Solving the Climate Crisis: A Conversation with Per Espen Stoknes

May 30, 2023 | By The Pachamama Alliance

black and white headshot of per espen stoknes

The following conversation was part of the Resilience and Possibility series. To access the recording, please scroll to the bottom of this post.


On April 26, the global Pachamama Alliance community came together for a conversation on ending the climate crisis with climate psychologist, author, and economist Per Espen Stoknes. 

During the call, Per shared insights from two of his books—What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, which explores the psychology behind how people respond to climate science, and Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, which explores the systemic changes needed to end the climate crisis. 

Per’s interdisciplinary background in psychology and economics helps him to bridge the gap between these two fields and contribute a multifaceted approach to addressing the climate crisis at all levels.

The Five Psychological Barriers Preventing Climate Action

In What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, Per outlines the main psychological barriers that hinder action on climate change. 

He explained that the impetus for this book came from his experiences at the 2009 COP climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where despite clear messaging and public demonstrations, little progress was made. This led him to question the psychology behind the lack of action on climate change.

Per, who has a background in ecophilosophy, spent years researching climate psychology, social anthropology, and the science of science communication. He found that there are five main psychological barriers that prevent effective engagement with climate change: 

  1. Distance: Climate change often feels distant and abstract to individuals, unlike immediate threats like the COVID virus. This sense of distance makes it challenging for people to connect with and prioritize climate change.
  2. Doom: The messaging around climate change often focuses on apocalyptic scenarios and doomsday predictions, which can overwhelm and paralyze individuals. The emphasis on fear and guilt can lead to feelings of powerlessness.
  3. Dissonance: Dissonance arises when individuals experience a disconnect between what they know about climate change and what they do in their daily lives. For example, people may believe recycling is an effective individual action to curb climate change while also having skepticism about its effectiveness. This internal conflict can lead to inaction or rationalization.
  4. Denial: Prolonged dissonance can lead to denial, where individuals consciously or unconsciously suppress or ignore information about climate change. Denial allows people to continue their daily lives without confronting the uncomfortable reality of the crisis.
  5. Identity: Climate change is often intertwined with personal values, political ideologies, and lifestyle choices. Criticism or questioning of one's choices related to carbon-intensive activities can be seen as a personal attack, leading to defensiveness and polarization. Discussions about climate change often devolve into debates about personal identity rather than focusing on the issue itself.

Per’s research has focused on understanding these barriers while finding ways to communicate about climate change effectively and encourage more people to take meaningful actions.

The Five Systemic Changes Needed to End the Climate Crisis

In his most recent book, Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, Per explores whether humanity can make the necessary transformations to avoid ecological collapse and what it would take to do so. 

Per worked alongside many economists and systems analysts to create a data-based model outlining what these transformations would look like and the impacts they would produce. Earth for All—which integrates an interdisciplinary approach connecting psychology, social theory, and economics—builds upon Per’s previous work by moving beyond individualistic psychology to encompass systems change. It outlines five fundamental turnarounds or pivots that humanity needs to make to bring forth the necessary systems change and create a better future for all:

  1. Addressing poverty: This involves expanding the policy space so poor countries can trade without competing with international corporations, and promoting new Indigenous or local-based growth models to lift people out of poverty.
  2. Addressing inequality: This involves addressing poverty and inequality within countries through measures such as universal basic dividend, strengthening worker rights, and more progressive taxation.
  3. Gender equity: This involves empowering women through education, promoting female leadership in jobs, and shifting pensions and benefits towards gender equity.
  4. Transforming the food system: This involves promoting new farming techniques, improving food system efficiency to reduce waste, and shifting diets away from grain-fed red meat.
  5. Transforming the energy system: This involves maximizing efficiency, electrifying everything, and promoting abundant renewables.

The Importance of Shifting to “Wellbeing Economics”

Per also discussed two key indexes in the model outlined in Earth for All: the social tension index and the average wellbeing index

These indexes measure society's ability to collaborate and make decisions, highlighting the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues. Per explained that poverty and inequality hinder collaboration and trust among people, making it difficult to address the climate crisis. When coordination and collaboration are hindered, inequality worsens, creating a negative feedback loop.

Per rejected the false dichotomy between protecting the environment and addressing social injustice, making it clear that all solutions are critical and interconnected.

He then emphasized the need to shift towards "wellbeing economics," which integrates the understanding that the wellbeing of the individual necessarily includes the wellbeing of the community and the wellbeing of the ecosystem which that community is a part of.

As Per explained, it's not about choosing between finance and wellbeing, but rather about reconfiguring financial systems to improve the wellbeing of all people and the planet.