Making Climate Resonate

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Chelsea Green Publishing

Although our ignorance about climate disruption will always dwarf what we know, a staggering amount has been learned in the last three decades—not just scientific understanding of complex phenomena and the potential of various micro and macro technologies that might contribute to solutions, but an immense and rapidly growing body of knowledge about the social, economic, and political impacts. These potential impacts threaten the well-being of much of the world’s population and even the existence of whole countries. Reports about this knowledge have been delivered in various ways to the public worldwide, and, in particular, to those persons with the greatest power to effect change. Still relatively little is being attempted in the way of solutions, and the level of alarm among either the public or the powerful continues to be muted. Why is nothing (so little, anyway) being done? Neither more frightening, scientifically-grounded scenarios nor more certainty of scientific understanding have made much, if any, difference to the political response over the last twenty years.

Scientists, environmentalists, and political pundits have attributed the cause of (or blame for) this ignorance, apathy, or immorality to, among other things: dysfunctions of the global political system; irresponsible news reporting and analysis; a highly effective anti-environmental opposition in an era of extreme political polarization; and just the far-reaching alienation, shallow thinking, and addiction to amusement spawned by the rampant consumerist egoism of modernity. The most common answers offered are to wait for problems to get worse, to hope for a huge ecological collapse or disaster to break through the fog, or to expect that the environment will become a priority once problems of the economy and security are resolved. But, if past experience tells us anything, it is that a perception that problems are getting worse will not change anything, a disaster will bring only a temporary blip in the attention-action cycle, and problems of the economy and security will always be with us and will always be more salient and more emotionally (and ideologically) charged than cumulative, long-standing, slow developing environmental challenges ever can be.

There are further problems with these diagnoses and solutions. There is little evidence of a strong appetite, even among scientists and environmentalists, for the kinds of sweeping radical public actions that one might think would be commensurate with the risks, urgency, and scale of a problem such as climate disruption. Moreover, there is an abundance of evidence that, in most rich countries—and, indeed, in most poorer ones that have been surveyed—a majority of the general public already does accept that climate disruption is a serious problem, and has for a number of years. Nevertheless, support for serious action is tenuous.

According to John M. Meyer, this notable lack of response constitutes “the resonance dilemma.”1 Public opinion in many countries shows a similar consistent and long-standing gap between broadly-felt concern about immense environmental challenges and the absence of a sense of urgency or even priority regarding actions. Meyer’s solution for the resonance dilemma is for environmentalists, scientists, and political theorists to practice social criticism that engages more with the everyday material concerns that resonate widely with the public, by pushing pragmatically for change that is grounded in the material realities that everyone faces. The route to fundamental societal changes to minimize (or mitigate) climate disruption should run from the bottom up, through the politics of everyday life—for example, in grappling with land as private property, automobility, and household practices. Whatever the merits of Meyer’s case, he presents it as the alternative to waiting, or hoping, for more of the same to have a different result. But, connecting better with everyday material practices is not the only way that greater resonance might be achieved.

A critical assessment of the resonance failures of climate disruption, and other daunting environmental challenges, might probe more deeply into the puzzle of why people do not respond to increasingly well-documented facts and then ask whether the psychological sciences could better inform the political strategies and techniques that environmental activists, scientists, and policy entrepreneurs use to try to achieve political resonance. The primary aims of Per Espen Stoknes’s lively and accessible new book are to summarize the insights of psychology into why people do not believe established facts about climate (even many people who admit to knowing and accepting them do not really believe them), to identify the reasons that climate communications and campaigns of the past three decades have been largely unpersuasive, and to outline the contributions that the psychological sciences might make toward greater belief and more action.

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The book employs psychological insights to analyze why people know and accept the facts on climate change, but fail to believe and act on them.

Part I of the book is a primer on the psychology of denial, both the hard denial of facts and also the soft denial of the need for urgent or substantial action. Synopses of distinctive schools of psychological research shed light on human understanding, belief, and behavior with respect to climate knowledge.

Evolutionary psychology helps explain the centrality for the human mind of self-interest, status seeking, social imitation, short-term thinking, and risk vividness. Strategies for collective adoption of climate action must be based on understanding how these forces inevitably shape thinking and action.

Cognitive psychology illuminates how the brain processes and judges information based on risk perception and framing. According to Stoknes, people “tend to downplay risks that are dull, common and familiar, anonymous, somewhat controllable, not much discussed, long-term, gradual, and natural, as well as those that affect others and lack any clear bad guy.” Climate change is a set of risks that presses all of these buttons. Moreover, environmentalists and scientists have been complicit in framing climate disruption (for example, as non-threatening, uncertain climate change) in ways that are either neutral and reduce issue resonance or are counterproductive (losses, costs, and sacrifice).

Social psychology explains how people work to keep attitudes aligned with those of their primary social groups, as well as with their own internal matrixes, such that they try to keep behaviors and thoughts consistent with their feelings and emotions. Changing attitudes is never a simple matter of providing information.

It is not just immediate social groups who profoundly influence attitudes, cognition, and behavior. The psychology of identity offers understanding of the resilience of broad cultural core beliefs and ways of living, cultural premises, and cognitions that can be resistant to change for a long time, even to the point of social collapse and disappearance, as many histories of Easter Island, the Norse Greenland colony, and others attest.

From these schools, Stoknes distills five main psychological defense barriers that keep climate messages from having an impact: distance, negative messages, dissonance, denial, and identity. The anti-climate movement has successfully triggered all of these barriers, but environmentalists, scientists, and climate communicators have triggered them too. Part II of the book focuses on strategic communications solutions for these barriers—using social networks, framing with emotionally positive messages, offering easy and convenient behavior choices, using the power of stories, and providing positive social impact signals.

Stoknes does an excellent job of following his own advice in suggesting what must be done differently in order to achieve effective climate communication for transformation, given that changing many more hearts and minds will necessarily be a political prerequisite for effective action. One could quibble that perhaps his coverage of the psychological sciences could be more comprehensive—not included, for example, are any insights from moral psychology although there are moral components to all attitudes, thinking, and behaviors related to climate disruption.2,3 And, Stoknes’s skill at writing clear and engaging diagnoses of the challenges of climate communications and his flair for succinctly distilling recommendations grounded in the sciences of psychology do not extend to a talent for writing inspirational reflections, counsel, and exhortations, which constitute Part III of the book.

In sum, much of what we know about climate, we have learned in the last thirty years—which likewise is true for much of what we know about human thinking, attitudes, and behavior. For whole societies and the global political system to respond appropriately to knowledge about the former will require lots of people to better ground their communications of all sorts much more on the latter. This book is a highly accessible and stimulating place to start learning about “a new psychology of climate action.”