Breda O’Brien: breaking the silence on climate change

Irish people may not realise how important the conversation is on climate change

Most people who like to read probably have a couple of books that sit in a privileged spot on a bookshelf because they wielded so much influence on their thinking that it is comforting to have them close to hand. For me one of those books is The Spiral of Silence by Elisabeth Noelle Neumann.

When I read her work, ideas that had been floating around in my head in an inchoate form took proper shape for the first time. It’s an old book, first published in 1974, and revised in 1994.  Noelle-Neumann was a political scientist who was puzzled by the inability of opinion polls to accurately predict election results. Then a chance encounter in the early 1970s with a student who was wearing a Christian Democrat badge changed everything.

When Noelle-Neumann commented mildly that she had not been aware that the student was a Christian Democrat supporter, the student explained that she was not: she just wanted to experience what it was like. When Noelle-Neumann met her later, the badge was gone. The student told her that she took it off because the reaction was so awful.

Noelle-Neumann suddenly had a major insight. She began to research a hypothesis that people stay silent when they feel their views are not those of the majority because they fear isolation.


The spiral begins because when people self-silence, others also become more reticent, and so it appears that there is no opposition to the prevailing consensus.

However, in the privacy of the ballot box people could do what they wish. By adding one simple question to polls, accuracy increased exponentially. The question was: aside from your own opinion, who do you think will win the election? By being allowed to dissociate themselves from unpopular opinion, they told the truth of their own voting intentions.

Holds true

Of course, the book was written before the internet, but I think it still holds true. It just means that due to Facebook’s algorithms you are less and less likely to realise that there are other enclaves where people hold entirely different views.

The spiral of silence explains why commentators, aside from a few, did not see Brexit or Trump’s victory coming.

I was interested to see the spiral of silence referenced in a recent post by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. It was pondering whether there is a spiral of silence around climate change because it had conducted polls that showed two out of three Americans are moderately or very interested in climate change, yet seven out of 10 rarely spoke about it to friends or neighbours.

At first glance I was not sure that the spiral of silence theory fits. There would have to be an overwhelming media and public consensus that climate change is not real, or not due to human factors, for people to keep so quiet about their contrarian view that it exists. In fact, what the same survey showed is that less than half of those surveyed heard about climate change in the media once a month or more. Far from an overwhelming push in one direction, there was very little about it at all. It is the same in this country. There will be dutiful coverage of Marrakesh and COP22, the current negotiations on implementing the agreement reached in Paris last year.

Likewise, few are aware of our record on renewable energy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, renewable energy only accounts for 23 per cent of our electricity generation compared to 38 per cent in Scotland.

EU fines

Similarly, even though it will probably cost us up to €6 billion in EU fines, the fact that we will not meet our emission-reduction targets by 2020 will scarcely register in the average person’s mind.

This is not because there is a huge climate change denial movement in Ireland. Nor are there vast numbers on the other side. There are a few passionate voices trying to raise awareness of climate change, but they can be dismissed by one phrase – tree hugger.

Maybe that is where the spiral of silence theory fits – being passionate about ameliorating the effects of climate change is only for those who are slightly eccentric or whacky.

Then there is the indisputable fact that if you take climate change, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity seriously, it scares the hell out of you. In Ireland, the general response to having the hell scared out of you is to have another pint.

One response to this crisis is to highlight the job opportunities and the better, cleaner world that will result. This is important, but people need motivation to change entrenched habits. Finding a judicious balance between being paralysed by terror and yet motivated to change is not easy.

Aside from any spiral of silence, there are real feelings of overwhelm induced by fear. In any area of life the most effective counter to feeling overwhelmed is to begin to take action, no matter how small.

And if the Yale study is accurate, breaking the silence by having conversations about climate change with friends and family is a good place to start.