09 Jul 2015: Interview

How Can We Make People
Care About Climate Change?

Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes has studied why so many people have remained unconcerned about climate change. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about the psychological barriers to public action on climate and how to overcome them.

by richard schiffman

Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist, has been doing a lot of thinking about a question that has bedeviled climate scientists for years: Why have humans so far failed to deal with the looming threat posed by climate change?

That question is the focus of his recent book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, in which he analyzes what he calls the five psychological barriers that have made it difficult to deal realistically with the climate crisis. Those include: the distant nature of the problem (it’s far off in time and often in other parts of the globe); the
Per Espen Stoknes
Per Espen Stoknes
doom-and-gloom scenarios about the impacts of climate change, which make people feel powerless to do anything about it; and the psychological defenses that people have to avoid feeling guilty about their own contributions to fossil fuel emissions.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Stoknes — who co-founded three clean energy companies and helps lead the BI Center for Climate Strategy at the Norwegian Business School — talks about these barriers and about how the discussion of climate change needs to be reframed. “We need a new kind of stories,” he says, “stories that tell us that nature is resilient and can rebound and get back to a healthier state, if we give it a chance to do so.”

Yale Environment 360: Scientists and journalists have been warning us for years about climate change. But you say the message is not getting across. Why not?

Per Espen Stoknes: My work starts with what I call the psychological climate paradox. Long-term surveys show that people were more concerned with climate change in wealthy democracies 25 years ago than they are today. So the more science, the more Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments we have, the more the evidence accumulates, the less concerned the public is. To the rational mind this is a complete mystery.

e360: You’re suggesting that the initial impact of news about climate change actually moved the meter a bit, but after the initial alarm the meter went back to the default position, and people became unconcerned again?

Stoknes: Absolutely. In the late 1980s this was a novel scare, we hadn’t heard much about it before. [Scientist] Jim Hansen really broke the story
The question that drives me is: Is humanity up to the task, or are we inevitably short-term thinkers?’
in the international news media in 1988. … At that point there was a wave of environmental concern. The earth came to seem fragile in a new way. But as this news was out there for longer, we started habituating to it. And when it began to be clear that our own lifestyle was responsible for these new threats, then several psychological barriers started to introduce themselves and create a backlash of denial.

e360: Why did you write this book?

Stoknes: It gradually became clear that the time has come when we need to shift from talking about the climate system to talking about people’s responses to climate science. How can it be that we are behaving in such a self-destructive way, that we are seemingly inevitably pushing the planet way beyond the 2-degree [Celsius] limit that scientists have proposed [for avoiding dangerous climate change]?

Climate scientists have been trying to educate us on this for so long that they are frustrated and exhausted and feeling exasperated. Some have become cynical saying that it seems as if humans are wired to self-destruct, maybe our genes aren’t well equipped to deal with these long-term issues. It seems we prefer to eat all our cake today and not care about the coming decades.

e360: Is there any way around this inability to think in the long term?

Stoknes: The question that really drives me and that fuels my research is: Is humanity up to the task, or are we inevitably short-term thinkers? Or to put it a bit more constructively, what are the conditions under which humans will begin to think and act for the long term as far as the climate is concerned? Is it possible to pinpoint the mechanisms or functions in the human psyche that would enable us to act for the long term? And if so, what are they and how can they be strengthened?

e360: Is the rejection of climate science a global phenomenon?

Stoknes: We need to be clear that this is a cultural phenomenon. Because in countries like Thailand and the Philippines, or in Latin America and countries in Southern Europe, the concern about climate change is very high. So it is an issue that particularly pertains to people in wealthy democracies. It is much more difficult for somebody in Bangladesh who is acutely vulnerable, who lives on the coast, to say that sea level rise is not happening, because they are actually experiencing it. If a drought takes away a farmer’s crops or a monsoon fails, it means destitution. But here [in the United States and Western Europe], we can always go to a store and buy stuff produced elsewhere, because we have the money to distance ourselves from the immediate impact of weather disruptions.

It is much more difficult to allow that cultural psychology to interfere when you are face-to-face with a failed monsoon or a drought, and your seeds are lost.

e360: Why is it so hard for people in the developed world to come to terms with climate change?

Stoknes: There are five main psychological barriers: distance, doom, dissonance, denial, and identity. This is what the book is about. And the
If you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt, and this makes people more passive.’
reason climate science communication is so difficult is that it triggers these barriers one after the other.

The first barrier is distance. If you look at the IPPC report or other science, they are using graphs charting different variables which typically end with the year 2100. So you are positioning the facts in a way that creates a psychological distance — it is so far in the future that it feels less important, and the sense of urgency goes down. I mean, when is the last time you made a decision for the next century?

People think this is far off — it is not here and now, it’s also up there in the Arctic or Antarctica, it affects other people, not me, I’ll be old before this really happens, other people are responsible, not me. We distance ourselves from it in so many ways that the pure facts are not sufficient to generate a sustained sense of risk.

Another factor that discourages people from dealing with climate change is the fact that it is so often presented as a doom-and-gloom scenario. Studies show that more than 80 percent of news articles relating to the IPPC assessment reports primarily employed the catastrophe frame. Only 2 percent were using what I call the opportunity frame.

What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement. This includes creativity as well. If you give people a guilt or fear-inducing message and then ask them to solve a problem that requires creative thought, there is a statistically significant reduction in the amount of creativity that people come up with to formulate solutions.

e360: Another of the barriers you cite is dissonance. What do you mean by that?

Stoknes: Dissonance is the inner discomfort when I feel like a hypocrite — when my knowledge of climate change is not matched by my actions to stop it. We know that our fossil energy use contributes to global warming, yet we continue to drive, fly, eat beef, or heat with fossil fuels, then dissonance sets in.

Psychologists have found that people are pretty creative in finding ways to defuse this tension between thoughts and deeds. One strategy to deal with this might be to say, “Well, I don’t personally emit that much carbon, it’s the Chinese, the corporations or somebody else who does that. It’s my
Those who reject climate change are getting back at those who criticize their lifestyles.’
neighbor with the big SUV, or my friend who flies more than I do.” Another strategy is to doubt. So we say that it is really not certain that C02 causes global warming. Or some physicist said that it’s the sun activity that is causing it.

We can understand why the fossil fuel industry might have an economic interest to spread such ideas, but why do people want to believe this misinformation? If I can believe the doubters, then my dissonance goes away. I don’t need to feel bad about myself.

e360: That’s where denial fits in?

Stoknes: Yes. The next level is the full out denial, where we negate, ignore, or otherwise avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change. The word denial has perhaps been overused as a pejorative against the other side who are [portrayed as] immoral, or ignorant, or the enemy. But psychological denial is a process that we all have and use. It is a way that we defend ourselves.

Those who reject climate change are getting back at those who criticize their lifestyles, and want to tell them how to live. So when Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio talk about climate change, they are not necessarily stupid or ignorant or immoral, but they are reinforcing a social contract that says this is an issue that we are not supposed to take seriously.

This ties into our sense of identity. Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them.

Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance. This has been empirically demonstrated by Dan Kahan at Yale, who found that the more science conservative ideologues know, the more likely they were to get it wrong on


Finding a Better Message on
The Risks of Climate Change

Dan Kahan
To overcome polarization on the issue of climate change, Yale professor Dan Kahan says in an interview with e360, scientists and the media need to frame the science in ways that will resonate with the public. A message that makes people feel threatened, he says, simply will not be effective.
climate change. They use all they know about science to criticize climate science and defend their values.

e360: So what are your recommendations in terms of how we need to reframe the discussion of climate change to be more effective in reaching people?

Stoknes: We need a new kind of stories, stories that tell us that nature is resilient and can rebound and get back to a healthier state, if we give it a chance to do so. We need stories that tell us that we can collaborate with nature, that we can, as Pope Francis has urged, be stewards and partners of the natural world rather than dominators of it. We need stories about a new kind of happiness not based on material consumption.

Since we have a pretty good understanding of the barriers, that is a good place to start. We need to flip the barriers over so they become successful strategies. Rather than something distant, communicators need to make climate change feel like something that is near, personal, and urgent. Rather than doom, we need to emphasize the opportunities that the crisis affords us.

Climate change is an opportunity for economic development — an entire energy system has to be redesigned from the wastefulness of the previous century to a much smarter mode of doing things. It’s a great opportunity to improve global collaboration and knowledge sharing and to create a more just society. So climate change is a fantastic opportunity to encourage our global humanity to emerge. We need to be talking about this.

POSTED ON 09 Jul 2015 IN Climate Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Asia 


"nature is resilient, if we give it a chance."
That is a story told, among others, by people involved in permaculture. Geoff Lawton, Sepp Holzer, and others are happy to share that story.
Posted by Claudia on 09 Jul 2015

Marijuana has a great story. The prohibition started at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Henry Ford created a hemp car using hemp biofuel. This was capitalistic business in competition with Rockefellers and the emerging oil industry. Big oil won and took over the energy supply corrupting the environment. This may have been preventable if environmental concerns were taken into consideration. The good news is that opportunities are being rediscovered with legal changes for cannabis.
Posted by Jennifer on 11 Jul 2015

I wonder if expressing the distance in terms of family generations could have a greater emotional connection — e.g., 2100 is only ~7 generations from today.

We also need stories of how nature might recover if we gave it a chance. What might some of those be?

We could look to people's natural enjoyment of games and get households, communities to compete on energy use reduction in exchange for recognition and funding for projects they could not afford otherwise.

Appreciative inquiry method could also help — when are we at our best as individuals and as a society in helping and solving problems?

Posted by Andrew on 12 Jul 2015

This is a good article covering the barriers to climate action. It short-changes the strategies to get around these barriers that Stoknes describes in detail with examples in his wonderful book. In brief, these strategies are 1) Harness The Power of Social Networks, 2) Reframe Climate Messages, 3) Make it Simple to Choose Right (Nudging), 4) Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate, and 5) Create New Signals of Progress. I highly recommend reading his book to understand this subject better and to help create better climate messages that drive climate action.

Posted by Duncan Noble on 14 Jul 2015

Andrew makes a good point: expressing the distance
in terms of generations seems like an effective
approach. And 2100 is actually only just over 3
generations away (the current standard being 25
years per generation).
Posted by Edward H Davis on 17 Jul 2015

There is another obvious barrier, perhaps the
largest one of all. Nearly all of the infrastructure
we use has been developed during time of plenty
and before climate change became a recognised
problem. This applies to everything, not least the
road networks that pass our door and dirt cheap
plane flights to anywhere in the world.

A climate aware person not only has to change
their behaviour, they have to do it when
everything around us shoe horns us into
habituated behavioural patterns.

It will take decades for our cities and transport
systems and food production systems to reflect the
climate change reality, and in the meantime we are
largely victims of it, try as we may to live

I'm not suggesting complacency for a moment, but
I believe this infrastructure inertia coupled to peer
group pressure to conform with the norm is the
obstacle that makes it most difficult to respond as
we should.
Posted by Chris Harries on 27 Jul 2015

Keeping with the family generation theme, perhaps
this is one way that the use of stories Stoknes
advocates in the article could be used. To talk of
the positive behaviour changes necessary by each
generation that then, for example, begins to allow
nature to recover.

This could be done with or without a shadow side
story of what each generation might experience if
we continue to pursue the current path.
Posted by Andrew on 06 Aug 2015

You will never get most evangelical Christians interested in climate change. Most view it as god's will as a prelude or precipitator towards "The Rapture."

The only evangelical Christians that believe that climate change is man-made are the ones who accept the doctrine of protecting "The Creation."
Posted by Chris on 17 Aug 2015

I've got some ideas. Why not do some of these things but without tooting out the environmental messages.

Ways to save money and be a better person rather then saying Ways to save the planet you should start out with the message above and then tell them these things after you start your message give them tips but remember not to go all enviromental on them.

1. Buy solar chargers and tell them to make sure if the company doesn't come from China and the products come from the USA and as well tell them that no chemicals and that the company uses safe mining practices that minimize health effects and little danger to workers who works on the job rather then telling them to minimize damage to the environment and I guarantee you that more people will buy this message rather then thinking who cares, boring, or worse of all shouting in front of your face.

2. Tell them that Solar, Wind, and other alternative energies will help them save tons of money on there electrical utility bills and as well another thing I would like to see done better is that more solar companies need to make Solar and wind as cheap as a board of wood at Home Depot.

3. Tell your every day neighbor or friend to recycle and to use the compost bin.

If they don't have a compost bin tell them to buy one to make mulch for the garden so that they can save money and at the same time tell them that they won't need to buy fertlizers, Soil or manure and as well tell them that the best thing once you buy the compost bin the best part about making mulch is that it comes from your yard such as leaves, sticks, weeds, grass etc and the best part it's free!

4. Also when it comes to telling them about recycling and composting tell them that they should check there local recycling and compost company of what they can recycle and can't and as well what that they can eliminate from the trash can and put into the compost bin and recycling bin so that the trashcan can be minimized at the least so that less trash can stay out of the land filled.

5. Mentioned to your next door neighbor that they can recycle electronic waste to programs called e-waste programs but let them know that they need to make sure that if they ship out of the country and if they say no and we do it right here at our business or we make styrofoam out computers, benches, chairs etc and always search about the company on the net before you support them or choose another company that understands about electronics and styrofoam and if they do better then the other support them over the other that doesn't do as good as a job as the other.

But let's say if your friend is a few states away and they don't have an e-wast program mention to them that your nearest cellphone dealer store may take your phone and they will give it to a solider who in needs it the least when he's at war that there I could see going in hand and hand to get non environmental and non green people going green without even knowing it at all by getting more people to be active in it.

6. Buy American made LED light bulbs that are high in lumens but at the same time being as energy efficient as possible such as Cree.

7. Buy a a low pressure shower head or a shower head with similar features but at the same time while being energy efficient while using as little water as possible and one that doesn't hinder performance when it comes to the flow of the shower head.

8. Buy an energy efficient dryer and washing machine.

9. Buy an energy efficient dishwasher.

10. Buy energy saving power strips to save money while switching your electronic devices off when it comes to phantom power.

There are other ways of doing it but these are some good ways to get people started to go green without burdening there own lifestyle.

Posted by Sean on 28 Jan 2016

Its interesting that the Norwegian with his deep
psychological insights to human behavior did not
think that this Al Gore marketed global warming
package is just a complete fabrication. There has
always been ice, and ice sheets and glaciers that melt
simply because we're in the end phase of the last ice
age. Ice age, doesn't t that ring a bell. And you
expect that humans are going to reverse the weather
with solar panels and bicycles?
Posted by Dr. Gee on 24 Feb 2016


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Richard Schiffman is a New York-based environmental journalist, poet, and author of two biographies. His work has appeared in the The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and on National Public Radio, among other outlets. He recently returned from a reporting trip in the Brazilian Amazon.



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