The Five Psychological Barriers to Climate Action

This subject may seem dreary and a topic many avoid, but with these simple steps it becomes a much easier conversation.

  • Collective discussion about the future of our planet is more important now than it ever has been before.
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  • What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming by Per Espen Stoknes
    Photo by Chelsea Green Publishing

In What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), Stoknes not only masterfully identifies the five main psychological barriers to climate action, but addresses them with five strategies for how to talk about global warming in a way that creates action and solutions, not further inaction and despair. The more facts that pile up about global warming, the greater the resistance to them grows, making it harder to enact measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities for the inevitable change ahead. It is a catch-22 that starts, says psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, from an inadequate understanding of the way most humans think, act, and live in the world around them. With dozens of examples—from the private sector to government agencies—Stoknes shows how to retell the story of climate change and, at the same time, create positive, meaningful actions that can be supported even by deniers.

It's all too easy to distance and doubt ourselves away from climate facts. Particularly since they are sometimes presented in abstract, doom-laden, fear-mongering, guilt-inducing, and polarizing ways. We seem to have a rich repertoire of ways to avoid changing the behaviors that belong to our sense of self. We’re clever at guarding ourselves against messages that we don’t really want to hear.

Scan any given day’s media and Internet coverage of climate, and you’ll see all those modes of distancing and self-defense on display. For more than three decades a host of messages from well-meaning scientists, advocates, and others have tried to not only bring the facts about climate change home but also break through the wall that separates what we know from what we do and how we live.

But the messages are not working, sometimes not even for the most receptive audiences. This qualifies as the greatest science communication failure in history: The more facts, the less concern. Over the last twenty years, the messengers have encountered not only vicious counterattacks but also what seem to be impenetrable walls of psychological backlash or indifference. And in response to a sense of futility the messengers are, understandably, growing despondent and exasperated.

First, we need to see through the mind-and-message clutter that has gotten us where we are today. If that seems a big task, consider this: Everything you see on the Internet or in your own friends’ and neighbors’ reactions to climate change can be condensed into five main defense barriers that keep climate messages away. They work as invisible defense walls inside that block the messages from leading to meaningful response and action.

Let’s call them, for easy reference, the five D’s.

1. Distance

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