.

This is not what we expected. Short-term shocks and long-term trends, hitting sooner than expected, with global consequences and immediate costs. The case for action on climate change was often based on the idea of the precautionary principle – that there would be impacts and costs, not easily estimated and not for a while, but worth investing now to avoid, just to be safe.  The premature impact of climate change demands a change in the logic of intervention. It makes no sense to invoke the precautionary principle when the costs of climate change are not far distant, but felt today.

You would think that leaders would find this argument self-evident, and that fixing the climate would be seen world-wide as a matter of screaming urgency, far outweighing other global emergencies, natural or economic. Certainly, that is true of leaders of the most vulnerable countries, like the Maldives, Bangladesh and the many other members of the Climate Vulnerability Forum. It is also true of countries that have experienced severe natural disasters: Pakistan, for example, after the floods of 2010, which cost 8% of GDP; or El Salvador, badly affected by a rising number of tropical storms from the Pacific. But does even another onslaught on Louisiana not change the debate in the United States? Not in election year, apparently. In Europe, enthusiasm for action on climate is patchy: strong in Denmark, for example, but less so in some other countries. It is hard to make the case to finance ministers facing fiscal melt-down.

There are only two ways out of the impasse. The first is to disrupt the psychological status quo: bring leaders and their negotiators face to face with the financial and human reality of changing climate, thus injecting a sense of crisis and stronger leadership into the UN process. The second is to by-pass the talks altogether and achieve sufficient progress on the ground such that disaster can be averted.

What, then, might turn Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Manmohan Singh from India, and the new Chinese leadership into passionate advocates? What would persuade them to storm the UN climate talks in Qatar in November and refuse to leave until a deal had been agreed? Theory suggests that some combination of rational and emotional drivers will be needed.

Rational drivers should be straightforward. The science is banked, and will become more visible when the fifth report of the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change is published, in 2014. The economic benefits of action should also be obvious, even for the few countries immune to current climate shocks. Greater energy efficiency is a win-win, for example. If in doubt, countries should look to the ‘co-benefits’ of climate action: cleaner air, or less congestion in cities. It is no surprise that mayors often lead the call for climate action. Toronto, for example closed its coal-fired power stations – not because it was worried about the climate, but to combat smog. In New Delhi, the conversion of buses to run on natural gas reduced pollution and contributed to human health. Some 100,000 vehicles in India’s capital city now run on gas.

But leaders will ask whether tackling climate change is really worth the hassle, including dealing with the vehement opposition of lobbies that would lose? More NGOs waving more placards will help to balance the influence of the vested interests. Stopping climate change is certainly a candidate for the kind of mass movement which characterised support for Band Aid and Make Poverty History for a previous generation of activists. In 2005, at the time of the Gleneagles Summit, Downing Street used to carry out what was known as ’reverse lobbying’: encouraging NGOs to demonstrate, so as to make it easier politically to implement change.

However, the psychological answer is that whether change happens will depend how much leaders really care about climate change. Is the urgency of tackling climate change felt viscerally? Perhaps the next G20 should take place on a melting icefloe in the Arctic, or on a burning plain in Idaho. Perhaps President Putin, who leads the G20 next year should hold his Summit on the thawing tundra in Siberia. Or perhaps leaders should be taken, one by one, with no advisers, to spend a day comforting a mother who has lost her child to flood or famine. The political has to be made personal. Imagine the magic Barack Obama’s rhetoric might weave if climate change became his personal crusade. There are precedents. For example, according to Professor James Putzel, President Museveni led a political campaign against HIV/AIDs in Uganda, ordering ministers and senior officials to talk about how to stop the spread of the infection ‘at every meeting, without exception’.

If that fails, then Plan B is to make so much progress away from the talks that the legal agreement, if and when it comes, amounts to no more than a ratification of the new status quo. The driver will be financial – competitive advantage in a global economy re-shaped by green technology. How extraordinary, for example, that China already exports to the EUEuropean Union € 21bn worth of solar panels every year – and how telling that the solar industry in Europe has lobbied successfully for an anti-dumping probe. Telling also that the US Export-Import Bank has provided $US 2bn in export credit guarantees to South Africa, to help ensure that Africa’s surge in renewable investment makes use of US technology.

Change would be faster if the carbon price were higher and more predictable. Technologies that make no sense when the carbon price languishes below €10 will come into their own when the price reaches €50 or €100. Even so, there will be trillions of dollars at stake in the new economy, and millions of jobs. Progressive investors, companies and countries know this. Any country committed to growth must surely have an industrial policy which encourages investment in the emerging sectors and technologies. China is an exemplar, as are Korea and Denmark. In the developing world, Rwanda, Costa Rica and Ethiopia are among those following suit, with climate-friendly policies to deliver jobs, poverty reduction and human welfare..

We describe such policies as leading to ‘climate compatible development’: a change trajectory which leads to lower carbon emissions and also to better protection against the inevitable consequences of climate change, while at the same time contributing to development goals.

There is no time to waste. Many scientists have given up on the target of two degrees. Last year, according to the International Energy Agency, the world dumped another 32 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, from burning fossil fuels alone. This was an increase of 3% on the previous year, when what was needed was a fall. Our hearts and our heads tell us this has to stop.



*   *   *


Notes from the Chatham house Conference on Climate Change

Optimists and pessimists seemed very far apart at the annual Chatham House conference on climate change. One the one hand, professional optimists like Cristiana Figueres, Connie Hedegaard and the UK’s energy and climate minister, Ed Davey, pointed to progress in the global climate negotiations and to the rapid growth of green investments on the ground. On the other hand, scientists and independent policy analysts sounded loud alarms on the science and bemoaned the slow, dripping waste of political capital. To my mind, the pessimists won the day. Along the way, there were some especially interesting snippets about coal and gas, about technology and about outsourcing carbon emissions to China.


Even the optimists agreed that emissions were rising and that the evidence of short-term impacts was accumulating. However, they argued that

  • The mood was shifting, even in the US (Connie Hedegaard);
  • The economic case was becoming clear, and that action on climate change would be beneficial (CH); and
  • The talks were progressing (‘more progress since Copenhagen than in the ten previous years’: Cristiana Figueres);
  • Change would be delivered by a combination of top down and bottom up initiatives (i.e. talks plus new technologies)

From the top down perspective, Cristiana Figueres reviewed three tracks post-Durban:

  1. On the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the elements of an outline agreement were in place, for either 5 years (to 2018) or 8 years (to carry over into the post-Durban settlement).
  2. On Long Term Cooperative Action, the main focus was on developing a negotiating framework, clarifying views and finance. She noted that the Board of the Green Climate Fund would be meeting in Korea and deciding on the location.
  3. On the Durban Platform, there were ‘incipient’ negotiations, focused on how to increase the ambition of existing pledges, bring new countries in, and incorporate new initiatives (for example cooperation on renewable technologies).

From the bottom-up perspective, a number of speakers cited evidence of investments on the ground and of positive policy processes:

  • In Denmark last year, green exports grew by 28% and now account for 10% of total exports;
  • 17 countries now have climate legislation;
  • There were now 33 national and 18 sub-national carbon emissions trading schemes, covering 20% of world emissions – and useful links like that between the EUEuropean Union and Australian ETS.


The pessimists summarised the evidence on emissions and impacts. Thomas Stocker’s powerpoint will be a valuable resource. Connie Hedegaard made the point that we have had 330 consecutive months of temperatures higher than the twentieth century average. SREX was cited on the impact of extreme events.

Dieter Helm was especially outspoken, drawing on his new book, the Carbon Crunch. The atmosphere already contains 400 parts of CO2 per mission, and we are adding 3ppm p.a.. Two degrees is way beyond anything we can achieve. Coal is the big driver, with a ‘dash for coal’ in Europe, squeezing out gas, and big expansion also in India and China. At present rates of growth, the Indian and Chinese economies will be twice their present size by 2020.

Worse, he said, policy is all wrong. Kyoto suits Europe, because it is based on a production target not a consumption target, and allows EUEuropean Union to continue consuming while out-sourcing emissions. Between 1990 and 2005, UK emissions went down 15% but consumption (of carbon?) went up 19%. The EUEuropean Union 20/20/20 target is economically illiterate and has led us to pursue inefficient current technologies, like offshore wind/ Current North Sea wind farms (1.7 Gw) are equivalent to only one medium-sized gas plant.

From others, there was pessimism about the quality of any deal for 2015, about geopolitical tensions, shale gas, carbon pricing, border taxes, scope for new generation renewable.

Some issues

There was discussion about a familiar list of issues, including: the need for emerging powers to take on responsibilities; carbon pricing; alternatives to GDPGross Domestic Product accounting; climate change and conflict; CCS;  biofuels. A couple of snippets:

  • Gas generally seen as a valuable short-term fix, substituting for coal, and buying some time. Shale gas defended. A good thing that gas prices are falling.
  • Energy efficiency the ‘hidden fuel’;
  • Debate about potential of next generation renewable, incl infrared solar, geothermal, gravity, battery technology.


Picture credit:


# Director, International ClimateGuest 2012-10-23 16:02
Simon, there is an important insight at the heart of this excellent blog. You argue effectively that “leadership” is a sine qua non for urgent, ambitious and effective climate action. I agree that we need to change the public mood rather than just accepting it; I do worry about waiting on our leaders to lead.

It seems to me having watched the Presidential debates in the United States that those of us who care about safeguarding people, prosperity and planet will need to find a way to compel our leaders to take action. There are precedents to suggest we can succeed. In the 1930s President Roosevelt met with a group of activists who sought his support for new deal legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it." At the height of the civil rights movement Lyndon Johnson listened intently as Dr King talked about daily humiliations, intimidation and violations of basic rights. LBJ’s response was "OK. You go out there Dr. King and keep doing what you're doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing." Both FDR and LBJ knew that leaders concentrate their limited time and capital on issues that have been elevated to the top of the political agenda. They knew that domestic constituencies of demand, equipped with powerful and compelling narratives, could move the political process and force leaders to lead. The noted American scholar John Kingdon has captured this dynamic in his seminal work from 1984 “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies”. He argues that the patterns of public policy are determined not only by such final decisions as votes in legislatures or “leadership” by heads of government but also by the fact that some issues emerge in the first place and some never even get considered. As the Guardian notes this morning, this year’s Presidential debates were the first since 1988 without a single word on climate change despite its fundamental importance for national security, energy independence, economic prosperity and livelihoods. So the question before our community is how do we change this?

We feel there is much to learn from the new social movements that have emerged over the past five years. From the colored revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Iran to the indignado protests in Europe; from the Occupy phenomenon to the Tea Party; and throughout the Middle East and North Africa on the tide of the Arab Spring. These movements are all very different but have one important commonality. They each used justice as a core narrative to push for change. They mobilized people around notions of rights, freedom and justice and with differing degrees of success they captured a prevailing zeitgeist. There is an opportunity for the climate community to learn from this example. We need to complement the scientific evidence and the economic case for the transition to low carbon development with a human-centered story that firmly establishes climate change as an issue of fundamental rights and justice. WRI is working with our partners at the Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice to harvest lessons from these movements and explore how we can advance the cause of climate justice over the coming three years. We are hopeful that we can elevate climate change to the top of the political agenda and push for an ambitious and equitable international climate agreement in 2015.

The so-called pessimists are right to point to the size of the emissions gap, the absence of political will, and the scale of transformation required to wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels. But let us not allow pessimism to turn into a failure of our collective imagination. On 17 December 2010 a street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a small provincial Tunisian town to protest the confiscation of his unlicensed vegetable cart, and in defiance of successive acts of humiliation. As Paul Mason has outlined in the excellent book “Why its kicking off everywhere” within eight months “what began with Bouazizi had ripped away the fabric of autocratic rule across the Middle East”. No one saw it coming and yet the landscape has been changed.

Simon, your blog mentioned St Paul on the Road to Damascus. Perhaps we need to take a lead from Luke 14:23 - "Go out into the highways and compel them to come in that my house may be filled". If we want heads of government to prioritize climate change we will need to compel them to act. We will need strong narratives, powerful incentives, a robust evidence base supporting climate compatible development and most of all a determined domestic constituencies demanding action.
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# RE: The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?Simon Maxwell 2013-01-21 10:06
I observed earlier in this thread that I had been advised to read Jonathan Haidt’s book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’. I now have, and enjoyed it a lot. Apart from anything else, the little stories he uses to tease out the reader’s moral positioning make for great conversation over dinner. ‘You think they were right to eat their dog . . .!’.

Haidt describes himself as a moral psychologist and explores the roots of morality. There are three core propositions.

First, moral judgements are largely intuitive rather than rational. Strategic reasoning is used to justify or back up intuition, rather than replace it. We should think of ourselves as being small (rational) riders on large (intuitive) elephants.

Second, morality can be understood as having six dimensions, like a tongue with six taste receptors: the taste buds of the righteous mind. Not everyone has the same taste, but all of us exhibit preferences on way or another on six dimensions. These are:

* Care/Harm

* Fairness/Cheating

* Loyalty/Betrayal

* Authority/Subversion

* Sanctity/Degradation

* Liberty/Oppression

It is fun to test where you stand at The website provides insight into your own moral positioning, but also enables you to compare your results with those of some 150,000 other people.

Third, we are both ‘selfish’ and ‘groupish’: 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Mostly, we pursue our own interests, but we are also part of a moral economy. Our teams are sometimes religious, sometimes not, but shape behaviour and create division: ‘morality binds and blinds’. Our minds ‘were designed for groupish righteousness’ – and this often makes it difficult to connect and engage across group boundaries, including those of politics.

Haidt claims, finally, to have ‘explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not, as Manicheans would have it, because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.’ We should try to connect. After all, Haidt concludes, quoting Rodney King, a black man beaten by Los Angeles police in 1992, ‘we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out’.

In trying to apply these ideas to the problem of commitment to action on climate change which is the subject of this thread, a useful section of the book deals with the need for successful political campaigns to target all six of the moral receptors and not just one. Reflecting on John Kerry’s campaign for the Presidency, Haidt concludes that ‘Republicans understand moral psychology, Democrats don’t’. Thus, Democrats dealt mostly in fairness and care. Republicans, on the other hand, ranged across fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and sexuality: they appealed to a broader palate. President Obama had a more sophisticated range of messages, but also tended in the old Democrat direction. I wonder whether he has ever completed the questionnaires?!

What this means, I suppose, is that the case for action on climate change needs to tickle all six of the moral taste buds. Something like this?

‘We must tackle climate change because it will harm us, our children and our children’s children. The costs will be borne by all of us, but especially by the weakest in society, at home and abroad. This is not fair to any of us, and we must all play our part in finding a solution, according to our capacities and capabilities. We must believe this and act voluntarily together, but make no mistake, this is a national mission, which we will take on together: no-one can be allowed to stand aside. Our country’s survival is at stake, our ability to sustain a society in which people can be free. We have a moral responsibility also. Our health, our happiness and our future depend on our capacity as human beings to preserve the natural environment in which we are rooted and which we have a duty to preserve.’

Can you do better?
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# RE: The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?Simon Maxwell 2013-01-22 07:41
How interesting is this. Hardly had I written my version of a taste-receptor version of an Obama statement on climate change than he delivered his own, in the inauguration address. Here it is, pasted in below. How do you think he did?

'We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That's how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure -- our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'
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# RE: The optimists and pessimists are far apart on climate change. How can we disrupt the psychological status quo?Simon Maxwell 2013-04-23 20:25
One more brief comment on this. I've been reading Andrew Adonis' book on education reform ( He offers twelve lessons on How to be a Reformer:

1. Address the big problems
2. Seek the truth and fail to succeed
3. Keep it simple
4. Be bold, but go with the grain as far as possible
5. Lead and explain, lead and explain
6. Build a team
7. Build coalitions, not tabernacles
8. Champion consumers not producers
9. On important issues, micro-manage constantly
10. Keep calm and carry on
11. Reform is a marathon not a sprint
12. Always have a plan for the future
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