Tired of the apocalypse

by Per Espen Stoknes

Earth, how are you doing? (Issue I/2018)

The message from climate science has been crystal clear for years: If humankind wants to avoid a climate catastrophe, we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels at this speed. Despite this, Donald Trump wants to revive the coal-industry; democratically elected parties in Norway want to drill more in the Arctic; the German car industry is reluctant to go electric.

Are humans inevitably short-term thinkers? Do we fail to acknowledge how we influence our future? It seems that the human species – by being so narrow-mindedly clever – has locked itself into a self-destructive path. By changing the composition of the air, we’re disrupting the very stable climate we depend on. Thus, it may seem as if our fantastic brains, somehow make us hardwired to ignore slow-moving climate change (as well as other long-term ecological disruptions) and therefore bring down the rich, diverse biosphere upon which human civilizations has depended for millennia.

The question can also be approached from a more positive perspective. For centuries, the goal of farmers was to leave the soil and the farm in better shape for the next generation. So certain ancient cultures before us seem to have had a more long-term perspective. Thus, maybe a better question is: Which conditions may be conducive in assisting humans to think in a more long-term manner?

One answer to this question must start with the so-called “psychological climate paradox”. National studies show that since 1989 in wealthy countries such as the US and Norway concern for climate change has been stagnant. In some countries, like Sweden, concern about climate change has even decreased over the past decade even though our scientific understanding of climate change and its effects has improved dramatically during that time. Furthermore, climate change skeptics are predominately found in countries such as the USA, the UK, Japan, Australia and Germany, places which are at the forefront of climate research.

It seems as if the human psyche currently uses five main strategies to defend itself against climate science facts: distance, doom, dissonance, denial, identity.

Distance refers to how people struggle to engage with climate change as far away: either temporally, geographically or socially. Climate science deals with timescales spanning up to centuries, which are way beyond our lifetime – or at least beyond our yearly calendars. This shrinks the sense of urgency. In climate reports we see images of geographically distant mountain glaciers or Arctic icebergs, which we may feel little innate connection to. When people are featured in the context of islands which are being flooded or whose land has been dried out, they are usually from countries, cultures and religions which feel a long way away from ours, and we know that our capacity for empathy declines with increased social distance.

Similar to the geographic distance is the social distance. Climate change is often presented as a somewhat nebulous, technical problem that is mulled over by scientists, technocrats and bureaucrats at international conferences in circular halls, where every desk has a microphone and a little flag. In this sense it can seem to exist in a different realm - likewise the responsibility for dealing with it appears distant. It is outside our personal scope of influence, which makes us feel helpless about it.

This psychological distancing from the problem reduces the urgency we associate with it. When we have so many other immediate issues, our limited ‘pool of worry’ overflows. Challenges we perceive as distant settle to the bottom of our priority lists of topics that we think politicians should address. Nearer issues, such as unemployment, immigration or healthcare rises to the top.

It seems that western audiences at least are suffering a kind of “apocalypse fatigue” when it comes to climate change. For 25 years we’ve heard how terrible the climate will get, and how little time there is to fix it. One study of 6 major media outlets in Australia, France, India, Norway, the UK, and the USA had a reach of over 15 million people. It found that over 80% of media articles used a "catastrophe framing" for climate change, whereby climate change was presented as a a catasphrophic scanario. According to the study we become tired of and perhaps habituated and desensitized to these doomsday scenarios. This leads to avoidance of such messages and a backlash on the messengers, by negative stereotyping.

Similarly, people build a big mental distance between themselves and climate change via what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Living a modern life based on the infrastructure of the 21st century, the chances are your daily actions (driving, flying, eating meat) conflict to some extent with your knowledge about what we should do.

Psychology has documented that we – often subconsciously – cope with this dissonance in a number of standard ways. We might modify one or both of the cognitions to make them compatible, change the importance of one, deny the cognitions are related, or justify our behavior by adding other factors – eg. “I’ve just installed solar panels so my flight to Thailand doesn’t matter”.

When people have cognitive dissonance they may latch on to sources of doubt to help remove the dissonance. Cognitive dissonance creates a demand for doubt: If I chose to believe that the sun is causing climate change, dissonance disappears, and I can feel better about my fossil car. This is a key reason why climate sceptics have remained influential despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community. Doubt makes my uncomfortable dissonance go away. Pychologists have found that

This one is simple: our psyche has a certain capacity to live as though we do not know what we know. We can live double-lives; worrying about climate when listening to a lecture about it, but having “forgot” it while starting our busy week on next Monday morning. In this way we can know about a deeply troubling issue (like drug use, sex abuse, animal mistreatment) and then at the same time convince ourselves of being innocent about it. The issue then becomes surrounded by implicit silencing; people prefer not to talk about it in everyday conversations.

Many of our lifestyle choices are tangled up with our sense of identity. If these aspects of our lifestyle (for instance, the type of car we drive, a large SUV, or the meat burgers that I love) are criticized by others, it can make us feel upset and embarrassed. We want to ‘hit back’. When my lifestyle is being threatened this triggers defensiveness and confirmation bias. We then search out arguments that help us justify the feature of our identity which has come under threat from “them”. It becomes a us-and-them issue, for instance right versus left, rich versus poor, the mainstream versus the treehuggers.

These are the main five barriers that obstruct the disturbing climate science information from really engaging us. But how do we avoid them? I believe we need a new climate communication toolbox.

From these barriers and a large set of empirical studies, five main new strategies or solutions emerge: make the climate issue social, make low-carbon actions simple, employ supportive framings, tell better stories particularly about dreams rather than threaten hell and doom. Finally, we should use climate-relevant signals that people can connect to.

To overcome the issue of distance, we need to make climate issues social and local. A number of studies show that people are most likely to cut power consumption not because of issues like sustainability, but rather because their neighbors do. This effect has also been observed through the contagious spread of rooftop solar panels; if your neighbour has them, you too soon want them. And we can use the power of social norms and networks, for example by making it easier to make climate-friendly decisions via straightforward labeling, which highlight which cars or driers have the lowest CO2 balance. In the future it will be a question of helping consumers to make the right decisions. We could, for example, reduce the plate size at restaurant buffets, which would, in turn, reduce food waste by up to 20 percent. An alternative would for shops to put a product's price in the context of its predicted life expectancy.

We can also use the power of default, for instance by making it the default option to offset carbon when buying flights or to use both sides when printing documents. If we do many simple climate actions, this will – according to psychological theory – effectively counter the negative effects of dissonance upon climate attitude. It can even help build more political support for ambitious climate policies, in the same way that new smoking regulations (changing behavior) led to more support for the ban on indoor smoking.

People love opportunities more than taxes, restrictions and regulation. Hence the popular success of ideas like solar roadways and brands like Tesla. We need to readdress the balance of framings in climate change communication to engage people in climate change. Studies of creativity in problem-solving have shown that people are more creative immediately after watching a positive film than if watching a scary movie or neutral documentary.

Looking at the media reporting on climate change, the optimal ratio of positive : catastrophe framings should be 3:1, whereas up to recently it has been 80% in favor of the catastrophe framing. This means we are lacking a more optimistic context for the problem. A survey by the University of Yale has shown that only six percent of US Americans believe that people can and will reduce global warming. Among the rest that acknowledge that climate change exists, respondents either think we can't (18%), could but won't (26%) or that it is unclear whether or not we will do what's necessary (42%).

One simple way of telling this complex story of the turnaround to a low-carbon society is by pointing out that ‘the stone age didn’t end because of a lack of stones’. Humans found smarter ways of getting stuff done. Similarly, with a little ingenuity and determination we can end the fossil fuel age before the reserves are exhausted and blows our 2oC carbon budget. We need a maximum of inventiveness and determination.

People can find it difficult to connect to climate system indicators, such as the atmospheric ppm concentration of carbon dioxide, millimetric annual sea level rise, increases in ocean heat content or even globally averaged surface temperature change. Sometimes these signals are also clearly so big that they dwarf us and mute our sense of self-efficacy, discouraging engagement.

In terms of utilities, most people struggle to grasp what a kilowatt hour (kWh) is or to visualize gas consumption in terms of cubic meters. We might find it easier to engage with the amount of power we are using in terms of its monetary cost in real time, or as a frequent comparison to our neighbors. If our bank statements displayed our monthly carbon footprints, we would find it easier to engage with our personal consumption. Copenhagen is currently doing this on the city scale – tracking their greenhouse gas emission per capita against their gross value added per capita.

Are we inevitably – and unescapably – short-term thinkers? On the one hand, yes. We do know that rational facts and information are insufficient to create lasting engagement for the long term issues. We face too many barriers for that. But, on the other hand, no! Psychology and social research show us that the future does interest us - when the conditions are right. 

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