People are not very good at talking about climate change, not even climate activists — or so says Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes. Understanding the science of climate change isn’t enough. We also need to understand the social science of how people react to certain messages.
Stoknes’ book What We Think About (When We Try Not To Think About) Global Warming is a manual for telling better climate-change stories. With chapter titles like “Stand Up For Your Depressions!” and “Make It Simple To Choose Right,” it distills a great body of social science to a handful of accessible lessons. From why we’ve traditionally gotten stuck when we’ve tried to talk about the climate to what we should actually do about it, Stoknes provides clear examples with a healthy dose of psychotherapeutic understanding.
Stoknes came by the Grist office to share some of what he’s learned. Here are our favorite takeaways:
1. Don’t use the word “denier”
“I think the words ‘denial’ and ‘deniers’ are overused. The original psychological concept [of denial] goes back to Sigmund Freud and the discovery of the unconscious, starting with how the Viennese people were repressing their sexuality and coming [up] with diseases and symptoms due to that. Now it’s being used as a pejorative, a synonym of being ignorant, stupid, and immoral. Using it is counter-productive.”
2. Pick a good frame for the story — like human health
“If we frame the climate as a health issue, we know that works because people care about their health. If you have climate here, and health back there, people don’t really notice it. If you shift that ground, then it’s more about health and not as much about the climate.”
3. Appeal to self-interest
“There are billions and billions to be made in [the energy sector] inevitably over the coming two decades. America can lead that or can be dragged backwards into it. So what role does American business play in this transition? Like in the transition from horse carriages to cars: Do you want to produce horse carriages or be in the car business? When Google throws billions of dollars at Nest, it’s not because they want to be kind. You draw people into a commercial discussion and, again, climate is the background.”
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