He says that the movies about the climate apocalypse generate a fascinating fear but he believes that the media and science are wrong when they only talk about failure in the face of global warming it is also necessary to define what we can do to contain it and from that, to tell another story the story where we triumph. That is the proposal of psychologist and economist Per Espen Stokes, director of the Center for Green Growth at the Norwegian Business School. Stokes believes that to mobilize people in the face of climate change it is necessary to stop thinking about the end of the world and start believing that we can win the battle.
In 2015, the psychologist published the book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming identifying the mechanisms with which people who do not believe work on climate change and proposing a new framework from which to promote the changes required to reduce greenhouse gases. Stoken was part of the Future Congress that is organized every summer in Chile, this year in an online version, and spoke You have suggested that, in the face of climate change, we cannot think only of the apocalypse. we also have to create a story in which we can triumph over this threat. Could you explain that idea further?
I would like to start by saying that, in many ways, and especially in Western countries, there is a Christian culture and Christian culture has its founding book in the Bible. The Bible ends in the apocalypse, that’s the final book of the New Testament where everything goes to hell and the earth collapses. That is the deep narrative, the deep history of our culture. When it comes to how the atmosphere and the climate will turn against us and end our civilization this deep narrative begins to act in our culture, because it coincides with what we have been hearing for hundreds and hundreds of years: that if we continue to sin the world will collapse and fire and catastrophes will come.
How Is This Phenomenon Amplified?
People who work in climate science are very rational. They use numbers, graphs, bars, languages, and abstract concepts. This is how they work. But to get this information out into the media, you need a story. And for the last 35 years, our story on global warming has been apocalyptic, it has been that we are headed for catastrophe.
Why it works like this is simple and we know it: because it is easier. It is easier to describe all this phenomenon in a few words and phrases, adding the images of melting ice and polar bears drowning, or of great plumes of smoke and huge fires: everything we have at hand reinforces this archetypal story about the end of the days. And unknowingly and unintentionally, science has ended up consumed by this story of the climate apocalypse. But the intention is good: raise awareness about global warming. The problem you see is that this apocalyptic story does not mobilize or empower us, but the other way around.
Exactly. The first time this phenomenon occurred in the world press was around 1989, a year after Jim Hanson gave testimony before the US Congress, saying that we were making the earth “boil”.It was also just after the Chernobyl accident when the environmental issue was at the center of the world agenda. It was the first time that the general public began to hear about the global climate threat. And that threat has been repeated every year, in each of the COPS Conference of Parties for Climate Change), in each report of the IPCC International Panel on Climate Change.
There are studies of the Institute of Journalism in Oxford that calculate that more than 80% of the newspaper articles on the results of the IPCC use the perspective of the apocalypse and the catastrophe to frame their notes. That one, which is the dominant story, is very easy to sell, is good at getting attention, and is intended to raise awareness. But psychology has already studied what happens when you use the apocalypse, or the threat of a catastrophe regularly: the thing about Pedrito and the wolf happens. The tenth time you cry out that the wolf is coming, nobody moves, and the wolf comes. What can psychology explain to us about this phenomenon?
In psychology, we speak of three responses to the excessive use of the threat of catastrophe. The first is habituation. You get used to it and you no longer respond. We’ve been hearing about the catastrophe for 30 years now, so our response to the apocalypse has waned. The second mechanism is that of avoidance because it makes us uncomfortable to hear that we are facing a global threat and that the earth will go to hell, we prefer to talk about football, celebrities, how beautiful the day is, about anything that not be the catastrophe. You start to avoid the message and the messenger.
The third mechanism after habit and evasion is projection. You project a stereotype about the people who are warning you of the threat. What do we need then to act against global warming? What we need is to generate a story that helps people find meaning, regain a sense of agency and community a story in which we can work together in the face of climate change a narrative where we can see what options we have to create a world where climate change will not destroy civilization.
That story, that story has to be told not by a few, but by many people, in many different ways and in a way that people consider reliable and has practical applications where you can see what role each one can have in this story where we win. How can this success story mobilize us? Making people see that their decisions are part of a bigger story: that if they decide to eat less meat, they become part of a larger movement where the entire food system can move towards a more sustainable model.
That when we take an electric bus, or any, or a bicycle, we know that we are becoming part of a larger trend, which will end up reducing the emissions generated by cars, gasoline, and oil. That we understand that if we use solar energy instead of coal we are becoming part of this great story in which we will all work to solve our problems: to become part of the kind of history that gives each person a sense of community and common destiny. When you feel part of a bigger story, each of your efforts against climate change takes on a new meaning.
Do You Think The Climate Apocalypse Idea Was Strengthened To Counter Climate Denialism?
Yes. When I believe or hear that the world is going to boil or that it will go up in flames, I can do two things. One is to take refuge in denialism. Say no, there is no wolf, the wolf does not come and thus avoid the pain and psychological impact that the idea of the apocalypse generates in me. I simply hide the threat in a place where I cannot see or feel it. That is denial. And one of the forms that denial takes is to state that the climate is always changing, or that the phenomenon is not so dangerous, or that it is inevitable, etc. Those arguments arise in part in response to our sense of helplessness.
But it also happens that when we hear about the apocalypse over and over again, we probably start to think that there is nothing we can do to stop it. That things are going to hell anyway, so why bother. They are two very connected ideas, and neither of them helps us. What is the alternative? It is creating this other story. The story where we see that yes, that we can do something, and that when each of us does something, more people will join us because we are social beings, who influence each other. There is a way in which we can move forward together towards building a better society, where the climate will stabilize again. Science tells us that this is still possible. If you read the latest IPCC report, there are scenarios where we can reach the 1.5-degree goal. It is stated in very abstract terms, but you can find it in the report.
Why Do We Need To Talk About Success?
So that people can engage, recognize each other, and see how together we can progress towards a lower carbon society that is also much more equal. Because we cannot have a stable planet if the levels of inequality are extreme.
So climate justice must also be part of this new narrative. We not only need a more stable world, but we also need one where people have access to food, housing, mobility, a place where basic needs are covered and life is dignified. Because today it is the poorest communities that are bearing most of the burden of climate change. Do you think the idea that the whole world is going to disappear distracts us from the present and real effects that global warming has on poorer communities, who are facing floods, landslides, or droughts?
Exactly. That is why this story of a world that achieves certain stability must also be a story that speaks of inclusiveness, that incorporates those who today are on the front line, bearing the weight of the impact of global warming, climate refugees. So we have to describe and think about how we are going to rebuild the forests, how we are going to rebuild the waterways and the land, how we recover the areas that are not yet fully degraded. What role does this narrative play on companies, which often only think about short-term benefits, and not climate cost?
That’s what my second book is about, The Economy of Tomorrow. There I raise the need to generate healthy growth that creates value for people, the ecosystem, and society. And for that, we need people to push business and politics in the right direction. Why do you think so many movies are being made about the climate apocalypse today? Because they create a kind of fascinating fear, a kind of emotion in the face of this existential threat. Watching these types of movies allows you to explore the psychology of the apocalypse in a safe space because the movie ends and you are fine.
A famous Norwegian poet said several decades ago that ever since he was a child, in the early 1900s, he lived with this idea that the world was going to end. The end of the world is always near, psychologically speaking, because our brain, our language, and beliefs are very tied to this idea of the end of time. But we are wrong when we think that the end of the world will occur on a particular date.
The end of the world can be an idea of some depth if you elaborate it imaginatively. But when you threaten others with the end of the world, you block their imagination, you push them into denial into inaction. We need to tell each other both stories. The story of the apocalypse but also the story of the transition of how we succeeded and succeeded in creating a sustainable way of life for humanity. How we managed to become nine billion people living well together, on the same planet. That is the story we have to find.