Feeling helpless about climate change? There’s lots you can do

‘We can go on the offence’: A more positive way to look at climate action


(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

According to a recent survey of 14,000 respondents in 14 countries, people basically fall into four groupings when it comes to tackling climate change: “optimists,” “supporters,” “disempowered” and “skeptical.” The optimists and supporters generally feel they can have an impact and are doing their part to mitigate rising emissions and temperatures.

The disempowered, however, think it’s too late to stop the damage and feel, well, paralyzed. But Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist who has also served as a member of Norway’s parliament, has ideas about how to change that.

Stoknes is the author of a 2015 book called What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, which focuses on the barriers that keep people from making change — and offers ideas to overcome them. Stoknes shared some of his insights with Stephanie Hogan via email.

What is it about climate change that makes people feel helpless?

The barrier of distance makes planetary-scale climate disruptions feel very far away. It is … remote in terms of space, time, impacts and responsibility, except for the relatively few people who are directly hit by wildfire, floods or droughts at any time.

The scale … and the invisibility of CO2 all contribute to the feeling of helplessness and the lack of self-efficacy to contribute real change with an impact. It makes many voters give climate disruption a low priority relative to immigration, unemployment, health issues, et cetera.

Does the way we talk about climate change make a difference?

Language is hugely important.

When communicating about climate, we should never accept the [negative] frames (doom, uncertainty, cost, sacrifice). There is no need to negate them, or repeat them or argue them in order to counter them.

Rather, we can go on the offence with our own framing: that more commercial and political action is needed right away to ensure safety for society, secure our health, be prepared for what comes and realize the amazing opportunities for jobs and better lives that the shifts in clean energy will bring.

What kind of action can help an individual feel more empowered?

Doing something together with others is the basic remedy. Many think of psychology as individualistic and assume that a psychology of climate solutions would be about what each of us as individuals can do separately, that we only get better one by one.

It is clear, however, that individual solutions are not sufficient to solving climate alone. But they do build stronger bottom-up support for policies and solutions that can. Our personal impact on others is much more valuable in giving momentum to the change of society than the number of [kilograms] of CO2 each action generates. It works like rings in water: If I see someone else that I respect taking action, then I want to as well. Enthusiasm is contagious. That is why engaging together with other people is so crucial.

How do you take that action further?

Organize, organize, organize. The key is to make climate disruption into a social issue by taking action together with others. Start a local chapter of Climate Citizens Lobby or 350.org and make it visible to let your neighbours, friends and colleagues see that you are taking action with solar panels on the roof, electric mobility and/or a more plant-based diet. The largest cuts in climate emissions — from solutions in agriculture to buildings to mobility — can be addressed when thousands of people start taking action together. The Drawdown.org project gives a wonderful and inspiring overview of all the solutions. SOURCE

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