The following excerpt is from the introduction to Per Espen Stoknes’ book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2015) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
I was talking to a group of forty senior industry executives when the air in the hotel conference room began to feel charged. No more than ten minutes into my talk on climate psychology, I sensed a brewing discomfort in my stomach. Then one of their leading members cut me off from his first-row seat. “This global warming thing you’re talking about is very uncertain,” he declared. “It’s been hyped. There is even a Nobel Prize winner in physics, Professor Ivar Giaever, that has documented that global warming isn’t happening.”
Such comments are not uncommon. I wasn’t very surprised. This topic was hot, the audience was feeling criticized by the global warming message, and I was being challenged. The glove had been thrown down. What could I say that they would hear? To go on with my next slide was not an option. The challenge couldn’t just be ignored. Those in the group were mostly white, mostly male, and mostly in suits and ties, like myself. The questioner’s voice was friendly, but I could feel the hostility mounting just under the surface.
Something in the climate message is unsettling, maybe even disarranging to our minds. And in that hotel conference room, on a cool November day, the psychology of climate was being enacted in real time—ironically during my lecture on the very same subject.
No wonder there is a gut reaction to shoot down the message. Or the messenger. Take “them” down. Kill the doom-mongering. After all, argument is war, and the climate debate has been exactly that. Just think about the word debate. The prefix de refers to “down,” as in depression. And bate—as in bat, one with which to hit the opponent—comes from the Latin word battere, to fight. So debate is fighting by hitting someone down with a bat.
The climate debate has devolved into just such a deteriorating and desperate spiral. Many of those who doubt global warming are now seeing the record numbers of people hitting the streets demanding climate action. They may be noticing that large accounting firms, insurance associations, and military analysts are increasingly ranking climate as a serious risk to the economy and security. And they may even be experiencing firsthand heavier floods, longer droughts, or other effects of climate change. But even so, the debate rages on or is carefully avoided altogether.
How much longer will so many people feel a need to combat climate and ecological science? Climate change is now a more divisive topic in the United States than abortion, gun control, the death penalty, or genetically modified crops.
If you want change to happen, hard confrontation is usually not productive. Coaches and psychotherapists know this. You don’t debate your client in the hope that you—the coach—win and they lose. The more you try to force change onto someone, the tougher the resistance. Getting into us-versus-them positions invites more ditch digging, not dialogue. The stronger argument rarely wins in practice, unless the opponent really wants to learn and explore. And even if you win today, the losers live to fight another day. They don’t go home and change their minds in wise reflection. I, at least, don’t change that way.
Change can happen through dialogue, but what is needed first is curiosity, empathy, and focus on finding some common ground.
For those of us who feel the unsettling winds of change in the air—literally—the time for debating with contrarians about whether climate change is happening is over. It’s no use trying to win the argument against those that have made up their minds to the contrary. We don’t even want to win over the climate contrarians so that they lose. What we want is movement out of the trenches. Attention. Common ground. Joint exploration of solutions. A shift toward new stories. And for that to happen, we first need to understand the internal resistance, the deadlock: What’s holding back the long-overdue shift? What’s stopping the facts of climate change from unsettling our minds enough that the much-needed swerve in public opinion can happen?
So what did I reply to the group of executives? That I’m happy that up to 2 or 3 percent of climate researchers insist on thinking differently. Living with diversity may be taxing, but the alternative is usually worse. Diversity of species and diversity of minds are both indispensible to a vibrant earth as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. The executives could accept this line of reasoning; they know that having sufficiently diverse mind-sets when doing strategic analysis is critical to avoid groupthink in executive teams. We could proceed to the issues of fear messaging, worldviews, and new opportunities of green growth.
But being happy about the thin, thin 2 to 3 percent slice of contrarian researchers does not give license to ignore the other 97 percent—even if ignoring the unsettling climate facts could be personally more convenient for my lifestyle. Choosing ignorance would let me off the hook of feeling implicated when I fly too much—or don’t contribute enough.
The basics of greenhouse gas atmospheric warming are simple. The presence of certain gases traps more of the sunlight’s heat close to earth, so that less is radiated back out into space. Since the industrial revolution, our species has been releasing more of these gases into the air than are taken out by natural processes. This shifts the earth’s energy balance away from the delicate stability during which human civilization has flourished, leading to disruptive conditions for humans and today’s ecosystems. That’s about it. Three sentences.
But the devil is in the details. Climate sciences at the planetary scale quickly become extremely complex. Since the ever-moving air is linked to rainfall, to clouds, to ground, to ocean, to chemistry, physics, biology, ecology—everything really—the issue starts spanning many, many disciplines. A person really needs years and years of dedicated training in order to understand just one of these disciplines at some depth. And this is even before we include human societies and the social sciences. In democracies, the question becomes what people should believe about this complexity. Which experts are to be trusted?
What we see at this point is that around half of the population in rich countries chooses to side with the tiny sliver of 2 percent rather than the 98 for some reason or other. That is a fascinating paradox. Pretty scary, actually. And therefore worth thinking deeply about. What parent can today take to heart that within the lifetime of their newborn baby, the planet will become hotter than it’s been in millions of years?
This book is about such paradoxes, responses, and solutions. Understanding human responses to climate change is clearly becoming just as important as understanding climate change itself. The main question is: What do our reactions to the climate change facts tell us about the way we think, what we do, and how we live in the world? And how can we use what we know about human nature—our own, and others’—to move beyond our psychological barriers to making a great climate swerve?
Thinking About the Future
Several years ago, not long after my divorce, I found myself walking back from my now ex’s new apartment, having left our kids at her place. Walking away alone. Our life project of the previous fifteen years was in ruins. Now what to do with my life? The pain from my broken dreams was as palpable as the freezing-cold night around me. I noticed the winter stars, and the waning old moon lingering just above the horizon, to the left of a tall office building next to my new attic in central Oslo.
Then something unexpected happened. I could feel the air around me like never before. It seemed to descend from the sky itself, flow down from the moon, and rise up from the ground. It enveloped my hair, chilled each finger as I swung my arms and walked in its flow. I was walking with pain in my heart, but something new was opening before me, too, and I reached a decision I didn’t even know I was contemplating. The rest of my life, I decided right then and there, would revolve around climate-related work.
If you’re thinking you’ve just opened a book by a new-age evangelizer, you can relax. The climate epiphany didn’t come out of nowhere. I had grown up in a family-owned, smelly fish factory on Norway’s gorgeous western fjord coast and later exercised the entrepreneurial and curious genes spawned there in the worlds of green tech and plasma physics. I had become a certified psychologist with a PhD in economics, and had been exploring future strategic scenarios, consulting across four continents, and wondering how my worlds of science and storytelling, therapy and policy, climate reality and human imagination might eventually collide. But I hadn’t yet accepted climate as a defining feature in my life’s work.
It has taken some years to digest the answer that seemed to come right out of the open air that evening. Does the act of accepting personal loss open the heart to the more transpersonal pain of displaced peoples, forests and ocean, the furred and the finned ones? It certainly seemed that way. And it makes more sense each time and every day I reflect on it. Acknowledging distress on one level led me to connect better to it on another.
In the years since, much of my climate-related work has been in collaboration with my older colleague Jørgen Randers, who back in 1972 co-authored Limits to Growth—the book that sold millions around the world and launched a fierce debate on whether, and when, global consumption would overshoot our planet’s resources. We’ve taught futures thinking together at the Norwegian Business School for more than a decade, and have also run the Center for Climate Strategies together. After decades of watching the world fail to take meaningful action on key issues, especially climate change, Randers recently wrote up his thinking about the most likely global future in the bestseller 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. In it, he argues that rich countries will change their current course too slowly to avert severe climate disruptions. Innovation will lose to inertia. Humanity will hence fail the challenge to act on climate change before it reaches runaway proportions, in the main because people, capitalism, and democracy are too short-term to tackle the critical long-term climate issue.
Business as usual, he predicts, will run its course, overshooting ecological limits toward 2052 and beyond, but with better resource efficiency and less frantic economic growth than we’ve seen in the previous four decades. Randers forecasts that by 2100 we’ll end up in a world three degrees Celsius (five degrees Fahrenheit) warmer. There’ll be no end to setbacks and troubles, but we’ll avoid the apocalypse of runaway climate tipping points at least in this century. His story details a gray, muddling-through world, with slowing economic growth and mounting costs and consequences from climate impacts. Many, many natural species, habitats, and cultures, he worries, will gradually be lost, with the poorest people suffering the most.
The question that drives me is: Is humanity up to the task? Are we humans inescapably locked into short-termism? Both Randers and I agree that we already have the necessary technical solutions for a low-emission society. But he feels sure that our thinking is too short-term and our behavior too self-interested to turn around rapidly enough to avert runaway climate change in the coming century. Like Randers, many today argue that humans seem hardwired to self-destruct and take the planet’s biological wealth down with us. Most do not even want to hear bad climate news.
I’d like to think otherwise, hence this book is a guide for how to break free from such a future forecast. It looks deep into the psychology of the human response to climate change and shows how to bypass the psychological barriers to action. Can those barriers really be bypassed, and soon enough to matter? Randers and I have been arguing about this for years, often in front of our classes. Where Randers, the elderly wise physicist, sees the socioeconomic juggernaut run its inevitable course of overshoot and decline, Stoknes, the younger optimistic psychologist, maintains that there is more to humans and cultures than short-termism. I argue—to his amusement—that the climate paradox is resolvable, and that solutions are within reach. He doesn’t believe my scenario. I contest his forecast. So let’s get going and prove my dear colleague wrong.