climate change

Five psychological barriers to climate action

Among the 100+ essays in Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book, one that I rather liked was Per Espen Stoknes on overcoming climate apathy. He’s a Norwegian psychologist and Green Party politician, and he describes five psychological barriers to climate action. They all start with D, if you’re being generous:

  • Distance – the effects of climate change can feel far away, both in time and space. That makes climate change somewhat abstract, and it all feels too distant to care about. Of course, this is the kind of thing that’s easier to believe in Norway than in hotter parts of the world, and that’s why I write about climate privilege. My late neighbour had an extreme version of this kind of dismissal of climate change: “What do I care? I’ll be dead.”
  • Doom – a few years ago when Extinction Rebellion was new, I joined a secretive action in London to drop a large banner from a bridge. Nobody seemed to know what it actually said until it was done, and it turned out to say ‘Climate change – we’re fucked’. When I queried both the wisdom and the tone of this, I was told it was to be relateable and plain-spoken about the threat. But I just don’t think it’s a useful thing to say: if we’re all doomed anyway, why bother? Might as well carry on as long as we can.
  • Dissonance – it makes us uncomfortable when a gap opens up between what we know and what we do, and so we tend to justify things to resolve the tension. The starkest example I’ve seen of this is with friends who smoke, and who always had good reasons why the health risks didn’t apply to them. “By doubting or downplaying what we know (the facts),” says Stoknes, “we can feel better about how we live.”
  • Denial – this one’s more familiar in climate circles, and refers to refusing to engage in the reality of climate change. The temptation is to respond with facts and evidence, but Stoknes writes that “denial is based in self-defense, not ignorance, intelligence, or lack of information.” Denial isn’t just about rejecting the science. There are multiple forms of denial.
  • iDentity – lastly, climate change might “threaten one’s sense of self, freedom and values.” Cultural identity is more important than facts and evidence, psychologically, and those are likely to be discarded if they challenge our sense of who we are.

How do we overcome these barriers? Whole books are written about such things, but I’ll point you to Stoknes’ website for a summary.

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