If you care about the threat of climate change, take heart. Seas are still rising, but the tide is turning. Influential world leaders have started to pay attention. Corporations, governments and other power-wielding organizations no longer ignore or trivialize climate change with impunity. Now all we need to do to address climate change, collectively and globally, is to figure out what actions to take and then actively pursue those goals.
Although climate change may be the most difficult challenge humans have ever faced, progress can be measured partly in the way the conversation has changed. Deep-thinkers and do-ers in the Northwest and around the world now routinely make an impact with their new strategies, perspectives and insights on climate change.
Among these climate-change rethinking and action tools, one of my favorites is the new book, “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action.” Despite the crazy-long title, this book is well worth reading, especially if your work or passions involve environmental and social change.
Norwegian author Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist and economist, has clearly stretched himself in finding new approaches and methods to inspire climate action, and then spends ample time analyzing and reviewing his work. Many environmental books these days feel rushed, as if they were written and edited without adequate thought or research, but not this one.
One indication of a well-conceived book about climate change is its simplicity. Stoknes divides his book into three sections: “Thinking,” “Doing” and “Being,” each with five to seven chapters.
In the first section, he examines the roots of climate change denial and why climate awareness outreach has mostly failed so far.
He illustrates how crucial it is to frame the subject in a way that generates action. Stoknes prefers the term “global warming” over “climate change” (for me, it’s the other way around), but he cites research showing that “neither term may be suitable for what climate science is revealing. The last time the air had such an astonishingly high concentration of CO2 was well before we Homo sapiens roamed the earth.”
Stoknes ends his brief discussion of terminology by saying he sometimes uses the more-descriptive term “climate disruption” instead. I’ve started using that term, and it does help get people’s attention.
My favorite section in this book is “Doing” (love the subtitle: “If It Doesn’t Work, Do Something Else”). Individual and collective action leads to political action. The specific tips on how to spur climate-change action, summarized at the end of each chapter with bullet points in a box, are especially useful.
For example, under “Tell Better Climate Stories,” Stoknes summarizes: “Avoid apocalypse narratives, and instead tell stories about: Green growth; Happiness and the good life; Stewardship and ethics; Re-wilding and ecological restoration.”
Under “Use Green Nudges to Make It Simpler to Act,” his summarized ideas include: “Make life-cycle costs salient on all appliance price tags … 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.”
These types of automatic, institutionalized incentives — where you usually don’t have to “opt in,” although you still have the choice of opting out — have worked in other countries and could work here.
Parts of the final section of the book, “Being,” didn’t resonate as well with me, being a little too spiritual and metaphysical for my taste. But Stoknes still makes it compelling, showing us how to appreciate the “living air” we all share. It might be some readers’ favorite part.
Among the original ideas in that section is Stoknes’ assertion that it’s OK to feel depressed and hopeless about environmental devastation and climate change. Hopelessness is reasonable and justified. We need to own those feelings, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. We can still help make climate change impacts less severe, bring people together, protect vulnerable populations, and much more.
The title of his final chapter sums up his attitude: “It’s Hopeless and I’ll Give It My All.” He rejects pure, unskeptical hope and instead asks us all to try to find the “courage, determination and imagination to carry through the necessary actions.” Those attributes have largely been missing from climate discourse so far, he says, but they are “as renewable as the wind and the sunshine.”
I hope Stoknes doesn’t mind that his book made me hopeful. It also made me more committed to work toward climate action, and I hope you’ll read this book and feel the same.
Tom Watson manages King County’s EcoConsumer public outreach program (KCecoconsumer.com)