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Climate Change

Changing Perceptions

by Jim Armstrong

What does one think about when trying not to think about global warming? Per Espen Stoknes’ guiding thoughts till the language landscape of climate change.

Editor's Note: Right now, individuals around the world are taking decisive action to address climate change. Through a collaboration with Climate Changers, Outrider is sharing examples of people stepping forward to make a difference. Their inspiring stories can ignite more of us to take meaningful action. Per Espen Stoknes wrote the book on how to overcome the barriers that stop humans from both talking and doing something about climate change. His words are clear, direct and spell out the directions for opening the conversation. Outrider invites you to get to know these Climate Changers and see how you can be part of the solution, too.


I am a Climate Changer because I, too, believe we can address the challenge of our time with optimism, hope, positive action and innovation.

To do so, I believe we must first be aware of five barriers that block uplifting climate messaging and prevents it from attracting enough concern to make climate a high priority. Crafting climate messages that work requires navigating these five defenses. Let’s call them, for easy reference, the five D’s.


The climate issue remains remote for the majority of us, in a number of ways. We can’t see climate change. Melting glaciers are usually far away, as are the spots on earth now experiencing sea level rise, more severe floods droughts, fires, and other climate disruptions. It may hit foreign others, not me or my kin. And the heaviest impacts are off in time–in the coming century or farther. Despite some people stating that global warming is here and now, it still feels distant from everyday concerns.


When climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost, and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helplessness grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that ‘the end is near’ so many times, it no longer really registers.


If what we know (for instance, our fossil energy use contributes to global warming), conflicts with what we do (drive, fly, eat beef, heat with fossil fuels), then dissonance sets in. The same happens if my attitudes conflict with those of people important to me. In both cases, the lack of convenient behaviors and social support weaken climate attitudes over time. But by doubting or downplaying what we know (the facts), we can feel better about how we live. Thus, actual behavior and social relations determine the attitude in the long run.


When we negate, ignore, or otherwise avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change, we find refuge from fear and guilt. By joining outspoken denialism and mockery, we can get back at those whom we feel criticize our lifestyles, think they know better, and try to tell us how to live. Denial is based in self-defense, not ignorance, intelligence, or lack of information.


We filter news through our professional and cultural identity. We look for information that confirms our existing values and notions while filtering away what challenges them. If people who hold conservative values, for instance, hear from a liberal that the climate is changing, they are less likely to believe the message. Cultural identity overrides the facts. If new information requires us to change our selves, then the information is likely to lose. We experience resistance to calls for change in self-identity.

I change by promoting a new psychology of climate change.

Per Espen Stoknes, Economist and Psychologist

How do we overcome the 5 D’s? I suggest we build the climate strategy on three principles:

  • Turn the barriers upside down.

  • Stick to positive strategies.

  • Act as social citizens.

We can view our task as one of overcoming the 5 D’s, or we can frame it as finding ways to circumvent or bypass them. We can jujitsu them to become key success criteria for new climate communications to bypass barriers. Successful climate communications should:

  • Make the issue feel near, human, personal and urgent.

  • Use supportive framings that do not backfire by creating negative feelings.

  • Reduce dissonance by providing opportunities for consistent and visible action.

  • Avoid triggering the emotional need for denial through fear, guilt, self-protection.

  • Reduce cultural and political polarization on the issue.

With this understanding of the 5 D’s, I see the emerging range of solutions converging into five new main strategies for climate communication:


Using the power of social networks, social norms can be used to motivate others to:

  • Reduce power and water consumption

  • Spread social norms through green products and services (rooftop solar, eco-apps)

  • Improve recycling efforts

Groups and word of mouth from trusted peer messengers can:

  • Clarify the scientific consensus

  • Join Earth Hour and similar initiatives

  • Set up home parties; solar panel buying clubs; local-patriotism climate conversations

  • Introduce the topic of climate in existing networks (churches, clubs, sports, etc.)

  • Join Carbon Conversations and Transition Town efforts


When speaking of climate, we can frame it as:

  • Insurance against risk

  • Health and well-being

  • Preparedness and resilience

  • Values and common cause

  • Opportunities for innovation and job growth


We can use green nudges to make it simpler to act, for example:

  • Make life-cycle costs salient on all appliance price tags

  • Make smaller plates in restaurant buffets the default

  • Make non-meat special dishes a restaurant’s the default

  • Make double-sided printing the default

  • Include voluntary CO2 price fees in plane tickets as the default

  • Increase the frequency and speed of buses and biking while reducing car parking and access to city centers

  • Bundle home re-insulation with attic cleaning and renovation

  • Make recycling fun with painted green steps, big-belly bins, and the like


We can tell better climate stories by avoiding apocalypse narratives, and instead, tell stories about:

  • Green growth

  • Happiness and the good life

  • Stewardship and ethics

  • Re-wilding and ecological restoration

When telling stories, we make them:

  • Personal and concrete

  • Vivid and extraordinary

  • Visual: “Show, don’t tell’

  • Humorous and witty, with strong plot and drama


To support new stories and we need to integrate climate communication with new indicators to see and give feedback on progress such us:

  • Greenhouse emissions per value added (green growth story)

  • Happiness, well-being and integrated wealth (vision story)

  • Kantian ethics planetary boundaries (ethical story)

  • Ecosystem health and nature index (re-wilding story)

Meeting the 5 D’s with the 5 S’s is one approach to addressing the challenge of climate change with optimism, hope, and innovation.

I’m a psychologist with Ph.D. in economics and co-chair the Center for Climate Strategy at the Norwegian Business School. I also spearhead the Business School's Master of Management program Green Growth and co-founded the clean-tech company GasPlas. I’ve written several books including What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, from which many of my thoughts shared here come from.

To continue learning about the new psychology of Climate Action, visit Per's website.

This story was produced in collaboration with Climate Changers, a project of the Center for Transformative Action.

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