A Psychologist Explains Why People Don't Give a Shit About Climate Change
We understand that we've really fucked up the environment, but most of us still can't be bothered to change our lifestyle.
Surprise Glacier, Harriman Fiord, western Prince William Sound, Alaska. Photo by the US Geological Survey.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last month that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere surpassed 400ppm for the first time in recorded history. The agency added that the average rate of emissions is increasing, and that we can expect to reach the "point of no return" of 450ppm more quickly than previous milestones unless emissions are drastically reduced.
What? Have your eyes glazed over already? You don't feel empowered to start leading a low-carbon lifestyle? Do you not get what "point of no return" means?
You're not alone, especially if you reside in a Western country, and Per Espen Stoknes isn't surprised you feel that way. Stoknes is the author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, which begins by exploring the "climate paradox"—the depressing phenomenon observed in wealthy countries like the US, Canada, and Australia, where public concern about climate change has steadily decreased, despite broad consensus among climate scientists and more frightening journalism about climate change than ever before. A psychologist and economist, Stoknes draws on the findings of social, evolutionary, and cognitive behavioral psychology to explain why English-speaking people just can't be bothered to care about climate change. Thankfully, he also offers strategies for how to talk about the environment if you really want to get the point across. We discussed these recommendations, which have strong implications, particularly for journalists and activists.
VICE: Why do you think journalism on climate change has been ineffective in convincing the public about the urgency of the problem?
Per Espen Stoknes: Studies have shown that over 80 percent of newspaper articles on IPCC climate change reports have used the catastrophe framing. Also, many journalists have extensively quoted active deniers to give "both" sides a voice, a practice which creates a "false balance."
Thus, today, global warming is the biggest story that has never been told. Recently I think we've seen a change in coverage, for instance in The Guardian. The main shift is to telling stories about the people making the change happen; focusing on opportunities, solutions, and true green growth. From psychology, we know that the best mix to create engagement and creativity is a [ratio] of one to three in negative to positive stories. My own research has resulted in four main groups of narratives that are and need to be told: a) green growth opportunities, b) better quality of life, i.e. what does a low-carbon society look like? c) the ethical stewardship story, and finally, d) stories on re-wilding and the resilience of nature. The more people start believing we can create a better society with lower emissions, the sooner they can start taking action.
How is dissonance explained psychologically, and how can climate change action be organized to cut through it?
Say you were influenced by peers to bully someone, verbally or physically. After doing so—to keep our positive self-image—you'll tend to reduce the dissonance ("I'm bullying someone, but I'm a nice person") by making up self-justifications such as "he's bad/nuts/stupid" or "he really deserved it." Or the opposite: Let's say you're kind to someone, or give money to the homeless, or donate blood. If you think that these causes are pointless, then dissonance hits: "I'm a caring person, but I'm wasting my resources." Therefore, we tend to avoid this by propping up the belief that these causes that [we] act for are great. "I'm doing this; therefore the cause must be important."
Thus, the more we drive, eat beef, fly, or live in high-energy use buildings, the more dissonance we experience when we hear about awful global warming effects that results from our actions. Opposite: The more we drive electric cars, e-bikes, eat no-till foods, and put solar panels on our roofs, the more we believe in the importance of climate change. Therefore, by applying "nudging"—making it simpler or the default option to take action for the climate—the more we can build consistent attitudes that actually support climate policy.
Speaking of beef, multiple studies have concluded that animal agriculture contributes the most emissions to climate change—more than energy and transportation. Do you think a mass collective shift to a plant-based diet is possible, and what socio-psychological barriers stand in the way?
If you tell people "You can't have your meat!" you'll mostly increase the resistance. You may be ecologically "right," but the psychological barriers will kick in big time. What's needed is to build support among the public to push for structural solutions; cutting food-waste, less deforestation, more no-till farming, meat reduction, organic farming, etc. Fundamentally, agriculture should become carbon-negative; storing more carbon in the soil than it emits. And on the end-user side it must be fun, easy, and inspiring to make and enjoy tasty plant-based foods. I think we've just seen the start of culinary explorations that go way beyond. In Oslo, we did a study that looked at [designating] the vegetarian option as the "the chef's special" or the default dish of the day. It contributed to substantially to meat reduction.
We [should] tell new stories of the dream, not the nightmares. We must describe where we want to go, such as smarter green growth, happier lives, and better cities.
In the book, you say that because individuals want to defend their identities and behavior in the face of warnings about climate change, the issue has become politically polarized. Can climate change as a policy issue ever become de-polarized enough for people to act without feeling attacked?
We need to apply a mix of strategies that hold the potential to dissolve the polarization: use social networks, supportive framings, simple actions, stories, and signals. We start by changing the messengers to people that are inside non-polarized social networks such as sport teams, churches, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Second, we avoid doom, cost, and sacrifice framings, and talk about the issue in terms of opportunity, insurance, risk management, health, and resilience. Third, we make behaviors such as purchasing solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, homes, getting around in cities, simpler and more convenient. Fourth, and most important, we tell new stories of the dream, not the nightmares. We must describe where we want to go, such as smarter green growth, happier lives, and better cities, stewardship rather than dominion, and re-wilding nature by allowing its resilience to flourish again.
Yet some powerful individuals, like ExxonMobil's CEO, still see climate change adaptation as a net loss. Do you think bottom-up social organization can really accumulate enough support to influence the behavior of economic behemoths that want to maintain the status quo?
No. Bottom-up social organization alone can't win a direct fight with the oil dinosaurs. But other behemoths can and will do so. Of the four largest companies in the world, only one is an oil company. The other three are Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Why should these companies let ExxonMobil ruin the growth of their consumer markets, as global warming will? Global corporations understand and recognize the future value of a benign climate for a stable business market. Extreme weather, with floods in Asia and droughts in Silicon Valley, hits both supply chains and disrupts their best workers' quality of life. There's little business on a broken planet. Further, other fossil players are changing: Big Coal is dying—down 70 percent in value in a few years—and now CEOs from other global oil and gas behemoths have signaled that they're ready for a price on carbon. Smart investors will discover early enough what the new trends are, and find that profit margins in the fossil sector are declining relative to other rapid growth sectors. So whatever ExxonMobil dinosaurs say, the other companies are moving, as well as increasing numbers of their customers. It's now business-to-business competition, no longer idealists versus business. The direction is inevitable. Only the timing remains uncertain.
You seem optimistic about the capacity of technology to facilitate sustainable human lifestyles, but a lot of technological optimism as expressed in media is still focused on technology that promises to allow us to defy ecological limits, such as interplanetary colonization. Does that type of idea affect people's will to act on climate change, if they believe our ecosystem will inevitably expand beyond Earth's limits?
Technology won't fix it. There are a lot of savior delusions as part of our Christian culture. Neither technology by itself, escaping to other planets in Star Trek mode, nor waiting for Jesus to return will quite cut it. Along with the economists' dream of one global carbon price, these fictions belong to what psychologists would call "wishful thinking." The uptake of technology is shaped by the social system it becomes part of, and it shapes society in turn. Any type of transformation will result of messy drawn-out interactions between the public, government, and commercial technologies. There is no silver bullet. And yet there is a grounded hope that our engagement, across public, governmental, and business reforms, will make the swerve in time.
There are too many good reasons why we humans resist the many sad facts of climate disruption, the "global weirding." It finally boils down to the question,Why bother? That one question reveals a simple fact: The most fundamental obstacles to averting dangerous climate disruption are not mainly physical or technological or even institutional—they have to do with how we align our thinking and doing with our being. This missing alignment shows clearly in the current lack of courage, determination, and imagination to carry through the necessary actions to combat climate disruption. But these human capacities are, luckily, as renewable as the wind and the sunshine. Humans will act for the long-term when conducive conditions are in place. Therefore, all climate communicators need to assist building the necessary social norms, supportive frames, simple actions, new stories, and better signals.
Update: This article originally incorrectly stated that the lead image was a photo of Denali National Park. We have since corrected the caption.
Bill Kilby is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.