What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming

As 15.364 scientists from 184 countries just signed a dire warning to humanity for failing to act accordingly to the threats of climate change, I think it is time to refresh the 2015 publication from Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes: What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.


Per Espen Stoknes has wondered about the paradox that the more we know about global warming, the less worried we are. He has, based on his studies of the phenomenon for almost 30 years, defined 5 mental barriers that we establish when we are exposed to unpleasant facts. Here is my take on his findings:

1. Distance

If something takes place far away, both in time and place, our minds automatically places it far down the list of things to worry about.
Example: The unthinkable scenes of horror that plays out in South Sudan and Yemen affects us emotionally less than terrorist attacks in our own countries.

2. Apocalypse

When we listen to doomsday warnings, we get scared (and actually also get smarter), but also less sensitive and thus less effective.
Example: An asteroid impact can wipe out all life on earth in less than 24 hours, but all we do about it is study the consequences without giving the pending total human tragedy much thought, and thus nothing is done to prevent it (which actually is technically possible).

3. Dissonans

Dissonans is that nagging guilt we feel when we know we have done the bad. But we are so good at finding irrational excuses for our questionable behavior that our minds somehow sees as a logic.
Example: If you buy a larger car that uses more gasoline, you can choose to eat a little less meat. And then everything is ok 😉

4. Denial

When we actually see that something abstract and unmanageable threatens our lives and health, or even worse, our children, our brain shuts down for the intake of facts, to prevent depression.
Example: Because the major adverse effects of climate change are creeping up on us so relatively slowly, it’s easy to ignore the warnings, continue our destructive behavior, and live joyfully oblivious in the present moment.

5. Identity

We identify ourselves through our behavior, and if someone challenges our behavior, we defend ourselves aggressively because it is our own identity that is challenged.
Example: If someone offends you by criticizing you for flying to Thailand on vacation, it’s easy to get angry and maybe even find similar sins of the offender.


These are all normal psychological reaction patterns, which have certainly helped to ensure Homo Sapien’s survival as a species so far. But the question is whether these mechanisms are appropriate in the artificial world we have now built, based more on technology than on nature.

Put up against our instincts even the clearest logic fails. According to Per Espen Stoknes other mental tools are needed. He has found 5 methods that actually seem to work:

1. Act locally and be concret

It’s a shame if climate change is only recognized when one’s own roof is blown off one’s own house, so it’s important that even the seemingly insignificant changes in your own community are understood.
Example: Tell others about the changes in local plants and wildlife – both the good and the bad stories. And explain why it happens, if you have the authority to do so 😉

2. Forget about the disasters – point out opportunities and hope instead

The doomsday scenarios are interesting to write about and exciting to read, and studies show that the media generally publishes 7 — 9 negative stories for each positive story. But if you want to avoid numbness, it has been found that for every 1 negative story you need to be supplemented with 3 positive stories. Then the brain will have the facts needed to make logical decisions and the motivation to create a better life.
Example: 1 negative: Sea rises threaten coastal metropolitan areas. 3 positive: Vertical agriculture in tall buildings can provide food when population density increases. Smart infrastructure can counteract flooding and secure housing. Floating solar farms that do not take up land that can used for agriculture.

3. Keep it simple

It can be very difficult to simplify a notoriously complicated topic. Nevertheless, it is necessary if it is to be of any use. The consequence of buying the cheap and polluting product rather than the more costly clean product, must be clearly and simply explained because we make hundreds of daily choices in milliseconds, and we don’t want to feel bad afterwards. If an explanation is too long, we miss the point.
Example: Labels on groceries could show total production CO2 emissions in relation to what you pay for.

4. Use group pressure

What you do may be a drop in the ocean, but since we are pack animals, our actions have far-reaching consequences. You should talk about benefits and demonstrate them by action. We can not resist the urge to copy smart behaviour, especially if it’s cheaper.
Example: If you replace your gasoline lawn mower with an electric lawn mower, the likelihood that your neighbor will also make that choice increases.

5. Talk about the dream, not the nightmare

Even though the facts served to you may make it all seem hopeless, remember to describe the dream scenario. Nothing is impossible. All the good in the world started as a thought in someones head. Nurture the positive thought. Believe it. Try it out. Positive thoughts needs to be materialized into reality for the common good.
Example: The toilet with flushing water is something billions take for granted today, but over the past few hundred years, the construction has actually contributed significantly to the longevity of human life! The dream is to make sure everybody has access to life saving technology like this…

(Image credit: Per Espen Stoknes stoknes.no)

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