5 Barriers that stop us from dealing with what the World Needs.

The biggest obstacle to dealing with global issues like climate disruptions lies between our ears, says Psychologist and Economist Espen Stoknes. Building on a readily growing body of psychology and social science, he spent years looking into the five inner defences that stop us from engaging. We’re clever at guarding ourselves against messages that we don’t really want to hear.

In his book and Ted talk he describes the Five Defence walls. They work as invisible defence walls inside us that block messages from leading to meaningful response and action. Think of them as concentric circles around the citadel of the self. There are five barriers that block the climate message – preventing it from attracting enough concern to make climate a high priority for us. 

Five Defence Walls - Per Espon Stoknes -  5 barriers that stop you from engaging with global issues.

1 – Distance

When you hear news about the climate coming straight at you, the first defence comes up rapidly: distance. When we hear about the climate, we hear about something far away in space — think Arctic ice, polar bears — far away in time — think 2100. It’s huge and slow-moving — think gigatons and centuries. So it’s not here. It’s not now. Since it feels so far away from me, it seems outside my circle of influence, so I feel helpless about it. There’s nothing I can do. In our everyday lives, most of us prefer to think about nearer things, such as our jobs, our kids, how many likes we get on Facebook. Now, that’s real. 

2 – Doom

Next defence is doom. Climate change is usually framed as a looming disaster, bringing losses, cost and sacrifice. That makes us fearful. But after the first fear is gone, your brain soon wants to avoid this topic altogether. After 30 years of scary climate change communications, more than 80 percent of media articles still use disaster framings. So many of us are now suffering a kind of apocalypse fatigue, getting numb from too many doom stories. With a lack of practical solutions, helplessness grows and the fear message backfires.

3 – Dissonance

The third defence is dissonance. Now, if what we know, that fossil fuel use contributes to global warming, conflicts with what we do — drive, fly, eat beef — then so-called cognitive dissonance sets in. This is felt as an inner discomfort. We may feel like hypocrites. To get rid of this discomfort, our brain starts coming up with justifications. “My neighbor, he has a much bigger car than I do.” Or, “Changing my diet doesn’t amount to anything if I am the only one to do it.” Or, I could even want to doubt climate science itself. I could say, “You know, climate is always changing.” 

4 – Denial

So if we keep silent, ignore or ridicule facts about climate disruptions, then we might find inner refuge from fear and guilt. Denial doesn’t really come from lack of intelligence or knowledge. No, denial is a state of mind in which I may be aware of some troubling knowledge, but I live and act as if I don’t know. So you could call it a kind of double life, both knowing and not knowing, and often this is reinforced by others, my family or community, agreeing not to raise this tricky topic. 

5 – iDentity

We filter news through our professional and cultural identity. We look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away what challenges them. Cultural identity overrides the facts. If new information requires us to change ourselves, then the information is likely to lose. We experience resistance to calls for change in self-identity.

Conclusion

Crafting climate messages that work requires navigating around these five defences. The anti-climate movement has been successful in triggering each of these barriers in its battle against climate science. But inadvertently, climate communicators have activated them, too, for instance by conveying climate facts through abstract graphs and long time lines, using framing that backfires, not linking risks to opportunities for action, relying on bad storytelling, and provoking self-protective and cultural cognition by unnecessary polarisation.

Knowing what the barriers are, and deciding what to do about them are two very different things. We’ve already tried breaking through them with ever more facts and eight-hundred-plus-page reports. The combined effect of the Five Defences guarantees failure. It might be time to leave behind attempts to hammer angrily away at the defences, and stop blaming the other side of denial altogether. Something has to change. A different story needs to be told. A different result is waiting to happen. People have to want to live in a climate friendly society because they see it as better, not because they get scared or instructed into it.