How We Can Use Psychology To Help Fight Climate Change

The following is an excerpt from What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming by Per Espen Stoknes (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015):

The climate paradox is easily evident. The scientific data and measurements about climate change and global warming are getting stronger and stronger. It’s not that scientists are alarmists—it’s that the science itself is alarming. Still, people in many countries seem to care less and less—particularly in wealthy petroleum-based economies such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway. Heat waves are getting more frequent, stronger superstorms and typhoons are wreaking havoc in coastal settlements, sea levels are rising, the Arctic permafrost is melting faster than expected, corals and fish are dying, and there are more floods and droughts. I could continue, going through the whole usual list you will find in the fact-based scientific climate information, but I prefer to cut the litany short. Politicians have said for decades that they are concerned, and that “the time for action is now.” But talk is cheap, and there has been little decisive action and even fewer results.

In short, we know more than ever about this issue, and the situation looks graver than we thought. The technological part of the transition promises to be the easiest. We have the solutions we need to fix climate change: from radical energy efficiency to renewable energy, better education for women, reforestation, and carbon capture. Easy. But the public and political will is lacking. Reason has won the public argument about climate, but so far lost the case. Even if there is widespread concern, most Westerners still choose to look away—despite the dire facts, or perhaps exactly because of them. Some of that apathy has its roots in deliberate denial and spin, but also to our susceptibility to it in the face of danger. 

But even those who have tried to convey the alarming facts and motivate action have—often without realizing it—failed us. There is a golden rule in coaching and psychotherapeutic approaches to creating change: Our habitual solutions often become part of the problem. The standard response to difficult problems is to double our efforts. We try harder, pushing the old solution yet again. Being even cleverer at it, but getting more and more frustrated when the results don’t turn out differently. Some deeply ingrained solutions are hard to unlearn. The solutions pushed by many environmental organizations have become part of the problem.

This is very evident in most attempts to communicate climate science to the public. When people aren’t convinced by hearing the scientific facts of climate change, then the facts have been repeated and multiplied. Or shouted in a louder voice. Or with more pictures of drowning polar bears, still-bleaker facts, even more studies. Still no response? Then the rule of thumb has been to try to shout louder yet. Make a hair-raising video with emotive music showing that we’re heading for the cliff. Or write the umpteenth report for widespread distribution with the new facts, unequivocal documentation, and lots of graphs, scientific references, and tables. Some are still surprised—or arrogantly annoyed—at all those people who just don’t get it.

On the solutions front, carbon prices have been a favorite. We must raise CO2 taxes, increase emission quota prices, and so on. In a perfect economic world with perfect markets, the Solution with capital S is no doubt to set the right global cap and then the right cost for greenhouse gas emissions. When producing industrial goods in a global world, the associated “bads” of emissions should be taxed in an efficient manner. The polluter should pay. Both politicians and voters should support the carbon tax.

However, there is no global right price that all governments can agree on across cultures and local economies, despite the economic model saying this is the ideal. Neither is there one fair model for sharing emission rights among countries. Blaming politicians for these shortcomings doesn’t bring much progress. Nor are there any institutions that can design and maintain the frameworks needed for this global top-down pricing and enforcement system to work. Just assuming there ought to be and arguing from that assumption, as many economists have been doing, is acting like Peter Pan: believing that because we want it to happen, it should happen. Psychologists can recognize this as a form of wishful thinking, which is common not just among children, but among adults, too. But Peter Pan miracles only work in Neverland. Not here on Earth.

For too long we’ve relied solely on this double push: More facts will finally convince the wayward about climate change. And there must be a global price on carbon emissions. Both are highly rational and uttered with the best of intentions, but neither is rooted in messy social reality or guided by how our brains actually think.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not in any sense opposed to better facts, more rational communication, or higher prices on emissions. But rationality unfortunately has its limits. I wish as much as anyone concerned with the future of two-leggeds and more-than-human lives that this double push, gloriously rational as it is, would have been sufficient. Then it would already have solved our common problem. Yet it has repeatedly failed. Frustration, despair, and apathy have been the psychological outcomes.

The alternative to continuing pushing what doesn’t work is: Try something else! And do more of what actually does work. 

Reframing the Climate Messages

With climate frames like these, who needs enemies?

• Disaster. “Experts warn of climate mayhem . . . more frequent and intense heatwaves, bushfires, floods, drought and landslides.”

• Destruction. John Kerry called climate change a “weapon of mass destruction”—the “world’s most fearsome.”

Uncertainty. “There is a great amount of uncertainty about climate science. These uncertainties undermine our ability to determine how CO2 has affected the climate in the past.”

• Costs. “Policymakers [move] toward costly regulations and policies that will harm hardworking American families and do little to decrease global carbon emissions.”

• High Price. “And the question then is what do we do about it and how much it will cost the consumer?”5

• Loss and Sacrifice. “People ‘must be willing to make sacrifices to cut climate change.’”

For decades now, climate change has been framed as disaster, destruction, cost, uncertainty, and sacrifice. A broad examination of media reports from six countries showed that the two dominant framings were disaster and uncertainty. This was true for most of the climate change news stories circulated to at least fifteen million, across the different media and in different political contexts.

The disaster frame appeared in more than 80 percent of news stories. Uncertainty was the second most common frame, present in nearly 80 percent. Opportunity frames were the third most common (27 percent), but stories using them were mostly about the opportunity of doing nothing about climate, such as fewer cold spells and friendlier farming conditions in the Northern Hemisphere. Only 2 percent of the news discussed positive opportunities such as better energy efficiency, or the growth of solar and wind power. If nothing else, this confirms that journalists and editors are really attracted to doom and gloom.

But, such negative frames rarely work to motivate people, and have so far certainly not shifted the public to support more ambitious policies. They may be good for selling news and magazines, but when overly negative frames are used they tend to boomerang, spawning gloomy emotions and causing people to avoid the topic.

Fear and loss don’t sell. Uncertainty kills determination. Let’s therefore try shifting toward frames that support the issue rather than backfire. New frames are now emerging that are more conducive to action. We can begin to talk about climate in terms of insurance, health, security, preparedness, and, most of all, opportunity.

From Cost to Insurance

The psychological research shows that people are generally loss-averse. They hate rising costs. They hate losing money, jobs, or other stuff about twice as much as they enjoy gaining the equivalent. But, ignorant of this effect, many environmentalists have in combination with the media done a terrific job of depicting the problem exclusively in terms of loss. We’re told we’ll lose beautiful forests, butterflies, birds and streams, and even human dwellings, coral reefs, polar bears, snow and ice. Worse, the climate solutions have also been framed as losses to us: We’re going to lose the possibility to travel where we want, eat meat, or shop freely.

Environmental economists, too, have been prone to use the cost frame in many ways. First, the polluter should pay the true cost. Second, their preferred tool for analyzing policies has been the so-called cost-benefit analysis. Third, a global tax should be put on carbon emissions, raising the consumer costs. And then, fourth, in the absence of a global treaty with a price on carbon, they’ve argued against subsidies and regulations from a “too-expensive” frame: It’s not cost-effective compared with the ideal solution, which is a global carbon tax. In sum, the unintended effects of the cost framing swallow up the good logic of the underlying economics. People and politicians are repelled rather than attracted to their cost- and tax-speak. It hasn’t flown politically.

Rather than going on and on about losses and costs today compared with the future costs of global warming, it is more productive to reframe climate in terms of risk and insurance: How do we insure ourselves today against further climate disruptions tomorrow? ...

We buy fire insurance even though we’re not convinced that our house will burn down later this year or the next. Yet most households and businesses spend a lot of money to insure against such risks. Fires do happen. And when they do, the impacts are severe.

Within this new insurance framing, the climate discussion will turn to questions such as: How much is it worth to pay today to avoid a burning planet in the future?... Around the world, we pay 3.5 percent of the global GDP per year to the insurance industry against risks such as theft and fire.

The same could be the case for climate action: Even if the probability of large, irreversible consequences is low, it still makes perfect prudent sense to pay a little insurance today to avoid huge future disruptions. How much would this insurance cost? If we are prepared to pay the equivalent of 3.5 percent of total annual output to guard against fire and theft, then why not pay even a one percent premium to protect against catastrophic climate disruptions?


Many mainstream scientists and economists like the UK’s Lord Nicholas Stern argue that climate change risks are greater in size and probability than anything we normally insure against. But some of the risk assessments that ordinary people make are on the same time scale as climate impacts—for example, taking out a pension policy that will pay you in 40 years. This is the same sort of period over which we expect to see some major impacts from climate change. …

One documented approach is to frame today’s climate policy expenditure as just a little bit smaller increase in future income: National incomes keep growing; we can afford to shave off a tiny bit of that extra gain to insure ourselves better. This approach is called not losses but “foregone gains.”

This reframing can work at the individual level, too—tapping into people’s desire to avoid future losses rather than realize future gains. For instance, when communicators talk to homeowners, they could frame the need to buy new, efficient appliances as helping the homeowners cut energy bills immediately, instead of helping them save extra money years in the future.

From Destruction to Health and Heart

Pictures of homes with smashed windows and broken-off roofs, waves breaking through harbors, broken barracks and coastal buildings are becoming all too familiar. But such climate iconography, even if evoking a dark fascination with the violent, does little to inspire lasting engagement.

A more promising frame views climate action through the lens of improving health and our quality of life. Universal framings such as global climate, the planet, and the environment inadvertently strengthen the distance to the topic. It is all thousands of miles out there and far away in abstract space, measured in averages on graphs. What makes lives worth living, however, is more about people, our love of family, hometown, friends, and children. And their health in particular. So we need to tap into the tacit, deeper frame that everyone knows but that often slips out of mind: that the health of our human lives depends on the vitality of the more-than-human world. Healthy and vibrant human lives always happen inside specific locations, landscapes. And these places each have their set of winds, temperatures, trees, streams, scrub, squirrels, worms, crickets, and all the other singing, fluttering, and feathered creatures. Together they form a closely interlinked culture–nature nexus.

Global warming will force changes in both our cultural and our wild landscapes. A core part of our identity may then disappear. Both conservatives and progressives care about natural landscapes and their beauty. But with a lot more severe floods, droughts, and heat waves, roads that fail as well as homes destroyed, lives and health will be put at risk.

There will be more itching, sneezing, swelling, and gasping for breath as the climate shifts, expanding the ranges of poison ivy, mosquitoes and other stinging insects, pollen-producing plants, and Lyme-disease-bearing ticks. One Pennsylvania report explains there’ll be increased asthma, respiratory disease, and heat-related deaths.

The new idea is that the most effective way around climate-policy ambivalence is to invoke imminent dangers to human health: “‘What’s killing me today?’ with emphasis on killing and me and today.” With more CO2 in the air, plants produce more pollen; pollen counts are projected to double by 2040. This is no good at all for allergies and asthma. The World Health Organization is warning that air pollution is responsible for one out of every eight human deaths, largely because combustion of fossil fuels results in invisible airborne particles that get lodged in our lungs and suspended in our blood.

On the solutions side, and still in the health frame, it could be excellent for both our health and the climate if we were to eat less meat raised in fossil-fuel-intensive settings and more sun-based, short-traveled fruit, nuts, and crunchy vegetables. It is good for both the body and the climate to bike more and drive less. Where the air is fresh and unpolluted, we breathe better. Spending time outdoors, in a landscape where plants and animals have temperatures and rainfall to follow their own boisterous flows, seems to vitalize and inspire human beings. There are other tangible benefits, too: Trees seem to be mitigating some effects of air pollution in the United States, saving around seven billion dollars a year in human health costs. The three causes—human health, vibrant landscapes, and a stable climate—have much in common.

Doctors have identified six categories of health impacts: heat-related sickness, respiratory health problems, infectious disease, waterborne disease, food insecurity, and mental health problems. Some of these health implications of climate change are relatively well understood (for example, an increased likelihood of heatstroke and violence), while others are less obvious (such as the rapidly rising rates of asthma and respiratory conditions). Drawing awareness to the human health impacts seems to be an effective method for elevating public concern in the United States, helping to frame climate disruption as a concrete, personal concern for everyone.

People’s emotional reactions to climate messages have often been overlooked both in research and in communication efforts. Virginia-based researcher Teresa Myers and colleagues did experiments that focused more on the affective component of climate engagement. Participants were asked to indicate which parts of the framed message made them feel hopeful or feel angry by clicking on those sentences. One such health-frame sentence was:

Redesigning our cities and towns to make it easier and safer to travel by foot, bicycle and public transportation will reduce the number of cars on the road, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce traffic injuries and fatalities, and help people become more physically active, lose weight, strengthen their bones, and possibly even to remain mentally sharp as they age.

Fifty-seven percent of subjects responded with hope to this sentence. On the other hand, the sentences that framed climate inside a security frame elicited more angry responses overall:

The most recent Quadrennial Defense Review—a national security report prepared every four years by the Pentagon for the US Congress—concludes that global warming is a “key issue” likely to harm US national security in many ways. They also argue that efforts to limit global warming are a “win-win” because they will reduce the risks of global warming and improve America’s national security.

Possibly, the Doubtful and Dismissive segments perceived the text to be an attempt to force a link between an issue they may care deeply about (national security) and an issue that they tend to dismiss (climate change). Or they felt the statements were attempting to co-opt values they care strongly about, thereby producing the angry reaction. Myers’s research is thus a much-needed contribution to testing out how these frames are actually received by different cultural segments.

From Uncertainty to Preparedness and Ethics

For scientists it’s easy to fall into the uncertainty frame, since climate change is about long-term impacts on rainfall, glaciers, storms, and so on. Scientists are experts on uncertainty and probabilities, and can go on and on about technical details on probability calculations and error bars for hours. What the public hears, however, is that “They don’t know!” Denialists have grabbed this gift, this opportunity, and inflated it as a weapon against statements that climate change is human-caused, and that it will get more destructive in the near future. “Since it’s so uncertain, we shouldn’t do anything,” goes the very predictable refrain. Some climate activists or alarmists have then been counter-arguing by insisting that impacts are certain. But unwittingly, by negating the uncertainty, they actually activate and reinforce the uncertainty frame.

Rather than arguing about uncertainty, there are two new frames that can replace it altogether: preparedness and ethics.

Preparedness has to do with how to get ready for upcoming change, strengthening our resilience and feeling of safety. No matter what comes, we’ll be ready. In essence it says: Yes, extreme shifts may be unpredictable, but they’re far from unthinkable. Therefore, we are better safe than sorry. We bring a raincoat for the mountain trip, despite the fact that the sun is shining. We put on sunscreen before hitting the beach. We put a seat belt on before driving. We brake before the bend, not because the car can’t make the turn at our current speed, but because it’s safer and more comfortable at lower speeds. And now we’d better prepare for the upcoming “bends” of higher floods, longer droughts, wilder storms, wildfires, and more.

In this frame, getting ready is prudent and common sense, while inaction is reckless, unethical, and irresponsible. Simply adapting after the accident, wildfire, or flood is too late; proactive preparedness is needed.

A focus group study conducted in the United States by the foundation ecoAmerica found that 85 percent of voters seek preparedness as the preferred approach to address climate disruption, whereas adaptation is less effective, falling 16 percent below preparedness. To mainstream Americans adaptation is a passive, reactive strategy. Studies of psychological preparedness in the disaster and public health arenas show the importance of proactive responses. Being prepared, building resilience, and keeping a weather eye on potentially serious future threats simply makes good sense and builds a sense of coping and mastery in face of unwieldy threats.

After decades of experience, scenario planner Arie de Geus said that the only relevant discussion about the future is one where we “succeed from shifting the question from whether something will happen to what we would do if it did happen.” Part of the preparedness frame—as it deepens in our understanding—includes slowing down the speed of warming and reducing risk by reducing our emissions. The ecoAmerica study also concluded that talking about preventing pollution and protecting the air we breathe persuades many more people than conventional uncertainty frames. When we start preparing for it, climate change becomes more real, near, and urgent, and willingness to mitigate can go up, too. By taking action to prepare, we’re nudged into seeing the issue as more politically important.

The other frame to replace the worn uncertainty frame is the ethics frame. Anti-climate pundits often argue: “Since other countries, like China and India, are bigger emitters and won’t curb their emissions, increasing our own costs to decrease our emissions is a completely wasted effort.” A variant of this goes, “If the climate is changing, the impacts of cutting emissions now are highly uncertain. High cost—no gain.”

But climate disruption policy is really about ethics and values, not the uncertainty of the science or other countries’ future actions. Laying our values openly on the table will not end the debate but will take the issue of scientific uncertainty out of it. For too long, we have let the uncertainty debate divert attention from the values-based questions that should be guiding climate policy: How far shall we let economic resource consumption grow at the expense of marginalized people, ecologies, and the more-than-human world? How should long-term considerations for future generations weigh up against short-term costs? How to balance state regulations and emission trading in limiting carbon pollution?

Many object to climate science, not because of the science itself, but because they don’t like the policy implications that have been promoted. But climate science cannot answer such value-laden policy questions. Modeling, measurement, and probabilities used in climate science cannot resolve value conflicts. Conflict resolution, negotiation, and reframing are methods much better equipped for that.

The deep framing of ecological ethics conveys the realization that we’re embedded inside the more-than-human world. Destroying the web of life around us implies destroying our relatives and ourselves, even if we may not notice it immediately. Therefore, we ought to curb emissions, not because other countries or other people are doing it, nor for our own benefit only, nor because every predicted climate change impact is 100 percent certain—but because changing is in service of life—protecting and compassionately caring for ourselves, current and future generations, and the other beings we share the planet with.

Change strategist Tom Crompton, who has studied what motivates people to pressure their elected leaders for change, says that shifting to a values-based frame for campaigning makes sense because it supports larger-than-self cultural values, building a sense of common cause.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant would say it is an ethical duty according to universal moral law.

From Sacrifice to Opportunity

A final and vital framing is the positive opportunity framing. If I feel that other people—the environmentalists or alarmists—are forcing me to sacrifice my SUV and T-bone barbecue for the sake of some green future I can’t envision, this makes me resentful. If, however, climate change action can promote a better society where people are warmer and more considerate, and if my new electric car has greater acceleration than the old car and the barbecued fish and vegetables contribute along with biking to making my abs and legs look sexier, then we’re talking. These opportunity framings can reach audiences that insurance, health, or ethics leaves cold.

The opportunity frame emphasizes that buildings, companies, cities, and societies with low emissions are more efficient and competitive while also providing better jobs. To demonstrate industrial and social leadership in these areas is an investment in future profitability and competitiveness. We get better growth and better climate. Climate efforts can promote scientific and economic progress, and can make us more caring and compassionate people. These framings would not create the type of backlash that doom and cost framings do.

This new framing turns the economic development frame in favor of action, recasting climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy in a new, smarter direction. At the Breakthrough Institute in California, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger advocate provocatively for a move away from what they call the pollution paradigm—the doom-inspiring statements about dire consequences facing us if emissions are not radically curbed. They argue that only by building diverse coalitions in support of innovative energy technology and sustainable economic prosperity can meaningful action on climate change be achieved. With this framing strategy, they seek to also engage conservatives, who think predominantly in terms of market opportunities, and labor advocates, who value the possibility of job growth.

For example, the conservative US tea party movement is starting to embrace solar energy. Maybe they are getting a taste of a little green tea? This is probably not because they are worried about climate change, but because it creates more American jobs while at the same time freeing customers from bondage to their large monopolistic power utility. People can break free from the grid and become more energy-independent. If you install solar on your roof and battery storage in the basement, you can reduce bills, cut the taxes paid on grid usage, and be freer in your choice of energy supplier and consumption. The new and emerging label for this framing is free-market energy. The degree of choice in the energy source is widely appealing to conservatives, particularly as the cost of solar power has declined so substantially in recent years. According to SunVest’s Matt Neumann, this rings particularly true in a conservative state like Wisconsin: “This is a national defense issue, a free market competition discussion, property rights, economic development—this is a Republican concept through and through.”

For these audiences, one shouldn’t preach about global warming, environmental disaster, or ethics for saving the planet. Rather, one should keep spirits up by giving people the choice of free-market energy. And cut the red tape and installation costs for solar and wind, so that households that want to cut their losses on rising energy bills can easily install insulation and solar power when and where they want to.

Clean energy is no longer alternative; it is attracting a serious amount of money and entering the mainstream. Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Ethan Zindler explains:

I think there’s definitely a libertarian flank on all this, which is people like the idea that they are producing their own energy and using it themselves. And they don’t like the idea necessarily that they have to pay some kind of fee for this opportunity. We’ve seen some of that particularly in Georgia, where regulators have tried to crimp on solar development . . . and also in Arizona, where one of the groups really supportive of the solar industry is run by the son of Barry Goldwater, [who was] a quite conservative presidential candidate.

The frame can also be turned around from regulations to market: Are you a supporter of the free market? Then don’t tax the sun. Advocate instead for letting the free market solve the energy and pollution problem by putting a price on fossil emissions, as in British Columbia.

British Columbia already has a revenue-neutral carbon tax. This returns the funds of carbon taxes directly to the citizens by decreasing people’s income taxes. The system enjoys broad support from 64 percent of citizens. The province’s economy is doing well and its greenhouse gas emissions are falling. They’ve shown that a well-crafted climate solution can work. More income, lower emissions. The debate should be about how to best achieve maximum economic benefit while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Steadily increasing emission costs on centralized power plants would spur the already rapid growth of distributed free-market energy.

Clean energy is also now creating more new jobs than the fossil fuel industry. The US solar industry alone already employs more people than coal and gas industries combined, and is growing vigorously.Renewable energy and energy efficiency create more jobs per unit of energy than coal and natural gas. Ambitious efficiency measures combined with 30 percent renewable portfolio standards can generate over four million full-time-equivalent job-years by 2030. Thus, green buildings are a win–win-win proposal, good for jobs, economic opportunity, and climate. “Greater building efficiency can meet 85 percent of future demand for energy in the US and a commitment to green building has the potential to generate 2.5 million jobs,” writes the US Green Building Council.


This article is adapted from What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) and is used here with permission of the publisher.


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