There's a fundamental paradox about climate change. Americans are actually less worried now about the climate than they were in 1999, despite thousands of new studies that keep piling up the evidence about the threat (plus more actual physical evidence occurring every day). Scientists might be blanketing us in facts about impending disaster, but most people still aren't taking action based on those facts—and some still don't believe them.
For climate activists, the usual response is to trumpet more facts. But maybe it's time for a different approach. In a book called What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes lays out a psychological approach for moving society to climate action. If a rational argument doesn't work, maybe we need to just embrace the irrational human mind.
"Unthinkingly, the same social experiment has been repeated over and over: Simply give people the information, and then wait and see if the facts trickling into people will persuade them to change their behavior," says Stoknes. "The outcome has been consistently underwhelming. But that hasn’t held rational people like climate scientists, public servants, and environmentalists back from trying the same experiment on the public again and again—each time with yet more facts and, each time, for some weird reason, expecting a different outcome."
The book walks through each of the psychological reasons we don't naturally want to dwell on the problem of climate change—and why some well-intentioned messages about climate have actually pushed people away. Then it explains how those messages can be reframed.
"I believe good messaging is decisive to a working democracy," Stoknes says. "I’m dreaming of messaging that really positions this in a way that generates glow and flow among people: So we can feel in our bones that it is truly within our reach, profitable and fun to solve the climate challenge."
For most people, climate change still seems like a fairly abstract problem—something that's happening far away, to polar bears or remote Pacific Islanders, or something that won't really happen until the distant future. The ubiquitous charts showing the rise of carbon emissions only make it seem more abstract. But people naturally downplay distant problems, or those that haven't affected their immediate social circle (if a friend is in a car crash, you'll suddenly have an immediate and emotional connection to your own risk of crashing, even if it hasn't changed).
Instead of talking about global effects, Stoknes says we'll have more success by targeting messages to local areas. After Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers get sea level rise; Californians now get what long-term drought looks like. Messages can build on those local stories, or on current health effects, like asthma that's already a result of air pollution. Activists can also use local pride to ramp up solutions. One suggested message: "Never mind the fighting in Congress—here in Louisiana we need to build our own preparedness and resilience."
The usual story on climate is based around apocalyptic doom, and while the facts might justify that, it makes people stop listening. People instinctively avoid stories about loss—whether that's the loss of endangered species, or the loss of everyday behaviors like eating meat or flying. They don't want to hear about carbon taxes. Attempts at making people feel guilty tend to backfire, and just make them feel helpless or despairing.
The alternative: Talking about opportunity, solutions, and preparedness. Instead of talking about disaster—the framing that Stoknes says 80% of news stories on climate use—activists could talk about insurance. If humans hate to hear about losses, talk about how those losses can be prevented through action now; how can we protect the economy and national security from climate mayhem? While a message of doom doesn't inspire people to act, a focus on solutions could.
Messages can also focus on personal and more immediate opportunities. New bike paths don't have to be framed as a climate solution, but could be touted as a way to get healthier and look sexier. Solar panels—now becoming popular with Tea Partiers—can be framed as "free-market energy" rather than a way to reduce pollution.
In a sense, anyone who isn't acting on climate is probably in a little bit of denial. It's easy to rationalize non-action: What difference does it really make if one person decides to drive or not to recycle? But if we don't take simple everyday actions, it might also mean that we're less likely to support broader climate policy. Stoknes talks about the problem of cognitive dissonance—if you're not acting green, you tend to automatically adjust your beliefs to justify your behavior.
That's why guilt-inducing messages can backfire. If people feel like they should do something like buy more environmentally-friendly products, but it turns out to be too hard or expensive or inconvenient, that makes them a little less likely to go further in the climate movement. But the opposite is also true. The more simple green actions someone takes—because of our natural desire to see ourselves as consistent—the more likely they become to support policy.
Stoknes argues for making it as simple as possible to take actions. An airline, for example, might have a carbon offset option set as a default, so people have to actively uncheck it if they don't want to use it. A restaurant might always choose a vegetarian special of the day. By themselves, these actions aren't enough to solve the systemic cause of climate change—but they make it seem more personal and reduce our cognitive dissonance.
In the 1990s, climate wasn't seen only as a liberal issue (and if anything could bring us together, why wouldn't it be the survival of our species and planet?). But the divide grew. Now, whether people accept climate science has more to do with identity than anything to do with the science itself. People look to their friends or experts with the same worldview for what to believe, and then they seek out the news that supports that belief. The solution this suggests: If you want to convince someone in a particular group to take action, you need to find a member of that group to share the message.
For climate activists, the knee-jerk reaction to a climate denier might be mockery. How could someone deny scientific facts? But arguing with a denier will probably only drive them harder into their position. "Resist the temptation to move to a 'holier than thou' stance, or throw a tantrum over the 'idiots' on the other side, even if the outspoken denialists and trolls 'deserve' it," he says. Instead of fighting, he suggests empathy and talking about "resistance" to climate change—which he sees as a natural psychological reaction—rather than "denial."
"I, too, can feel resistance, if I really take in the full implications of global warming," he says. "After all, the climate facts are threatening, apocalyptic, and overwhelming to our ego-consciousness. It awakens our inner resistance. Taking them seriously means considerable changes in our outlook and lifestyle. We should respect the pain of deep transformation, in ourselves and others."
Peer pressure is a powerful thing. In a classic study, researchers tested putting a sign in a hotel room that said 75% of guests in that room had reused their towels. Reuse rose dramatically—even though a similar sign, asking people to reuse their towels to save water, had little effect. Humans want to be like those around us.
That's one problem with climate messaging: It often talks about how few people recycle, or bike, or save water. Unfortunately, that type of message usually makes things worse. We really should be talking about the people who are getting it right.
Peers are also the best messengers for changing attitudes on climate change, Stoknes says, through face to face conversations.
Through all of these strategies—and many more that the book outlines—Stoknes believes that climate can make the same type of progress that other social movements, like gay marriage, have had. The change is not as hard as we may think, since most countries already have 40-60% of people who are already concerned.
"The challenge now is how to convert this felt concern into prioritizing the climate issue relative to other policy issues," he says. "Roughly one or two in ten need to shift into giving higher priority to it. That would create a voter majority in favor of a great swerve. Politicians would start gaining votes by being ambitious, and lose votes by being obstructionists."
He believes that we can make the shift to a climate-friendly society quickly enough to avert disaster, if strong social support for action pushes government and business forward.
"Together we can create a virtuous cycle where the magic of well-designed markets can accelerate the shift beyond what we today envision as possible," he says. "One hundred years ago the shift from horse-carriage to cars was swift. The shift from centralized fossils to decentralized smart-grid, smart houses, smart cities can happen rapidly, if we start saying, believing and acting accordingly."