George Marshall in New York, NY
Who is George Marshall? And why is he devoting his life to talking about climate change?
NEW YORK, N.Y. — George Marshall, in suit pants and fedora, looks like a distracted businessman, but in fact he’s a missionary in a cultural crusade to get people to talk about climate change. And he has no fear of hostile retorts. In a restaurant in New York City, on one of his infrequent trips from Wales, he recently dropped his menu, stood up, and stepped over to the next table. “Excuse me, is that salad good?” The diners looked surprised, but they said that yes, it was. They chatted. Marshall left them smiling, returned to his table, and promptly ordered what they had — the Cobb salad.
That’s exactly the way Marshall, co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, COIN, and climatedenial.org, a blog about the psychology of climate change denial, tackles the problem to which he’s devoted his life. He’ll walk up to complete strangers and ask them what they think about the topic that many prefer not to talk about anymore — the changing climate.
He says it’s his “personal passion” to talk to those who don’t agree with his contention that the majority of scientists are right about the rate of and reasons for the rapid warming.
He believes that unless everyone starts talking about the rapid changes in the climate, problems will get worse, and that communicators have to branch out, reaching audiences often not adequately considered.
Marshall, 49, works as a consultant, speaker, and writer, and he urges people to look at climate change from new angles. He sees himself as an outsider in many political landscapes, with interests in some aspects of both conservative and liberal political agendas.
He lives in Wales with his American-born wife, Annie Levy, and their school-age daughter and son. They rarely fly because of the high carbon footprint. “We’ve become niche specialists in talking to new audiences,” Marshall says. COIN’s clients have included large trade unions in the U.K. such as the Communication Workers Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union. COIN is working on a climate change communication program with the government of Wales, and Marshall has been testing ways of talking about the issue with groups there. Focus group participants reacted most positively to a “woo-woo” set of statements and slogans such as, “There are things in life that are more important than just money …. such as the time you spend with your friends, and family, and community,” the test slogan went.
“We seek to actively develop programs with constituencies that are outside the current climate change discussion,” Marshall says. “We proactively seek them out.”
Society’s ‘Negotiated Silence’ … and Need for a ‘Very Hard Prod’
In his work as a consultant for governments and organizations about climate change, Marshall draws on his earlier work as an activist against destructive logging in Papua, New Guinea. He says now that although protests can be disruptive, he believes they have an important place in society — including in the work he’s doing now, prodding, as he puts it, large institutions and governments to change their climate policies. It’s an issue Marshall wrote about – the role of radical protests in policy changes — in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year.
No longer a protester himself, Marshall says large institutions, including governments, need ”a very, very hard prod” to change their climate policies and rhetoric. “I think it is a huge mistake for people to say radical action is no way to change things.”
On the Other Hand, Like Attracts Like Interests
Some years ago, Marshall got out of forest activism after 15 years. He turned to the broader matter of the climate because he decided that most countries suffer with language challenges. He has addressed people from around the world on how best to talk about the climate with their peers. On the same trip that took him to the New York restaurant where he talked to The Yale Forum, Marshall had given a speech to a group of more than 100 in Venezuela, chatted about world temperatures with antique car-buyers in northern California, and, the next day, was on his way to interview victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey.
“My core contention is that climate change is a contested narration that is shaped by social negotiation,” he says. The problem, as Marshall frames it, is so bad now that people just don’t talk. Climate change frightens them, Marshall says.
And, just as he walked up to the couple at the restaurant, Marshall goes up to almost anyone he sees in public and asks about climate change.
He sees himself involved in a continuing social experiment — currently not going too well in the sense that people are not wanting to talk to him. “I might go up to four people sitting together,” he says. “I say, I’m over here and I’m writing an article for a British newspaper, and they’ll go, ‘Hey that’s really interesting.’ I’ll say, ‘I’m going all around America asking people what they think about climate change. Bang. Boom. The void opens. Three of them instantly turn away and start their own conversation.”
Something like that happens regularly as he asks groups about climate change. “I do it constantly,” he says.
Flying Too Much Vs. ‘A Lovely Spinach Tart’
One of his favorite examples of a social interchange killing a potential discussion of climate change is one that he describes in his book Carbon Detox. (Marshall this year is writing another book about how to get the climate change message across.)
The story involves a man who was at a fancy dinner party with retired professionals. Marshall goes on: “He raised the issue of how could they possibly fly so much, and they were completely silent. No one said anything until someone said, ‘What a delicious spinach tart.’ And then they spent the next 10 minutes talking about spinach tart — in obsessive detail. It wasn’t just a random thing. Spinach tart became climate change. ‘What a lovely spinach tart. Where did you get the spinach? I must have the recipe.’”
It’s an unusual turn of conversation, but Marshall says it happens because climate change remains a specialty topic, a subject some find uncomfortable. Back in 2007, Marshall searched for the words “climate change” on websites of major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, YWCA, Oxfam US, and others. He found few or no mentions of the term. He also searched for innocuous words like “donkey” or “ice cream” as controls for his experiment. He says no single site back then mentioned climate change more often than it did donkeys or ice cream. (A quick Yale Forum check finds the term “climate change” cropping up a number of times now on Amnesty International’s site.)
Marshall’s point: the subject of climate change remains for many an uncommon one. “The question,” Marshall asks, “is: Why?”
He answers. “In society as a whole — and I think this applies at a micro level in individuals and peer groups and institutions — I think there is a deliberately negotiated silence on climate change. And in this regard I draw strongly on the research of people who have looked at the generation of silence as a sociological discipline, especially in regard to human rights.”
Marshall believes that the way societies respond now to climate change mirrors the way they respond to human rights abuses: with silence. “That is not to say they are the same thing,” he says.
Might a psychologist (amateur or not) call this denial? Marshall agrees, adding that a Freudian psychoanalyst would call it “disavowal.” He mentions the book The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel. It covers the topic of people who do not connect themselves in any way with the body of information about the climate.
“Disavowal would be a state of both knowing and not knowing,” Marshall says. “Selective recognition. It’s not ignorance. It’s not outright denial.”
Training Conservatives to Talk to Conservatives
Marshall seems bent on undoing the old fight between those who accept climate change science and those who steadfastly resist it. But making peace there means talking to the “other side.”
Within the past year, Marshall has visited Texas and sought members of the Tea Party in that state. He does it because he wants to figure out how to talk to them about the climate. “I don’t understand American politics,” he says. “I ask people in the Tea Party where they got their ideas.” They have cited talk shows and news programs.
“The Tea Party is a genuine movement, a radical social movement that I can only dream of for climate change,” he says.
Taking a lesson from that dream, Marshall lays out his strategies as a climate consultant and as a writer and speaker. “I don’t want to give a speech to a conservative audience,” he says. “I want a conservative to do that. My interest is in finding a conservative to do it.”
It’s not that he wants to turn all people interested in the environment into conservatives. “But I want conservatives to understand and get climate change as an issue, to be actively involved in shaping a conservative narrative, and I think that environmentalists can help that process to happen.” The way that will happen, he thinks, involves shaping new stories and new language so that messengers can speak to whatever audience they’re trying to reach.
What Journalists Should Do
Marshall thinks the news media should boldly jump into the worldwide dialogue about the climate of the future. But he thinks too that they should try some new tactics.
He likes to say that journalism since the dawn of the World Wide Web has changed radically, to the point where it’s even hard to define. In that spirit, he says journalists should write for audiences they might already know but may not consider among their principal or normal audiences.
Belong to a religious organization? Then consider writing about the climate for your religious magazine or website, Marshall recommends. Like to fish? Write about the climate for your favorite fishing magazine.
“There’s limited value in writing for a liberal outlet complaining about how appalling it is that so many people deny climate change,” he says with a hint of exasperation. “What is that achieving? You could maybe work for a liberal outlet and say, ‘This is how as individuals we can help to overcome this and persuade others.’ Part of the silence or the meta-silence is that we do not feel confident or empowered to bring up any of these subjects.”
Marshall says many people never find it “appropriate” to discuss climate change so it’s the task those in the communication business to make it so.
“I think any time you have a conversation with anyone about the weather you should bring climate change into the conversation, not in a hectoring, judgmental, on-your-soapbox way but just drop it in there every single time. ‘Weird weather we’re having …. yeah well, personally, I believe it’s climate change and that something weird has been going on. And it’s been getting weirder.’ Just put it out there.”
But most of the time in these talks he has with strangers, Marshall says, they just stop talking. That doesn’t matter, he says. Just putting it out there helps “establish staging points in that void where it is acceptable to talk about it.”
About This Article
I read a transcript of George Marshall’s talk in 2012 before a group of social scientists who study climate change. His refreshing take and sense of humor intrigued me. I wanted to meet him and see what made him so dedicated. I wrote this article for Bud Ward of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. It was posted there on May 14.