By Renee Ruchotzke
The past several months have been full of news about climate change markers (e.g., permafrost and glaciers melting, record-setting heat waves, flooding, crop disruption) that were predicted by climate scientists but were not expected to occur until decades from now. Yet, these events are not eliciting alarm beyond those of us who have already been paying attention. What is it about Western society that is preventing us from taking action?
Epsen Stoknes, a clinical and organizational psychologist from Norway, offers insight into human psychology that outlines barriers to taking action as well as strategies to overcome those barriers.
His first insight is that once people have a basic understanding of the facts about climate change, more facts do nothing to convince most people to change their behavior. Stoknes believes that five (at least) psychological barriers interrupt possible action and that all of these barriers have been purposely triggered by the anti-climate-change movement:
- The impact of climate change is at a distance for most Americans. Until there is a direct impact on us or our close family members and friends, we can set climate change outside of our circle of concern.
- We are averse to messages of doom and loss. Without an accompanying message of hope and possibility, we feel helpless and shut down our creative abilities.
- Much of our lifestyle is complicit in contributing to the problem of climate change, yet we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves or our choices. This creates dissonance, which causes us to downplay our impact.
- When we feel fear, guilt or shame, it’s human nature to downplay the cause of those feelings by avoiding, ignoring or engaging in other kinds of denial.
- Our social location and identity help to reinforce our beliefs, mores and values. If we take in and adopt information that threatens this sense of who we are and to whom we belong, we risk losing our social position and our identity.
Stoknes then shares strategies to address and dismantle these barriers, including strengthening social ties and community connections, nudging and supporting better behaviors, keeping the messages understandable and pragmatic, using the power of stories, and finding ways to create feedback loops to reinforce preferred climate-friendly behaviors. A few sections of the book are his outlines for new story frames (which did not resonate for me personally), but the book as a whole provides a practical road map for activists who want to have an impact on people’s day-to-day behaviors.