If it’s so important, why doesn’t it sink in?

Per Espen Stoknes

Climate sciences have delivered ever stronger evidence over the past 20-30 years, and bleaker outlooks for the coming one hundred. Still, the concern for climate change in Norway and other wealthy countries has declined over the past decades.

What is the psychology behind this climate- paradox?

It is beyond reasonable doubt that an infant born in 2014 will grow up in a world with a warmer global climate than the world has seen for the past million years or so. If this is so serious, and the agreement between scientists is over 97% that we are heading in that direction - why are there no street riots? No weekly demonstrations blocking airports, hunger strikes nor sit-down-protests in front of parliament, no actions against roads and transportation?

Partly, this is an unwanted by-effect of the default communication model for scientists and environment own climate communication. A lot of conventional climate communication has started from an assumption that people are unconvinced due to a lack of information and facts, and need to be filled up with rational graphs and figures. This is the information-deficit model. But as the sinking levels of concern and the noisy climate deniers illustrate, this is not helping.

Citizens are waiting for actions from politicians, while politicians are waiting for citizens to vote in favor of more ambitious climate policies. In order to explain why so little happening even though the evidence is clear, the analysis can be done on several levels: At the international level, climate negotiations with 190+ countries are very difficult. On a national level, climate policy is swamped by lack of leadership combined with mainstream economic assumptions of cost-efficiency and high discount rates. At the company level, most are choosing to sit on the fence and wait for global carbon-cost or regulations. In this article, I will focus on the fourth level; the social and individual.

Psychological research has identified five barriers blocking stronger bottom-up pressure for political action. First, climate issue is experienced as distant. It is distant in time (2100), space (the Arctic), level of abstraction (ppm’s, W/m2), victims are in poor countries far away and the decision makers are far from my circle of influence.

Secondly climate communication has been framed by doom, apocalypse, and costly sacrifices such as unpopular energy taxes. This message creates a sense of unease, fear and guilt, which generates a demand side for shutting off the message. This is a fertile ground for those sowing doubt.

Thirdly there are few real opportunities for action; I myself both drive a car and fly, all my neighbors and friends do the same. And politicians want to pump up gas and oil as quickly as possible. All such daily actions affect our attitudes. It can’t be “so bad if everybody is doing it”! This last effect is what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance. This implies that if your income and lifestyle is heavily based on fossil fuels, then being “against” that and “pro climate” would be an inconsistency. The combined effect of these barriers is to create feelings of helplessness (what can I possibly do?), low sense of urgency and an  - understandable - desire to doubt or distance oneself from the climate message.

Fourth, denial is readily available mechanism to “get rid of" unpleasant feelings like guilt, fear and helplessness. We go on with our everyday lives “as if" we are didn't know. And we make up all kinds of excuses (“It’s the sun”, or “it’s actually cooling”), in order to feel better. Fifthly, we automatically defend our cultural identity and values. If I make a living from fossil energy, I will defend my job, lifestyle and identity against messages “threatening” this. If I am amongst those who are sceptical to a large state or don’t like taxes, actions against climate change are difficult to unite with my own values and cultural cognition. I defend my identity is by filtrating or rejecting this knowledge, using motivated reasoning.

We therefore need new ways of communicating the climate case. This can be done by leaving the information deficit model and avoiding the psychological barriers including denial and cultural cognition.

I can’t discuss here what exact communication strategies are “the solutions". But I want to point out yet another paradox: Large resources have been put into understanding the physical climate changes which has been both important and necessary. Yet very little has been done on developing a scientific way of communicating climate science where the effects are evaluated. Understanding human responses to climate change has now become just as vital as understanding the climate system itself. What is the point of strong new climate knowledge if the conveying and use of this knowledge is a total failure?

It has now been repeatedly proven that the deficit model is not working. Surprisingly it’s still in use, for instance following the previous IPCC report. What is needed is a multi-discipline evidence-based climate communication complete with tests and evaluation. The same requirements should be expected of the communication of scientific results as to the climate science itself.

Published 17. February 2014

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