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Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change

How psychology can trick us into keeping Earth habitable.

When Per Espen Stoknes looked at polls going back to 1989 assessing the level of public concern about climate change in 39 different countries, he found a surprising pattern in the data.

“Incredibly enough, it shows that the more certain the science becomes, the less concern we find in richer Western democracies,” he said. “How can it be that with increasing level of urgency and certainty in the science, people get less concerned?”

After further research, Stoknes, the author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, found some answers. He examined several hundred peer-reviewed social science studies and was able to isolate five main barriers that keep climate messages from engaging people, what he calls “the Five Ds”: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial, and iDentity.

“I had to cheat a little bit with the last D — I lost one there — but it was the closest I could get,” he admitted.

Distance deals with the fact that climate change is presented as far away, in both time and space. When climate models talk of 2050 or 2100, it seems like eons from now. We may feel for polar bears on melting ice floes, but they have little bearing on our day-to-day lives.

To Stoknes, the dissonance problem might be an even bigger deal: What we actually do every day conflicts with what we know we should do.

“It makes us feel a little bit like hypocrites because I know it's important, I shouldn’t do this, but yet we do it and we do it all the time, every day: eat meat, drive a car, go by plane,” he said.

For some, the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance makes them turn to denial, while others avoid the issue or feel powerless to make a difference.

While Stoknes concedes that individual actions alone can’t solve the climate problem, he doesn’t buy into the idea that we’re powerless.

“Individual actions, through their social ripple effects in the norms and values of people, will build the bottom-up support needed for the structural solutions. That is why individual action is important, not because I saved 11 kilograms of CO2 yesterday,” he said.

Change behaviors, change attitudes — but how do you get people to adopt new behaviors to begin with?

“In terms of behavioral change, we need two things,” said Magali Delmas, a professor at the Institute of Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and the Anderson School of Management. “We need first to increase awareness, and then second, we need to find the right motivations for people to change their behavior.”

She’s on the hunt for these motivations, looking for simple ways to make climate change personal.

In a recent study, Delmas and colleagues tested different messaging approaches with consumers to see what could cause them to lower their electricity usage. Some households were sent personalized emails with their monthly power bill telling them how they could save money, while others were told how their energy usage impacted the environment and children’s health.

Money proved to be a poor motivator: It had no effect. But linking pollution to rates of childhood asthma and cancer produced an 8 percent drop in energy use, and more than double that in households with kids.

Watch the video above with Delmas, Stoknes, and others who are finding practical ways to give us the collective kick in the pants we need to take action on climate change.

Find out more about how understanding human psychology can lead to climate change solutions at

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