Conquering the public’s magical thinking

A Norwegian discusses what we think about when we try not to think about global warming


Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

On September 27, radio host Leonard Lopate interviewed Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian economist, psychologist, head of BI Norwegian Business School’s green program, and co-director of the Center for Climate Strategy. Stoknes has written a book entitled, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, published by Chelsea Green. What was most striking was that Stoknes has really found a way for us to counter magical thinking, i.e. how we human beings can dismiss facts and suspend truths in order to reach the conclusions that suit us.

He spoke about the intersection between Economics and Behavioral Psychology. Perhaps this synergy is not so new; just look at the history of the advertising business in our country. Mad Men anyone?

However, his agenda is quite different. We can use what we know about human behavior to change our lifestyle on a worldwide basis, not with the intention of having someone buy a specific product or to put more money into a company’s pocket, but rather to better the world. Now, that is revolutionary.

According to Stoknes, “There is a psychological climate paradox.” He detailed five main barriers against engaging with climate change: the Distance Barrier, when something is not personally relevant; the Doom Barrier, a problem of framing; the Dissonance Barrier, what we do compared to what we know; the Denial Barrier, the “psychological capacity both to know something and live as if we don’t know it;” and Identity Barriers; those political or ideological values that make us want to disbelieve.

He feels that the dominant framing of this issue has been the Doom Strategy or Catastrophe Strategy. It has been reiterated over and over again for 25 years and is failing. We have “Apocalypse Fatigue.”

What causes the human mind to do this? Stoknes explained that the psychological Doom Barrier can be countered with the Identity Barrier, “which has to do with the values in ourselves that we tend to protect as core to who we are: political identity, professional identity.

“If I perceive that the climate messengers somehow criticize my lifestyle, my views on what the government should do, and the extent of regulation, then, I would maybe prefer to reinterpret or explain away the climate science so I can retain or keep my old values… There are some studies showing that the more science intelligence you have about … the more you will use your intelligence and knowledge to explain away the science.”

In writing his book in English rather than Norwegian, Stoknes had an American Audience in mind. But he admits that a Norwegian version would not be so very different. “There are many similarities between Norway and the U.S. I think American culture has a huge impact in Norway and also we are both petroleum based economies.” He chose to publish in America for positive reasons: “I think this is where the solutions lie and this is where the action is going to be.”

Asked about some people’s belief in a scientific conspiracy in regards to global warming, Stoknes said, “You create doubt by ongoing supply of these messages.” For Stoknes the question is not about those who are spending a lot of dollars to spin the discussion to their interests. The question is “why do we believe it?”

He suggests a different label be used, as the phrase “global warming” has been beaten to death by politicians bringing in snowballs and the ilk. And perhaps this original phrase was problematic, as it only explains one piece of the problem. Instead he uses the phrase “climate disruption,” which certainly incorporates what is truly happening.

Lopate and Stoknes spoke about the fact that this issue has been around for decades and has moved backward rather than forward. Stoknes thinks the delay has been caused by everyone (public, business, governments) waiting for the other to act. The public can dismiss the problem because it can be rationalized away. An individual thinks, “if it were a problem I should be concerned about the government would be doing something about it.” It is easy for us to abdicate our responsibility.

Perhaps what is so refreshing is how Stoknes proposes we can turn this phenomenon around to use it for global good. Some solutions he suggests to get the public behind this serious issue are:

1. Making the climate change issue more social will help it become more real to people. “We need to build cultural shift from bottom up,” the way opinion changed about the Vietnam War or smoking. As an example, if one house gets solar panels or an electric car, others might follow. Such things become “socially contagious.” While an individual cannot change the world alone, “individual actions [are] important because they shift social norms” that will push a structural change.

2. Corporations must recognize that climate change is a job killer. Many are already changing internally, and this is becoming a competitive advantage. “If America and others don’t get involved they won’t be competitive.”

Stoknes went on to speak about his own carbon footprint. He fessed up: “When I go on a jet, I experience psychological dissonance. I know the impact but I still go.”

Lopate suggested taking a boat instead. Stoknes laughed heartily and said, “It doesn’t fit my schedule.” Instead he tries to make up for it by his other behaviors such as recycling, etc.

He also spoke about parts of New York and its fuel-efficient transportation system. He noted the bike-friendly parts of New York that have allowed people to “take back the streets,” and encouraged the city to go further: “solar panels can be put on the roads” for vehicles.

Lopate remained skeptical. He asked, “Are oil based energy systems too entrenched?”

Stoknes replied, “We should be thankful for what [the oil economy] has given us.” It’s brought us to where we are, and he feels that “all the technologies we need to make change are here.”

But perhaps his greatest argument came from the question, “If we don’t change do we all die?”

“The poor will die first… The Apocalypse frame that we are all on the verge of self-destructing is one scenario. However there are more scenarios. There are huge opportunities and commercial opportunities. We can change our economy in time. There is nobody who knows enough to be a cocksure pessimist… It is the end time of a certain mindset where the earth is endless, huge, and very robust.”

So Stoknes is truly an optimist, one who has created a wonderful analysis of why we are not taking climate change more seriously. We can use this info to form better strategies that will get results. But most refreshing is that he frames his book into a ringing endorsement of the endless potential of human innovation.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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