Per Espen Stoknes: What Holds Us Back From Facing The Threats Of Climate Change?

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 10:01 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Climate Crisis.

About Per Epsen's TED Talk

Psychologist Per Espen Stoknes explains the inner defenses that block most people from recognizing the urgency of climate change. He asks, what is a better way to think and talk about this crisis?

About Per Epsen

Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist and economist. He works as a professor and as the director for the Center for Green Growth at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway.

His latest book is What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.

He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Oslo. He has also served as a deputy representative in the Norweigian parliament.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

My sense is that when most people hear about climate change, they think, you know, it'll be fine. I just - I don't live near the coast, or I'll just move inland. Don't you think that's how a lot of people just see it?

PER ESPEN STOKNES: Yeah. And this is the issue we see in surveys, that if you ask people, is global warming a problem or a big challenge for the world? - they say - almost everybody - yes. And then if you ask, is this going to pose you a personal risk or really harm you or your family? - then most people say no.

RAZ: This is Per Espen Stoknes.

STOKNES: I teach at the Norwegian Business School in green economics. And I'm also a climate psychologist, researching in how people respond to the climate science and climate news.

RAZ: Per Espen has been trying to figure out why it's so hard to communicate the urgency of climate change to most people.

STOKNES: Most people have recognized or taken in that global warming is happening. The problem is making it relevant to our everyday actions so that it feels near, personal and urgent. So it's not really an issue of understanding on the cognitive level. It's more an emotional and behavioral level that we need to address.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Through his research, Per Espen has identified several psychological inner defenses that really influence how people think and act about climate change. Here's more from Per Espen Stoknes on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STOKNES: 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. Since it feels so far away from me, it seems outside my circle of influence. There's nothing I can do. Next, defense is doom. Climate change is usually framed as a looming disaster. That makes us fearful. But after the first fear is gone, my brain soon wants to avoid this topic altogether. The third defense is dissonance.

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. To get rid of this discomfort, our brain starts coming up with justifications. So I can say, for instance, changing my diet doesn't amount to anything if I am the only one to do it. So these justification make us all feel better but at the expense of dismissing what we know. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

STOKNES: So that makes me want to move on to denial.

(LAUGHTER)

STOKNES: 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. And often, this is reinforced by others - my family or community agreeing not to raise this tricky topic. Finally, identity - learned climate activists demand that government takes action, either with regulation or carbon taxes. Well, if I hold conservative values, for instance, I'd 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. And my identity trumps truth any day.

RAZ: So there are all these inner defenses that you identify that block most of us from seeing the urgency of climate change. And then, obviously, they stop us from doing anything. So how do you counter those defenses? Like, what's the solution?

STOKNES: We are a social animal. So when I hear about something that's very abstract, like PPM levels or the Arctic far away from me, it doesn't feel near. What feels near is what my friends are doing, what my kids are doing, what my colleagues at job's doing. And if they are up to something with climate, then it feels near and personal for me to do it, as well.

There's this quite famous study done by Bob Cialdini, a professor of psychology. He asked 4,000 households to conserve power at home. First 1,000 were asked to conserve power because that's sustainable. It's good for the planet. The second thousand households were asked to conserve power because they should think about the children, the grandchildren, the future. The third thousand were told how much they could save in money by cutting their power consumption. The fourth thousand were told how much they use compared to their neighbors.

And each time the study is conducted, we find that the largest drop in power use and long - most sustained change is in the fourth group, those who were compared with their neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STOKNES: So we can flip distance to social. We can make climate feel near, personal and urgent by spreading social norms that are positive to solutions. If I believe my friends or neighbors will do something, then I will, too.

Next, we can flip doom to supportive. Rather than backfiring frames, such as disaster and cost, we can reframe climate as being about new tech opportunities, about safety and about new jobs.

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. Dissonance goes down as more behaviors are nudged.

Then flip denial by tailoring signals that visualize our progress. We can provide motivating feedback on how well we're doing with our problem-solving.

Finally, 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.

RAZ: So Per Espen, during this entire episode - right? - we've been hearing about how urgent the climate crisis is. Like, this is a house on fire. So I wonder - I mean, do you think that these flips, as you call them, can work at scale and actually build a critical mass for change?

STOKNES: Absolutely. So my hope is that we will see, like, ripples in water, a building of critical mass, just like the resistance for slavery or women's voting rights or civil rights movement in the '60s and the resistance to get the Vietnam War. And there's this whole, huge, mostly invisible network of people doing something, building momentum. And you see no progress, no progress, no progress for year and year and year and year. But still, it's a - building a social movement around it. And then, suddenly, at some point, tipping point comes. And then it goes from a committed minority to the majority.

And I'm sure this is going to happen - a big swerve. What I'm not sure about is the timing. Is it this summer, or is it 2020, 2025? I'm certainly looking forward to it. And that's why I feel so heartened about school strikes and, for instance, the work of Greta Thunberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA THUNBERG: (Chanting) What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #4: (Chanting) Climate justice.

THUNBERG: (Chanting) When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #4: (Chanting) Now.

STOKNES: That they seem to be adding to this invisible network, building momentum towards a critical mass.

RAZ: That's Per Espen Stoknes. He's a psychologist and an economist at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo. You can see his full talk at TED.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MOON RISING")

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL: (Singing) I see a bad moon rising. I see trouble on the way. I see earthquakes and lightning. I see bad times today.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show about the climate crisis this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out TED.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and JC Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Katie Monteleone. Our intern is Emmanuel Johnson.

Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.