Five ways to climate action

Per Espen Stoknes

What are the secret forces that prevent us humans from taking action on climate change? I have uncovered five solutions to bypass the barriers by doing more of what actually works.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Climate Psychology

The five main barriers to climate action exist all in our heads.

Let’s call them the 5 D’s: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial and iDentity:

1. Distance. The climate issue remains remote for the majority of us, in a number of ways. We can’t see climate change. Melting glaciers are usually far away, as are the spots on earth now experiencing sea level rise, more severe floods, droughts, fires, and other climate disruptions. It may hit foreign others, not me or my kin. And the heaviest impacts are far off in time—in the coming century or farther. Despite some people stating that global warming is here now, it still feels distant from everyday concerns.

2. Doom. When climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost, and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helplessness grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that “the end is nigh” so many times, it no longer really registers.

3. Dissonance. If what we know (for instance, our fossil energy use contributes to global warming), conflicts with what we do (drive, fly, eat beef, or heat with fossil fuels), then dissonance sets in. The same happens if my attitudes conflict with those of people important to me. In both cases, the lack of convenient behaviors and social support weaken climate attitudes over time. But by doubting or downplaying what we know (the facts), we can feel better about how we live. Thus, actual behavior and social relations determine the attitude in the long run.

4. Denial. When we negate, ignore, or otherwise avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change, we find refuge from fear and guilt. By joining outspoken denialism and mockery, we can get back at those whom we feel criticize our lifestyles, think they know better, and try to tell us how to live. Denial is based in self-defense, not ignorance, intelligence, or lack of information.

5. iDentity. We filter news through our professional and cultural identity. We look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away what challenges them. If people who hold conservative values, for instance, hear from a liberal that the climate is changing, they are less likely to believe the message. Cultural identity overrides the facts. If new information requires us to change our selves, then the information is likely to lose. We experience resistance to calls for change in self-identity.

These ‘Five D’s’ are all substantial and unyielding. Taken together they may seem invincible. They are interrelated, but still distinct. Think of them as concentric circles around the citadel of the self, with distance as the first line of defense and identity as the final, innermost defense. So far they have defeated climate communications.

Five motivating strategies for climate communication
But luckily, social scientists have uncovered how to bypass the barriers by doing more of what actually works. These are more positive and motivating strategies.

I’ve synthesized these into the 5 Solutions:

1. Social networks. We must use the power of social networks to bring the climate messages home.  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. Therefore we should be highlighting popular people who are getting it right, as for instance Green Sports Alliance are doing. Peers are also the best messengers for changing attitudes on climate change through face to face conversations.

2. Supportive framings. Most climate messages have come packed inside catastrophe, costs and sacrifice. Studies have uncovered framings that generate more support for the climate topics. Chief among them we find health-, insurance- and opportunity framings. Thus: climate is really a health issue, not one of sacrifice. It is rich in opportunities rather than costs. And should be talked about as a risk management and insurance issue, more than as a looming catastrophe.

3. Simple Actions.  Taking climate-friendly decisions in everyday life can be difficult: we’re locked-in to cars, malls and foodstuffs that are fossil intensive. But by applying nudging we can make climate-friendly decisions for energy, foods and appliances the easy, default choice. Availability, salience and timely reminders make climate options convenient. By making it simpler for all to live and shop green, we reverse the dissonance and generate support for policy.

4. Storytelling. We’re tired of the climate apocalypse story with drowning polar bears and being told we’re wrong. Hell doesn’t sell. Stories about entrepreneurs and scientists succeeding with new solutions are needed. The visions and narratives we need to tell describe a green growth society with better livelihoods, smarter cities around which nature is rewilding in resilient ways.

5. Signals. Finally, less focus on global indicators on how fast CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere or how fast Antarctica is melting. Rather, we need new signals and indicators to know that our society is making progress in responding to the crisis. Signals tailored to feel personal by measuring how much companies, cities, states, friends and ourselves are contributing – monthly or daily – to the great green swerve.

Luckily, there is a cornucopia of alternatives and initiatives along the lines of these 5 strategies being tried and tested today. These are more positive strategies, since they connect better to human needs for glow and flow.

Per Espen (2015): What We Think About - When We Try Not To Think About - Global Warming; The New Psychology of Climate Action. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Published 7. December 2015

You can also see all news here.