Quirks and Quarks

Why the way we talk about climate change makes some people stop listening

If you tune out during climate change talk, it's not your fault - it's just your brain keeping you safe

If you tune out during climate change talk, it's not your fault - it's your brain protecting you

Per Espen Stoknes speaks at TEDGlobal NYC. (Ryan Lash/TED)

Ask anyone whose job is to communicate information about climate science — it's hard work to get people to listen.

And climate psychologists say it's mostly due to the way we share that information.

"It is presented in a way that doesn't really fit with a human brain," Per Espen Stoknes told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.  "It's a kind of empty bucket theory about how to communicate climate science, we have to fill that bucket inside people's heads up to the brim and then they will change their behaviours." 

The empty bucket theory is the suggestion that people need more information about climate change in order to be convinced about it — more science and data. 

"But the human brain doesn't quite work that way."

Stoknes, a climate psychologist, and professor at the Norweigian Business School delivered the opening keynote address for the Adaptation Canada 2020 conference in Vancouver. His keynote, titled "Why our brains ignore climate change — and what to do about it" is an extended version of his popular TED talk.

The 5 D's of ignoring climate change

Stoknes, in his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, has identified five barriers in the brain that prevent people from listening to climate change talk.

  • Distance — That climate change is painted as something happening far away, in a distant time, to people we don't know.
  • Doom — That climate change is a huge catastrophe that we can only solve through extreme sacrifice.
  • Dissonance — When the facts interfere with our lives, we choose to ignore the facts so we can feel better about how we live.
  • Denial — Based in self-defence, not ignorance, denial is about protecting oneself from fear or guilt.
  • Identity — We filter the news through our identity, and seek out information that confirms our existing values. Any information that challenges our identity is seen as false or unimportant.

Stoknes says that the brain is using its natural defences to protect itself from bad news.

"You start to avoid the topic because you'd lost time you really got into it it felt uncomfortable, a little bit of fear, guilt, whatever. And then the brain has learned that this topic is uncomfortable so I'll switch the issue, I'll turn the page."

Per Espen Stoknes speaks at TEDGlobal NYC. (Ryan Lash/TED)

That, or people tune out because the shocking statistics just aren't so shocking anymore.

"We psychologists we know that if you continue to overuse catastrophic threats then habituation sets in. It's a pretty clear neuropsychological process. So it means that each time you hear the same thing the amount of arousal goes a little bit down."

"It's like the boy who cried wolf story. So the fiftieth time you get much less response in the human brain than you did the first time," he said.

Stoknes does admit that climate change in itself is uniquely challenging.

"You can't see climate change. C02 is an invisible gas. It's slow moving and there's no clear enemy," he told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

"And if there is an enemy, it's probably us"

Moving closer to the heart of personal change

To engage people with climate change science, Stoknes suggests that instead of knocking down those barriers, people should avoid triggering them altogether. He points to five types of strategies to help create engagement:

  • Social — Making climate change an issue in your social circles, and sharing ideas about solutions with friends and neighbours.
  • Supportive — Support climate change talk within a positive framework.
  • Simple — Make climate-friendly behaviours easy and convenient.
  • Story-based — Use the power of stories to create meaning and community.
  • Signals — Giving and receiving feedback so that we know when we are making progress.

Stoknes said that it isn't about sugar-coating the science, but making sure that people are engaged with the information so that they can be a part of the solution.

"All these things then bring climate turnaround to kind of swerve into my circle of friends and network. Then it feels personal. It feels much more urgent and it feels near," he said.

"That is when emotions come in and then you move closer to the heart of personal change."

Per Espen Stoknes speaks at TEDGlobal NYC. (Ryan Lash/TED)

To put all of these solutions to good use, he suggests three frames for how to talk about climate change.

"The first is climate change is a health problem. So it's about my health, my children's health, your health, family health clean air, clean water etc.. And that's where we should speak about it. Not climate change but health."

Secondly, he suggests talking about climate change as a risk, instead of a catastrophe.

"It's really an insurance question. How do we insure ourselves against unwanted outcomes in the future."

The last frame is opportunity — to look at climate change prevention as a good thing, not a sacrifice.

I think we should embrace these opportunities and speak about them enthusiastically.- Per Espen Stoknes

"Luckily, we see so many great opportunities. For a better economy, more jobs, and cleaner air, and higher quality of life by changing out of 1900's types of cars and cities and homes and water use towards much smarter digitally enhanced effective and decentralized solutions," he said.

"I think we should embrace these opportunities and speak about them enthusiastically."

As the effects of climate change are starting to become more obvious, that is also helping to break down that distance barrier and engage more people with the science. And, Stoknes hopes, that means we can move faster towards implementing solutions.

"We've certainly seen on the last one and a half years, since the summer of 2018 that many in the northern hemisphere dubbed a summer of hell. We see that in the data now, a surge, a new wave of concern."

"And my question is whether that's a wave, or is it a permanent step change."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz