We’ve heard a lot about climate change and global warming over the past 20 years or so, but ironically people care about it less now than they did a decade ago. We talk to a researcher and author about how the framing of climate change can skew the message and create attitudes that affect how we think of global warming and how we become motivated – or not – to do something about it.
Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist, economist, author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a new psychology of climate action
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Gary Price: Climate change has been in the news for decades. There are reports almost weekly on how the temperature of the earth is increasing; ocean levels are rising, and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic are melting. Yet, some people – in fact a LOT of people — still either don’t believe it or are not very worried about the future of the planet. Why is this? Per Espen (pair ESpin) Stoknes wondered that too. He’s a psychologist and an economist who has studied the phenomenon of climate change and the public’s thoughts about it. He wrote about his findings in his book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a new psychology of climate action. Stoknes says that the message about climate change and our reactions to it seem out of kilter, a situation he calls the “climate paradox”…
Per Espen Stoknes: Over the previous decade we’ve seen large growth in scientific certainty in how serious this issue is and is human caused. So we had like five IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and 30,000 scientific articles but people, at least in Norway and the US are less concerned about climate change today than they were 25 years ago, back in 1989. So you’d believe that when we get more facts, more information and more knowledge about this issue, people would recognize how critical it is, but the opposite seems to be reality. And that’s what we call the psychological climate paradox.
Price: Stoknes has condensed the reasons for this paradox down to five main defenses – the five Ds — our brains use to convince us that global warming isn’t as dire as the facts indicate. The first defense is “distance”.
Stoknes: The climate seems to be distant in time, we talk about the year 2100, climate scientists are talking about the next centuries and decades. And also the imagery that has been used, such as polar bears, or Arctic ice, or cyclones in the Pacific, or drowning people in Pakistan or Bangladesh, they always seem to be very distant in space from where we live. And then, the people that suffer from this are often poorer or socially distant as well. And finally, the people who are responsible for doing something with this are national politicians or international negotiators, and we hear news from these climate negotiations, but it’s outside my scope of influence, so it doesn’t seem that whatever I do it would have any influence anyway.
Price: The news about the future is sometimes so scary and apocalyptic – Manhattan will be flooded from the ocean rising, extreme droughts will scorch the earth – that our brains don’t want to think about the consequences so we put them out of our heads. That’s the second D – doom.
Stoknes: This type of framing, as psychologists call it, that generates a want to avoid the issue, so we develop what is called avoidance behaviors. We learn to shut our ears and not think too much about it because otherwise we would feel maybe fear or guilt and these feelings are not conducive to becoming engaged in a sustainable way. What psychology has demonstrated is that fear and guilt is deeply pacifying, we choose to look the other way rather than actually engaging with it if we have too much doom. So sometimes I call this apocalypse fatigue.
Price: The third D is “dissonance.” It deals with our knowledge that we need to do something to stop global warming, but we just can’t bring ourselves to change.
Stoknes: On the one hand we know what we should do, on the other hand we have a lifestyle that was built, and together these create a conflict, or a what some in psychology would call a dissonance between what we do and how we live. So I care about the earth, I care about society, and still I live a life where I destroy it. And this feeling is kind of uncomfortable. In order to get rid of this dissonance, we people are pretty good at coming up with self-justifications for how we live. I can’t breathe and say, “It’s not my emissions, it’s there’s. It’s the Chinese or it’s the Middle East or it’s the Indians now coming up…or I can point to somewhere else.”
Price: That fear and guilt we feel is mitigated by “denial” – the fourth D, and try to resist anyone criticizing MY lifestyle or Identity – the fifth D. So how do we frame the issue of climate change so that it will become an integral part of our lives? So that we can address the problems and keep peace with our brains’ need to make us feel safe, secure and comfortable? Stoknes says we can begin by framing the issue of global warming the way we did the depletion of the ozone layer back in the 1970s.
Stoknes: The ozone layer came with a framing of really being about health here and now, in the sense that if we didn’t do it I would get skin cancer, right? And this is not necessarily is doom, but it’s health framing. Because if you look at what people actually give a high political priority – what’s called an “issue importance” – and then when they rate these, they typically give economy, health, education, jobs — those are among the top four political concerns. And climate change, if it’s listed as such, becomes like 19 out of 20. But what we can do to avoid that distancing that we’ve been talking about is that if we frame the climate as a health issue, in the same was as the ozone layer was framed as a health issue, then it suddenly gets much higher up on people’s priority lists.
Price: Stoknes says we also need to use the power of “social networks” to get people feeling comfortable about changing their lifestyles and work habits. He says we’ve tried for decades to pile facts and figures on people without much success. But if we can see that others in our social circles – our peers – are taking action, we’re more likely to do it ourselves.
Stoknes: If you have a neighborhood where one house suddenly gets solar panels on the roof, then the likelihood of the houses just nearby also getting solar panels rose way up. So, actually solar panels in a neighborhood seem to be contagious, a much higher likelihood than somewhere else.
Price: Creating neighborhood or city-wide activities that are fun and get the message across is also a good way to encourage action among residents.
Stoknes: A part of the city of Bergen in Norway, they started throwing climate parties in the neighborhood to really get people involved. Each time there’s a sports event or when spring comes and the bikes get out, or in the autumn when there’s harvesting, they have this “From Protest to Party” metaphor because that makes it much more enjoyable and fun to do something together rather than just sitting behind a television screen by yourself and being depressed by the climate news.
Price: Having fun and interacting with your neighbors to address climate change can make it a little more palatable, but there’s still that “doom” scenario hanging over our heads. Stoknes says we already prepare for disasters in our everyday lives by buying insurance, so why not extend that to climate change?
Stoknes: We don’t really think that our house will burn down, yet we do have fire insurance. We pay for that each year so we’ve learnt to handle risk. We have risk management, but we don’t do that in terms of climate, so we know that the earth may, so to speak, burn down, but we don’t invest anything or put anyone into climate insurance. This has been promoted quite effective in the U.S. report authored by a republican and a democrat. Andy Paulson and Bloomberg hold risky business. They now say, time to take out climate insurance of our own; it’s just plain, good business sense.
Price: There are also many economic opportunities that present themselves with climate change, and Stoknes says it’s a great incentive to get business on the climate bandwagon instead of looking for ways maintain the status quo. Solar and wind power could be expanded, and we could build “smart homes” that were energy-efficient instead of continuing to use large amounts of fossil fuels for heating and electricity. There is also a way that we could power our cars…not with gasoline but with solar energy created by the very roads we drive on.
Stoknes: If climate change signals a shift in our energy system that we create endless opportunities for doing things much smarter. Like we have a lot of cheap oil in 20th century, but we don’t have that much cheap oil anymore, so using solar panels, wind, making smart homes. We have smart phones we could even make smart roofs. One example of this opportunity frame is this sort of called solar road race, it’s a new technology that would replace the asphalt with solar panels you can drive on, and they would generate the power that your cars would need and you could also put some variety on them so they would have smart signals that could signal if there’s somebody crossing in the dark or they could even expand the place available for biking if there’s a lot of bikes, etc. So you have smart roads, which give us a much better livelihood, and the net energy positive, so people really like this idea and they put all the money into it so it was the highest crowdsource and entity on Indiegogo last year.
Price: Reporting about the ways we fool ourselves into doing nothing about climate change and coming up with strategies for reframing the conversation are all well and good. But what are the chances that we’ll DO anything toward finally dealing with the problem?
Stoknes: I actually think that this decade and the 15 years we have now between 2015 and 2030 are going to be the turning point in our cultures, so I call it the Breakthrough Decade along with, I think it was John Elkington. You see it started already today actually, the year 2014 was the first time in history when CO2 emissions did not increase, yet we grew our economy, and in the first quarter of 2015 China actually reduced their coal consumption more than ten percent. This is early signs along with smart investors now moving their money out of fossils and into renewables and more resource efficients that we will have, you can call it, the resource revolution.
Price: Stoknes says that the media need to do their part in all of this as well, and they can begin by reframing their own reports on climate change from doom and gloom to the positive things that can be, and are being done to address the issue. He is optimistic that we can handle global climate change and foresees a time when we’ll look back at our use of fossil fuels as rather old fashioned.
Stoknes: The solution to the climate problem is the greatest story that was never told, and, I like the metaphor, you know, from thinking about the Stone Age. The Stone Age way back didn’t end because of a lack of stones, it ended because people found a smarter way of doing things, and petroleum, or the petro in petroleum means actually stones, so the petroleum age won’t end because of a lack of oil, but because we find a much smarter way of achieving what we want, which is mobility, light, entertainment, temperature that we want to have and food that doesn’t rely on an excessive, wasteful use of oil. I think very soon oil and petroleum will have an image of being just so 20th century.
Price: You can read the research and learn about strategies for dealing with climate change in the public and private spheres – and in our own heads – in Per Espen Stoknes’s book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, available now in stores and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at Stoknes.com. For information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.