People are not very good at talking about climate change, not even climate activists — or so says Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes. Understanding the science of climate change isn’t enough. We also need to understand the social science of how people react to certain messages.
Stoknes’ book What We Think About (When We Try Not To Think About) Global Warming is a manual for telling better climate-change stories. With chapter titles like “Stand Up For Your Depressions!” and “Make It Simple To Choose Right,” it distills a great body of social science to a handful of accessible lessons. From why we’ve traditionally gotten stuck when we’ve tried to talk about the climate to what we should actually do about it, Stoknes provides clear examples with a healthy dose of psychotherapeutic understanding.
Stoknes came by the Grist office to share some of what he’s learned. Here are our favorite takeaways:
1. Don’t use the word “denier”
“I think the words ‘denial’ and ‘deniers’ are overused. The original psychological concept [of denial] goes back to Sigmund Freud and the discovery of the unconscious, starting with how the Viennese people were repressing their sexuality and coming [up] with diseases and symptoms due to that. Now it’s being used as a pejorative, a synonym of being ignorant, stupid, and immoral. Using it is counter-productive.”
2. Pick a good frame for the story — like human health
“If we frame the climate as a health issue, we know that works because people care about their health. If you have climate here, and health back there, people don’t really notice it. If you shift that ground, then it’s more about health and not as much about the climate.”
3. Appeal to self-interest
“There are billions and billions to be made in [the energy sector] inevitably over the coming two decades. America can lead that or can be dragged backwards into it. So what role does American business play in this transition? Like in the transition from horse carriages to cars: Do you want to produce horse carriages or be in the car business? When Google throws billions of dollars at Nest, it’s not because they want to be kind. You draw people into a commercial discussion and, again, climate is the background.”
4. Acknowledge our positive past relationship with fossil fuels — and then break up
“One way to break that stereotype of the classical environmentalist is by saying [that fossil fuels have] given us the lives we have now, so we should really be thankful. ‘Thanks. It’s been good. But we’ve been together for quite some time now and our relationship seems to be a little bit shaky. We’ve gradually grown apart, and I have another type — another guy.’”
5. Paint an appealing picture of the future
“Environmentalists have been consistently harping on, ‘We’re fucked,’ ‘We’re boiled,’ ‘We’re toast.’ The visions [of the future] that has brought are typically completely unrealistic and unpalatable, such as small-scale self-sufficiency, growing your own food, stop flying. If that’s the vision, who do you expect to buy in? It’d be about 13 percent, and the 87 percent remaining [say], ‘Oh please.’
“So we need a story that will engage the 87 percent. That’s a story of a society that’s smarter, less polluting, quieter, with a higher quality of life, that is much more compassionate in terms of social capital, with people actually meeting each other and having close bonds: less individual, with less isolation.”
6. Emphasize hope instead of optimism
“In our society we tend to collapse hope with optimism, and optimism with being attached to a certain pre-defined positive outcome. ‘Because I’m optimistic, it’s going to end like that.’ But then I’m attached to the world going toward my fantasy of where it should be going. And that makes us very vulnerable because the world is a very unpredictable place. When something happens that doesn’t match my prejudice or my expectation, then I get frustrated and angry at the world.
“So — this is somewhat more philosophical — I could have hope that is not based on the expectation that the world will conform to my standards. It’s more like I base my hope on the fundamental openness of the world, that things may turn out differently than I imagined, and that’s valuable in itself. I call that a ‘grounded hope’ because it’s grounded not in my prediction or expectation of how the world is going to be, but grounded in values that are larger than me, that I can draw nourishment from.”
7. Remember that no one knows what the future holds — and that’s a good thing
“Nobody knows enough to be a cock-sure pessimist. Not even Bill McKibben, even if he knows a lot. There are truly deep unknowns [in climate science], such as the evolution of clouds and atmosphere with more humidity. We don’t know enough about the deep ocean, what it’s going to be up to. We don’t know [enough] about the Arctic permafrost. There are good arguments to be very concerned, but there is no absolute certainty how those large unknowns will interact with our societies.
“Let me end on a positive note: Who would have thought that in the year 2014, CO2 emissions did not increase for the first time ever? Who predicted that? And China’s coal consumption is down. Did you know? Who would have predicted that a year ago?
“That’s why I’m in love with the future: because it’s inherently uncertain, and that’s a source of encouragement and joy for me. Not fear.”