Per Espen Stoknes
3,254,187 views • 15:00

How do we get people engaged in solving global warming?

I'd like to start with running two short experiments with you all. So your task is to notice if you feel any difference as I speak. OK? Here we go.

We are seeing rising carbon dioxide levels, now about 410 ppms. To avoid the RCP 8.5 scenario, we need rapid decarbonization. The global carbon budget for 66 percent likelihood to meet the two-degree target is approximately 800 gigatons.


OK, now let me try something else.

We are heading for an uninhabitable earth: monster storms, killer floods, devastating wildfires, crazy heat waves that will cook us under a blazing sun. 2017 is already so unexpectedly warm, it's freaking out climate scientists. We have a three-year window to cut emissions, three years. If not, we will soon live in a boiling earth, a hellhole. OK. So —


Now your task: How did these ways of speaking make you feel? The first, detached maybe or just confused? What's this guy talking about? The other, fearful or just numb? So again, the question I asked: How do we get people engaged in solving global warming? And why don't these two ways of communicating work?

You see, the biggest obstacle to dealing with climate disruptions lies between your ears. Building on a rapidly growing body of psychology and social science, I spent years looking into the five inner defenses that stop people from engaging.

When people hear news about the climate coming straight at them, the first defense comes up rapidly: distance. When we hear about the climate, we hear about something far away in space — think Arctic ice, polar bears — far away in time — think 2100. It's huge and slow-moving — think gigatons and centuries. So it's not here. It's not now. Since it feels so far away from me, it seems outside my circle of influence, so I feel helpless about it. There's nothing I can do. In our everyday lives, most of us prefer to think about nearer things, such as our jobs, our kids, how many likes we get on Facebook. Now, that, that's real.

Next defense is doom. Climate change is usually framed as a looming disaster, bringing losses, cost and sacrifice. That makes us fearful. But after the first fear is gone, my brain soon wants to avoid this topic altogether. After 30 years of scary climate change communications, more than 80 percent of media articles still use disaster framings, but people habituate to and then — desensitize to doom overuse. So many of us are now suffering a kind of apocalypse fatigue, getting numb from too much collapse porn.

The third defense is dissonance. Now, if what we know, that fossil fuel use contributes to global warming, conflicts with what we do — drive, fly, eat beef — then so-called cognitive dissonance sets in. This is felt as an inner discomfort. We may feel like hypocrites. To get rid of this discomfort, our brain starts coming up with justifications. So I can say, for instance, "My neighbor, he has a much bigger car than I do." Or, "Changing my diet doesn't amount to anything if I am the only one to do it." Or, I could even want to doubt climate science itself. I could say, "You know, climate is always changing."

So these justifications make us all feel better, but at the expense of dismissing what we know. Thus, behavior drives attitudes. My personal cognitive dissonance comes up when I recognize that I've been flying from Oslo to New York and back to Oslo in order to speak about the climate.


For 14 minutes.


So that makes me want to move on to denial.


So if we keep silent, ignore or ridicule facts about climate disruptions, then we might find inner refuge from fear and guilt. Denial doesn't really come from lack of intelligence or knowledge. No, denial is a state of mind in which I may be aware of some troubling knowledge, but I live and act as if I don't know. So you could call it a kind of double life, both knowing and not knowing, and often this is reinforced by others, my family or community, agreeing not to raise this tricky topic.

Finally, identity. Alarmed climate activists demand that government takes action, either with regulation or carbon taxes. But consider what happens when people who hold conservative values, for instance, hear from an activist that government ought to expand even further. Particularly in rich Western democracies, they are then less likely to believe that science. How is that? Well, if I hold conservative values, for instance, I probably prefer big proper cars and small government over tiny, tiny cars and huge government. And if climate science comes and then says government should expand further, then I probably will trust that science less. In this way, cultural identity starts to override the facts. The values eat the facts, and my identity trumps truth any day.

So, after recognizing how these five D's kill engagement, how can we move beyond them? New research shows how we can flip these five defenses over into key success criteria for a more brain-friendly climate communication. So this is where it gets really exciting and where we find the five S's, the five evidence-based solutions for what does work.

First, we can flip distance to social. We can make climate feel near, personal and urgent by bringing it home, and we can do that by spreading social norms that are positive to solutions. If I believe my friends or neighbors, you guys, will do something, then I will, too. We can see, for instance, this from rooftop solar panels. They are spreading from neighbor to neighbor like a virus. It's contagious. This is the power of peer-to-peer creating the new normal.

Next, we can flip doom to supportive. Rather than backfiring frames such as disaster and cost, we can reframe climate as being really about human health, for instance, with plant-based delicious burgers, good for you and good for the climate. We can also reframe climate as being about new tech opportunities, about safety and about new jobs. Solar jobs, for instance, are seeing an amazing growth. They just passed the three million jobs mark. Psychology says, in order to create engagement, we should present, on balance, three positive or supportive framings for each climate threat we mention.

Then we can flip dissonance to simpler actions. This is often called nudging. The idea is, by better choice architecture, we can make the climate-friendly behaviors default and convenient. Let me illustrate this. Take food waste. Food waste at buffets goes way down if the plate or the box size is reduced a little, because on the smaller plate it looks full but in the big box it looks half empty, so we put more in. So smaller plates make a big difference for food waste. And there are hundreds of smart nudges like this. The point is, dissonance goes down as more behaviors are nudged. Then we can flip denial by tailoring signals that visualize our progress. We can provide motivating feedback on how well we're doing with our problem-solving. Say you improved your transport footprint or cut energy waste in your buildings. Then one app that can share this well is called Ducky. The idea is, you log your actions there, and then you can see how well your team or company is doing, so you get real-time signals.

Finally, identity. We can flip identity with better stories. Our brain loves stories. So we need better stories of where we all want to go, and we need more stories of the heroes and heroines of all stripes that are making real change happen.

I'm proud that my hometown of Oslo is now embarking on a bold journey of electrifying all transport, whether cars, bikes or buses. One of the people spearheading this is Christina Bu. She is heading the Electric Vehicle Association for years and she has been fighting every day. Now, the UK and France, India and China have also announced plans for ending the sales of fossil cars. Now, that's massive. And in Oslo, we can see how enthusiastic EV owners go and tell their electric stories to friends and neighbors and bring them along. So we come full circle from story back to social.

So thousands of climate communicators are now starting to use these solutions all over the world. It is clear, however, that individual solutions are not sufficient to solving climate alone, but they do build stronger bottom-up support for policies and solutions that can. That is why engaging people is so crucial.

I started this talk with testing two ways of communicating climate with you. There is another way, too, I'd like to share with you. It starts with reimagining climate itself as the living air. Climate isn't really about some abstract, distant climate far, far away from us. It's about this air that surrounds us. This air, you can feel in this room, too, the air that moves right now in your nostrils. This air is our earth's skin. It's amazingly thin, compared to the size of the earth and the cosmos it shields us from, far thinner than the skin of an apple compared to its diameter. It may look infinite when we look up, but the beautiful, breathable air is only like five to seven miles thin, a fragile wrapping around a massive ball. Inside this skin, we're all closely connected. The breath that you just took contained around 400,000 of the same argon atoms that Gandhi breathed during his lifetime. Inside this thin, fluctuating, unsettled film, all of life is nourished, protected and held. It insulates and regulates temperatures in a range that is just right for water and for life as we know it, and mediating between the blue ocean and black eternity, the clouds carry all the billions of tons of water needed for the soils. The air fills the rivers, stirs the waters, waters the forests. With a global weirding of the weather, there are good reasons for feeling fear and despair, yet we may first grieve today's sorry state and losses and then turn to face the future with sober eyes and determination. The new psychology of climate action lies in letting go, not of science, but of the crutches of abstractions and doomism, and then choosing to tell the new stories. These are the stories of how we achieve drawdown, the reversing of global warming. These are the stories of the steps we take as peoples, cities, companies and public bodies in caring for the air in spite of strong headwinds. These are the stories of the steps we take because they ground us in what we are as humans: earthlings inside this living air.

Thank you.