Stoknes climate psychology

Per Espen Stoknes

Per Espen Stoknes is a Norwegian economist and psychologist who has written about the main psychological barriers to thinking constructively about climate change. He also gives some solutions to overcome them. We need to be smart about how we communicate climate change in order to make long-term thinking and action compatible with our irrational human tendencies.

According to Stoknes, the human psyche constructs five barriers to climate  concern; distance, doom, dissonance, denial, identity. They are five sorts of defense mechanisms which make up walls surrounding the self.

1. Distance

Because people perceive climate change as distant, they struggle to engage with it. Climate change can be perceived as distant both temporally, geographically or socially.

Stoknes argues that we simply have less empathy with increased social distance. Climate science deals with timescales that may be out of our lifetime or beyond the scope of our imagination. We often see images of geographically distant mountain glaciers which we may feel little innate connection to. Places with larger climate changes appearing are usually socially distant from people in the English-speaking world (who have the greatest proportion of climate doubters).

Climate change is often also talked about at international conferences in circular halls. In this sense it can seem to exist in a different realm – likewise the responsibility for dealing with it appears distant.

Psychological distance from a problem reduces our urgency to associate and deal with it. Challenges we perceive as distant settle to the bottom of our priority lists.

2. Doom

When it comes to climate change, we have a kind of “apocalypse fatigue”. When media uses a catastrophe view on climate change we become tired of and desensitised to doomsday scenarios. This leads to avoidance of the messages and negative stereotyping of the messengers.

3. Dissonance

Our actions conflict to some extent with our knowledge about what individuals need to do to collectively to address the carbon-climate problem. Stoknes calls this disparity cognitive dissonance. The cognitions in this case are along the lines of: “I have a high carbon footprint” and “Carbon dioxide emissions change the climate state, with bad effects for us”.

We cope with this dissonance in a number of ways. We might modify one or both of the cognitions to make them compatible, change the importance of one, deny the cognitions are related, or justify our behaviour by adding other climate friendly factors.

Cognitive dissonance creates a demand for doubt. When people have cognitive dissonance they may latch on to sources of doubt to help remove the dissonance. This is a key reason why climate sceptics remain influential despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community.

4. Denial

We live as we have a certain capacity to live as though we do not know what we know.

5. Identity

Aspects of our lifestyle are tangled up with our sense of identity. If these aspects of our lifestyle are criticised, it makes us feel uncomfortable. When confronted with this discomfort, we defend ourselves and turn to confirmation bias, which means we search out arguments that can help us justify the part of our identity which has come under threat.

The solutions

These are the barriers – but how do we negotiate them? We need a new climate communication toolbox. In this toolbox lie five solutions: make the narrative social, make being low-carbon simple, focus on opportunities, sell the dream not the hell, and use climate-relevant signals that people can connect to.

1. Make it Social

To overcome the distance barrier, we need to make climate issues social and local.

Humans are social animals and care about how we are being compared to our peers. This leads to the fact that we are more likely to act in climate friendly behavior if our neighbours do it rather than for the sake of sustainability, future generations or if it’s profitable. This effect has also been observed through the contagious spread of rooftop solar panels.

2. Make it Simple

Simple and small changes can reduce waste and help consumers make good decisions. Decreasing plate size can reduce food waste by 20%. One can make the life cycle price on an item in a shop salient, rather than just show it’s instantaneous cost. And the power of default – making it the default option to offset carbon when buying flights or to use both sides when printing documents.

3. Use a Supportive Framing

We need to readdress the balance of catastrophe to opportunity in climate change dialogue. People love opportunities, hence the popular success of ideas like solar roadways and brands like Tesla.

In Stoknes’s view, the optimal ratio of positive:catastrophe narratives is 3:1. Framing climate change in terms of health can also be effective.

4. Create a story

To Stoknes one big problem is that we lack a credible dream or a vision of what is possible. What will help to support this dream is to tell stories of low-carbon transitions occurring around the world that are happening, and that can happen.

5. Use the right Signals

People can find it difficult to connect to climate system indicators. We might find it easier to engage with the amount of power we are using per month in terms of its monetary cost, or as a comparison to our neighbours. If our bank statements displayed our monthly carbon footprints, we would find it easier to engage with our personal consumption