The facts about climate change are settled. Mostly. In fact, the news seems to get worse, and more urgent, every day. Yet, the more the facts stack up, the less resolve many people seem to have about getting behind solutions that will stem, or turn, the tide. What gives?
In What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, economist and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes offers a refreshing take on why we’re avoiding the obvious, and inevitable, and how climate change believers can better talk to, and support, people who are having a hard time making sense of just what it is they are supposed to be doing—eat better, buy different light bulbs, drive less, walk more, all of the above?
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In his book, Stoknes masterfully identifies the five main psychological barriers to climate action, but he then offers up five new strategies that are social, positive, and simple, and lead to making climate-friendly behaviors easy and convenient. He also examines how the consistent doom-and-gloom messages from some climate activists have only reinforced those barriers to action, and how we can turn that around.
We posed a few questions to Stoknes about his new book and how he believes we can take steps to move beyond the “Great Grief” of climate change and move toward actions that are meaningful, and improve our future.
A Conversation with Per Espen Stoknes
There are many surprises in your book, including your explanation of what really keeps people from taking action on climate change. It’s not always what people might expect. So, what keeps us from doing the right thing?
There are at least five main defenses—the five D’s as I call them—that keep us from acknowledging the need for change: We distance ourselves from the climate issue; we avoid doom and sacrifice messengers; we experience cognitive dissonance; we get rid of fear and guilt through denial mechanisms; and, automatically resist criticisms of my identity, job, and lifestyle.
And, I should be clear: It’s not that people don’t care. The problem is that people can’t see there are any effective solutions. Then they feel helpless, start distancing themselves from the issue, and give little priority to it. Our limited pool of what we most often worry about is often filled with concerns closer to us— our job, family, health, and education.
A key difference in your book, as compared to other recent climate books, is that you reveal how simple it can be to change behavior if we approach the topic differently. What should we be doing differently, and how are these new approaches proving effective?
For too long we’ve relied solely on a highly rational double push: More scientific facts will finally convince the wayward about climate change. And there must be a global price on carbon emissions. But neither is rooted in our messy, social reality or guided by how our brains actually think. Oddly enough, more facts and more taxes don’t build policy support among people.
It’s time for a different approach: Finding ways of engaging that go with the evolutionary flow of the human mind, rather than push against it. One starting point is to use the power of social networks. Most of us imitate others. If I believe everyone else is driving big cars and using more energy than me, then I’ll do the same—or more! Research has shown that if people believe their neighbors are conserving more energy and water than themselves, then they’ll start doing it, too—or more!
When working with social networks, we should avoid framing climate change as catastrophe, cost, and sacrifice. Rather, we should employ supportive framings by positioning climate change as opportunities for smarter growth solutions for our cities and companies, or as a national insurance issue, or as a public health concern.
You point out that people often change their behaviors before they change their beliefs. So is it really possible to get a denier to make behavioral changes—to live a more climate-friendly life or back more climate change-friendly policies? And will that really lead to him or her accepting the facts, eventually, on climate change?
In reality, behavior nudges are also methods of climate communication. They help us get around the five main barriers that hinder support for climate policy: They work around the distance barrier by making the climate issue feel near and relevant to personal behavior. They nudge us out of the cost and sacrifice framing that haunts the climate issue and creates the doom barrier. They promote behavior that influences attitudes, helping us reduce the dissonance and denial barriers.
It is easier to behave consistently with our beliefs when nudged. Research shows that giving money or time to a cause strengthens our positive attitudes about that cause. So nudges that combine thinking and doing can turn cognitive dissonance around for the good: If I do all these things—insulate my house, go solar, have high-quality and efficient appliances, recycle—then the cause must be important, and therefore the science behind it right. This seems to be the way our minds work—more psychological than logical.
You define the feeling that many climate change activists and scientists have around the gloom and doom of global warming as the “Great Grief.” Are we working through the five stages of grief as the notion of a dying planet takes hold? Explain how we can move from depression to action.
Climate depression is … well, depressing! Despair, anger, sorrow, loss, and exasperation … all these types of feelings are creeping up on people who get into the reality of global warming. It feels devastating, looks inevitable and terribly destructive to the beautiful landscapes we love. Most want to move out of this darkness, and into hope and action immediately. Scientists in particular are trained to take their feelings out of the equations. But, maybe we should not discard the despair and depression so fast. That our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a broadly shared reaction to the decline of nature is an idea that rarely appears in conversation or the popular media. This more-than-personal sadness is what I call the Great Grief, a feeling rising in us, in our psyche, as if from the earth itself at this time.
The challenge is to not shut ourselves out from this Great Grief when it comes to awareness. By entering more fully into the Grief, we may move through denial and bargaining, despair, and grief to a fuller acceptance of the mess we’re in. Paradoxically, as we travel through it – shaping it, expressing it – we may find a renewed way of caring for the land, air, ourselves, and others. Contact with the pain of the world can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. Through this mourning we may gradually shift from helpless depression to a heartfelt appreciation and re-engagement. Going more fully down to the depths of despair can also bring healing. It cracks the stressed-out, numbed heart open to a deeper reconnection with the more-than-human world. Painful, yes, and potentially transformative.