Averting the worst outcome of the climate crisis will require a huge amount of very thoughtful and brave work. Unfortunately the crisis has a number of qualities that make it especially hard to organize around. It seems remote in time and place, its causes and impacts are diffuse, and the solutions require major social transformation. In his oddly titled book “What we think about when we try not to think about global warming,” Norwegian psychologist and economist, Per Espen Stoknes argues that climate change activists need to take seriously the ways the human brain processes information in order to get people on board to make the kind of changes society urgently needs.
The book shares the results of psychological studies on how the human brain tends to work, so that we can build our actions in ways most likely to succeed in motivating people as they are, not as we wish them to be. And the book develops powerful messaging strategies, also based on research-tested approaches to messaging and action. The book is short, readable, and full of helpful suggestions. This review is a summary of what I took to be the most important insights, but I suggest everyone involved in climate action reads it. The details and examples are well worth the short time it takes to read.
Based on evolutionary psychology, Stoknes claims that,
the human animal comes with powerful neural wiring for preferring self-interest (me and us!) status (better than thou! More sex than thou!) imitation (herd!) short-term (now! Never mind the future!) and spectacular risk (the vivid, not the impalpable!).
Climate communicators need to help people to see that the climate crisis will impact them and the people they care about. They need to find ways to shape the culture such that doing the right things for the climate confer social status. They need to give people a sense that many people are concerned and acting. They need to highlight short term negative impact such as fires and floods. And they need to help people to see that the risks are imminent and manageable.
From cognitive psychology he draws on the concept of framing, the narrative structures through which we understand the world around us. If we look at the climate crisis through the frame of loss and sacrifice, it will remain hard to gain traction. People hate losses more than they love gains. Helping people to see how much money they will save with better insulation and solar energy is a more motivating frame than telling them that the path to success is to give up on the pleasures of a consumer lifestyle.
The other important concept he draws from cognitive psychology is cognitive dissonance. Many people hear the bleak messages climate activists put out as accusations. They want to think that they are good people, and if climate activists say that good people don’t live the way the rest of society tells them they should live, then they will resolve the dissonance by distancing themselves from the truth about the climate crisis messages they hear. The way people resolve cognitive dissonance is generally to change what they believe, rather than changing how they act.
How we think about a claim is deeply impacted by the social circles we run in and how our associates see the world. And that gets us to his insights from the psychology of identity. Here is the most stunning finding from research he reports on: “The better science literacy someone holding a conservative ideology has, the more wrong, she will be on the climate science.” Educated conservatives have the facts, but they live in social groups whose identities are invested in not believing in them. The more you throw facts at them, the more activated their systems of denial become.
Stoknes tells the story of a white South African woman who changed her view of apartheid when someone working in her home was almost killed. The change started with the emotional, and then worked toward the cognitive.
Such a break always involves emotions that bring about a shift in the organization of personality, and thus a subtle shifting of identity…. What is needed is the work of a cultural movement similar to the ones that dismantled apartheid, abolished slavery, or took on nuclear arms. What remains unpredictable is when this steady, seemingly ineffectual, exhausting work will result - or co-evolve- into a seismic shift in cultural denial. But one day after the swerve, what used to be resisted and denied becomes a new, shared reality.
He summarizes this section with the five defense walls that make it hard for climate messages to hit their target: Distance, the issue seems remote; Doom, if it is seen as a disaster that requires sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid; Dissonance, if what we know conflicts with what we do, then we will try to not know it; Denial, if we can deny that it is happening we can continue to feel good about ourselves; iDentity, “cultural identity overrides the facts.”
The fossil fuel industry has done a great job using all of these aspects of human psychology to lull people into inaction.
The fossil fuel industry has done a great job using all of these aspects of human psychology to lull people into inaction. Stoknes then argues that we need to acknowledge the hard psychological realities we are up against. We need to “move more with the flow of the human psyche…. People want to live in a climate-friendly society because they see it as better, not because they get scared or instructed into it.” He proposes the following to deal with these limitations:
Make the issue feel near, human, personal, and urgent. Use supportive framings that do not backfire by creating negative feelings. Reduce dissonance by providing opportunities for consistent and visible action. Avoid triggering the emotional need for denial through fear, guilt, self-protection. Reduce cultural and political polarization.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is his critique of green consuming. He argues that for some people using green products makes them feel so virtuous that they can then justify flying from Europe to Thailand for a vacation. He argues that pushing personal lifestyle changes
can make us complacent and less vocal for change on the political and social level…. Climate change isn't an individual, technical, or environmental problem. It’s a cultural challenge, with solutions at the organizational social level.
The most important part of the book are his five strategies for effective climate communication:
1. Social. ''Since the imitation effect is so strong, asking consumers to go green will fail unless they are convinced that many others will do the same.” Rather than telling people that it is terrible that no one is doing anything, remind them that there are over a million organizations in the world right now working to make the transition happen. They can be part of that big team.
2. Supportive. Employ frames that support the message with positive emotions. While the news media survives on sensationalism, a sense of despair and fear rarely motivates action. Instead we need to talk about climate in terms of “insurance, health, security, preparedness, and most of all, opportunity.” Climate action is motivated by a sense that one is doing something positive.
3. Simple. Make climate friendly behaviors easy and convenient. We need to develop policies that make green behavior not too hard, and then nudge people toward those better behaviors. Universities are now eliminating food trays so that students don't take too much food and waste so much. These changes require hard work at policy change, but do not ask consumers to make heroic leaps in terms of their everyday choices. Most of our efforts should be aimed at policy change, and very little at asking people to live differently than their neighbors.
4. Story-based. Use the power of stories to create meaning and community. One important force for generating climate action is the narrative that we're building a beautiful, sustainable world, in which people will live better than we do now. Sustainable walkable cities are more fun to be in. Eliminating the burning of fossil fuels make the air better to breathe and healthier. A more plant-based diet can be more delicious and help us to live longer and feel better. Places with more trees are nicer to be in. A world with less consumerism is a world with more community and sense of purpose.
5. Signals. Use indicators for feedback on societal response.
In order to maintain engagement in societal transformation, there has to be a way to speak of and get feedback on any type of turning in the right direction. Without such feedback, there is little learning and less motivation- only increasing confusion and helplessness.
Thus, he argues for using alternative economic indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) to replace GDP which one measures how much stuff is produced and sold, but not what the social impacts are of that economic activity.
The book’s last section “Being Inside the Living Air,” is a nice exploration of our relationship to the air and a discussion of how to deal with the grief that is a natural part of knowing just how dire the climate crisis really is. He asks us to think of the climate crisis as being about developing a better relationship to the air, which is intimate and close to us, it is the thin and vulnerable skin of the Earth that is our home. I found this section beautiful and helpful.
My one complaint with the book is that it does little to highlight the social justice aspects of the climate crisis. He is too easy on green business, calling for green growth, when many the movement are calling from weaning our economies from the need for growth. While his encouragement of business to look for places where they can profit from a more environmental approach are sound, the most important thing to shift business will be changes in the regulatory environment in which they operate.
And he is not hard enough on the fossil fuel companies and their power over our political systems. While I think he is right that there is a lot of progress we can make when we avoid unnecessary polarization, polarization against the fossil fuel companies seems important. People who focus on story-based strategy argue that a good villain helps make a good narrative. And the fossil fuel companies and the politicians who do their bidding are good villains. One can go after those companies and explain why they need to have their political power taken away, without necessarily inflaming the defense mechanisms of ordinary people. Indeed, shifting the blame to those companies, helps to keep people from hearing the climate message as an accusation against the way they live. The divestment movement has taken on the task of stigmatizing those companies as social pariahs, and this has been important for undermining their destructive political power.
Finally, I am generally suspicious as a reader when nothing is said about race. Surveys have shown that there is more support for strong climate action among people of color in the US than among whites. And yet, there are stereotypes around climate action that it is a white enterprise. For the movement to be welcoming to people of color, it is important that the framing around calls to action on the climate crisis take seriously the pitfalls of unconsciously racialized narrative frames. Stoknes' call for a focus on the local, and health impacts of climate disruption and bad air are very amenable to racially inclusive framing. But I do think it is important to call out the need to overcome the narrative that climate action is for white people who care about the outdoors, by thinking explicitly about what we put into our stories to signal their inclusiveness. Two thoughts on this are that our climate narratives should put the climate crisis into a global framework that shows the climate aspects of the global refugee crisis and they need to be explicit that climate action is not about the consumption patterns of those who can afford green luxury products. The authors of the Green New Deal were explicit about making the claim that a strong social transformation to save the climate will also be one that has better jobs, and living standards and more livable communities for everyone, but especially for poor people and people from marginalized communities.
I hope everyone in the climate movement will read this book, and think deeply about the ways we try to engage people, and the kinds of actions we have ready for them to take up. We need to stop being that person at a fire who stands around screaming for people to do something because the situation is urgent. Instead, we need to paint a picture of an inclusive sustainable world we are trying to build; remind people that the work is already underway and that millions of people are doing important work; paint a picture of a movement that takes people’s concerns seriously and promises solutions to those concerns; and most importantly, give people pathways to significant effective action. And it wouldn’t hurt if getting involved was fun and brought people into community with other people who are caring and inspiring, and who find their climate activism to be an enriching part of their life.