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The climate will be a lifelong issue

ECO123 meets Dr Per Espen Stoknes in front of the Norwegian Parliament. He is not just a psychologist, but also an economist and the co-founder of the Norwegian Business School, specialising in green growth. Uwe Heitkamp travels from Portugal to Norway by train (guaranteeing a low carbon footprint), in order to meet him. He wants to talk about the air and the climate, and, above all, about his bestseller.


When our behaviour and knowledge don’t match one another, this is known as Cognitive Dissonance. The term refers to a situation in which we have conflicting feelings, thoughts and behaviours, creating an uncomfortable inner tension. It only disappears when one or other of the components changes and harmony is restored. The Norwegian psychologist Dr Per Espen Stoknes writes that many people behave in the same way as smokers do, when it comes to climate change: I smoke. I also know smoking leads to cancer.*

Action and knowledge are at odds with each other and generate the type of discomfort known as dissonance: I could stop smoking, but it’s hard to break the habit and to keep my smoker friends. If you continue smoking, then this dissonance needs to be dealt with somehow.

Generally speaking, smokers deal with dissonance by following four steps. Their first strategy is to alter their perception of reality. You could, for instance, convince yourself that you don’t really smoke that much: compared with others, I smoke far less. Their second strategy is to play down the seriousness of their concern. The evidence is rather weak that smoking causes cancer: my aunt smokes forty a day and is as fit as a fiddle, but my other aunt, who never smoked, died of cancer.

Their third strategy is to add extra cognitions, such as: I exercise so much that it doesn’t matter whether I smoke. In their fourth and most radical strategy, they can deny that there is any link between smoking and health. You can convince yourself that the so-called evidence that smoking leads to cancer is just propaganda: it is an excuse for people who like to control others, who enjoy the power of deciding how others should live their lives.

As far as people’s attitudes to climate change are concerned, cognitive dissonance follows the same pattern as it does in the case of smoking. We have two thoughts, or cognitions: I have a large carbon footprint, and I have learned that CO2 leads to global warming. These two notions don’t fit together very well. They conflict with a positive self-image, and create an inconvenient sense of discomfort.

In order to deal with this dissonance, the same four main strategies seem to be used. Firstly, I can say that my footprint is insignificant. I can say that what really matters is the emissions from some faraway place: China, the United States, Russia etc. It’s not me, it’s them… Secondly, I can reduce the importance of a cognition by starting to doubt it: Well, the evidence that CO2 causes warming is really quite weak. There hasn’t been any warming since… It seems to be the sun really. Or: The alarmists are exaggerating. I’m cool and reasonable about all this. In this way, I can tell others, if asked, that I may be concerned about global warming, but the issue is unimportant. Thirdly, I can add other cognitions to make me feel better: I have installed a heat pump and switched to LED light bulbs at home, so now I can fly to Thailand with my family with a clear conscience. I can buy a few green products as a way of reducing my dissonance and then indulge in other major purchases. Fourthly, I can dismiss and deny the whole thing: There is no real evidence linking CO2 and climate change.

In most of us – Per Espen Stoknes writes – the global warming message initially arouses a series of troublesome feelings, such as discomfort, fear or guilt. The more we believe the message, the worse we feel, for as long as we fail to change our behaviour. Failing to act on what we know just increases the dissonance. We struggle with this internal conflict and start negotiating with ourselves …

*“What We Think About – When We Try Not To Think About – Global Warming” Chelsea Green Publishing, USA pág. 62 e seguintes/pp. 62 ff

Would you like to tell me something about yourself?.

Dr. Per Espen Stoknes
Dr. Per Espen Stoknes

I am a mountain person, and I’ve just got back from a week’s walking in the giant mountains of western Norway. We were blessed with clean air, and there was fresh water coming from the glaciers. Yes, they’re melting too quickly, but still everything was fresh and there was a community of fellow wanderers. So, I am now refreshed, back to what has been my workplace for the last seven months, the Parliament. But I’ve always been ambivalent about politics, I still am, and right now I’m happy to step away some time in the next year to complete a new book on green economics, which I also teach at the Norwegian Business School. I run a master’s degree programme in green economics there, and I alternate between academic research, writing, entrepreneurship and activism, political or otherwise. That’s been the – shall I say? – seasonal set of changes in my life. I am a restless person. I think so, I like to experiment, try out different things, but there are certain threads that always keep recurring, red threads that keep popping up whatever I do and those are linked – I think – to the psychology of our relationship with the Earth: a book about new thinking, innovation, lifestyle, technology and opportunities, which then takes a look at some economic and cultural anthologies.

You are fifty years old?

I’m fifty-one this year.

You studied both Psychology and Economics…

Yes, I started out being deeply fascinated by Carl Jung* and archetypal psychology, and I left university as a certified psychologist. And then I worked with organisational strategy, giving advice on particular scenarios and future thinking, in order to bring the environment and climate into our political and economic discourse. And I recognised that I couldn’t fathom why economists choose to understand and speak about the world in the way they do, because, to me, it seemed pretty mad and pathological. I therefore decided that I needed to understand the economic world view, and I did so properly by writing a book and then a PhD on economic metaphors or the images that guide economic thought. So, I am both an economist and a psychologist by training and I tend to do research at the intersection of these two areas, bringing them together, but always at the service of the Earth.

* Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst, lived from 1875 to 1961.

There aren’t so many psychologists and economists of this sort in the world. So, you’re pretty much alone in this job, aren’t you?

(Laughs) Pretty much alone, but fortunately not fully alone. There is convergence between the two disciplines, so there are psychologists that are doing a lot of research into our economic behaviour. It’s called the psychology of economics or economic psychology. On the other hand, there are economists who are moving in the direction of psychology and have founded an area called behavioural economics. And the star in this field, psychology’s answer to economics’ John Maynard Keynes, is Daniel Kahneman, who also has a Nobel Prize in Economics for his psychological studies of economic behaviour.

So, if I came to you as a patient suffering from the disease of Cognitive Dissonance – feeling sick about global warming – how would you try to work with me?

Well, you know us. Psychologists are trained not to impose a solution on their patients, but rather to act as the co-explorers of solutions that are generated by the patients themselves. So, I wouldn’t try to change you, but we would sit down together and explore this dissonance. How does it manifest itself in your life? What images does it conjure up? What emotions? And what does it make you do? How does it change your actions, your life? How does it inform you? And, after we’ve explored it in an empathetic way, not judging it, not saying your dissonance is wrong and you have to get rid of it, then depth psychologists would help it express itself as a symptom, and maybe in that symptom there would be the motivation to try something else.

By being a meat eater, I cause global warming. This morning I saw a sausage at the breakfast buffet in my hotel. I chose the goat’s cheese for my breakfast. (Laughs). Was it the right decision?

Whether it’s the right decision or not, I can’t tell you, but it does sound like something that has a somewhat lower ecological footprint for that meal. But I have been trying to help people explore the joys of life. If saying no to eating that sausage has a psychological cost for you, one that brings out emotional tensions which then spill over into human relations and maybe make you feel angry or envious or full of spite or scorn for people who eat sausages, then maybe the social cost of forgoing that sausage for you outweighs the positive economic footprint for you of choosing the goat cheese.

So, I am losing the sausage, but I am gaining the goat’s cheese.

It depends. I’m going to have to ask you. When you said no to the sausage this morning, how did that make you feel?

That I’m losing my good taste, because I grew up with sausages.


Germans always grow up with sausages.

I know.

I was looking at it. I sensed the taste of the sausage and I felt my mouth watering, and then I was thinking “Oh, That Poor Animal”. So, I didn’t do what I did through emotion. I tried to do it through brain work, and to decide to go a different way. But it keeps coming back to me again. And I always bring the question up again. So, I try to become a vegetarian, because I keep thinking it’s important that we should start to change ourselves instead of pointing our fingers at the others and saying, ‘we need to be different’. No, either I think I need to be different, or I think I don’t need to be different. But I think I see this as a development.


So that was the plan this morning, changing my life.

And your mouth watering for the sausage, was it a sweet kind of longing or was it also a little sense of bitterness because now your rationality is going to bring you down again?

The taste came back, actually, when I was thinking about it 30 minutes ago. And yes, it was something like bitterness. Yes, I can say that, like a bitter coffee.

The strangest thing you know is how we relate to sacrifices. When is it a sacrifice that feels like a constraint? And when is it a sacrifice that feels like letting yourself go into a larger flow of sustenance? And both things co-exist in us, you know.

You wrote in your book that we need to gain something when we think about climate change and not to be constantly thinking about losing something. I mean, at this moment, we read, we hear and we see every day what we shouldn’t do.


What we should do less and what we should do differently, I mean these are aims we have to do or not to do.


Because we still have the freedom of choice, we can stop polluting the air, the atmosphere of our planet. We have the chance to do this or to avoid doing it. We can start doing this at every moment. We can put litter in the litter bin, but then from there it goes to the rubbish dump. We can start to avoid creating rubbish. We also drive cars and fly in planes and pollute the air with CO2. Driving a car is nice and comfortable. But, at the same time, we’re speeding up global warming. So, do you think we need new rules, a different law? Or do you think we can manage with what we already have?

No, we should absolutely have new rules and new structures that help individuals make life easier to choose climate-friendly behaviour.

For example?

Well, take your car, for example. If it’s cheaper and easier to have electric public transport than to drive a car, then it’s more convenient to use the former. There’s less traffic, you take less time, and it goes quicker. For instance, I have an electric bike. I could have turned up for this conversation in my car, which is also electric by the way, (laughs) but I still prefer my electric bike because it is more convenient, simpler. It makes me feel free. It gives me free air, so it becomes a pleasure to make the climate-friendly choice. That is something we need to work on together. So, that is also why I came into politics – to make it simpler for people to avoid using plastics, and not to throw away single-use plastics. So, we would rather have shopping nets or bio-degradable packaging, or paper bags or whatever. And then it becomes the cheapest and simplest choice not to use fossil plastics.

So how can we reconfigure our society in such a way that it becomes climate-friendly?


That’s a political task. As we were saying earlier, I think it’s important that we work on changing ourselves and that I myself change as well. It’s not just us or society. And sometimes, unfortunately, we end up competing with one another, or I would say that we become opposites in a specific discourse. So, when you say that you should fix your life, maybe some other activist will say it doesn’t help to take individual action. We have to take collective action. And then some people say it doesn’t matter how much you fly or how much you consume, because this is something that we can only solve on a structural level. So, these people don’t even try to do anything individually. Now, as a psychologist who thinks about social systems, I’m committed and curious in finding out how these two (or even more) levels can reinforce one another. How can we make it so that individual actions can accumulate and thereby strengthen companies, cities and politicians’ efforts nationally, rather than undermine them? Because that’s the situation today that my politician friends here have to deal with. (Points his finger at the parliament)

They know what they should do. They should increase the price of carbon. They should put more money into public transport. They should ban single-use plastics. But they’re afraid that, if they do this, then they won’t be re-elected. So, my book, my project, has sought to address this question: How can we care for the air and care for the Earth in such a way that we know that we have the laws we want to have? Then we can build up a groundswell of support for politicians, such that when they’re doing what they know they should be doing, they will find that they will be supported and not kicked out of office. This is what I refer to in my book as The Governance Trap. Those politicians are waiting for the people to give their support to more ambitious measures to protect the climate, while the people are waiting for the politicians to help them make their lives more climate-friendly or to make the right decisions. They’re waiting for leadership. So, people expect leadership from the politicians, and politicians expect support from the people, and that’s where everything becomes stalled. It’s a chicken and egg situation. It’s a vicious circle and we’re trying to break it.


You’re a member of parliament.

I was the only member of the Green Party and the substitute for my female colleague during her pregnancy.

The only one?

Under this legislation, yes. We were 20,000 votes short of becoming seven members because, as you know, there is this threshold of 4% of the votes over here. Above 4%, you get a lot of extra percentages, and you enter into this distribution mechanism. And then we would have been the party that would have been in the position of choosing whether the left or right wing would get the government, and that’s why they call us the kingmakers. So, it was very close, but it wasn’t enough. If 20,000 people had felt that being Green, being climate-friendly, caring for the environment, was a little bit more important to them, then we could have been in government right now.

So, how can someone deal with, or manage, their cognitive dissonance?

Firstly, I try not to condemn people for being like this. I try to acknowledge the gifts that modernity has given us. So, I’m not forcing people to go back to poverty.

What do you mean by “poverty”? That’s a big question because you could have your own power station on your roof providing you with your own electricity, and you could buy an electric car instead of one that runs on ‘fuel’. Your car would then use the electricity from your solar panels. As an economist, you would be happy because you would have no costs, no expenses on fuel anymore. As a psychologist, you would be happy because you could drive with your electric car for free. So, it’s just the sausage left!

Thanks for saying that, Uwe. That’s exactly the message. So how can we stop global warming in Norway, or in Portugal, or everywhere? We acknowledge oil has been wonderful for Norway and that we have enjoyed a lot of benefits. But now it’s enough. We can take what we already have and get rid of the existing fields. Then we can just say ‘Goodbye’ to this blessing that oil has been for Norway. But what people hear is: ‘Oh he’s going to make us a poor country again. He’s destroying jobs. He’s going to run our economy into the ground…’

That’s what they say in parliament about your activity?

Yes, those are the feelings that they try to arouse, with these images. So how do I try to replace these pictures of poverty and job losses, no cars, and our economy being run into the ground with the pictures that you were just describing? Having a free ride from your own sun and feeling good about it, knowing that we are caring for the air while travelling by car for free. And these images, you know, we just need to see them and write about them, talk about them and make people picture this scenario. And when we have enough people doing this, it makes life easier – but people seem unable to think about a life without petrol.

Just as they can’t imagine a life without alcohol?

Yes. Or perhaps they can think about it, but then…

… or maybe with a little bit of alcohol?

Exactly! (laughs) A little bit of petrol or maybe a little bit of sausage.

Yes exactly!

When you have that sausage…

You always want more…

No, no, no. You enjoy it, chew it and maybe really make it feel precious, the taste, the way the fat flows around your teeth and the way the water in your mouth mixes with the juicy salt of that sausage and then you let your whole body take part in it. What a wonderful sausage!

Time to change our theme. In your book, you write “There are no simple solutions against global warming.”

Yes, where to start?

Merkel, Juncker, Macron and António Costa use their bicycles to go to the next climate conference?

There is no one single stand-alone solution. We need a system change.

Where do we start this change? What’s the first step?

Let me give you five steps. First of all: we double the growth rates of renewable energies, so that all the new energy that a society uses is from renewable sources. Then, secondly, we shift all transport from fossil fuels to electricity – to renewable sources. Thirdly, we increase efficiency in industry. We redesign the wasteful production processes, so that when we need to use heat, we insulate to preserve the heat. And the same goes for buildings, so that all of the heating and cooling devices are no longer powered by fossil fuels, but by electricity. Using electricity directly for heating and cooling is not so good as using a redesigned smart system with heat pumps. That way you get five to ten times more energy from each kilowatt/hour than you would if you just heated everything directly: better insulation and all those kinds of things.

Fourthly, we develop and start using resource-smart food systems: a lot of food waste is combined with fossil fuels for fertilisers; we start to improve the water and nutritional juice in the whole food system. We’d need at least one per cent extra efficiency per year from now until 2050. It’s no more than that. It’s fully doable. And the fifth change is to move completely over to the circular economy and recycle all the stuff that flows through our production systems. No more waste.

So, these five changes would bring us to an economy that flourishes within the planetary boundaries, with clean air, water and manageable ecosystems. And this is the book that I’m working on now. How do we speed up these five steps, these five strategic solutions, which we know are sufficient? We know what to do. We know it’s urgent. We know that more and more of these solutions are profitable, but still there is resistance to change. All of these five areas have vested interests, have old models with their supporters, have incentives that work against us. But we know that there is profitability, that there is potential for profitability, in all five cases.

Is the answer blowing in the wind?

Thank you. The whole concept of climate involves the measurement of average weather patterns over a huge range of different times. It’s described in numbers, Celsius, temperature, humidity, concentrations of CO2. So, when we speak about the climate, we are making it difficult for the body to participate because it’s all very cerebral, it’s very mathematical, it’s invisible. It doesn’t exist in time. You can’t touch it. Scientists tell you that you can’t feel the climate, and this whole thing makes it difficult for the body, for people in general to relate to. So, part of my work (particularly that which is not just empirical, psychological or activist in nature) has to do with exploring climate on a more existential level. How can we feel climate, how can we relate to it at this deep motivational level? Because, if we are going to work with climate, it will be a lifelong issue. It’s not as if we can fix the climate by next week and then move on to something else. It’s something that will always be with us. So, many people will become climate activists, and then they will burn themselves out like a wildfire, and all that’s left will be ashes. It’s like they need to recuperate, regenerate, find ways to recover. So, that’s why, together with some other eco philosophers, I want to bring this issue back into focus and have the capacity to feel the air, be nourished by the air, relate to the air, speak about the air in a particular way. In a different way, in a way that is more respectful of what the air is and what it does. Because while, on the one hand, there is the climate and its abstractions, on the other hand, there is this scientific reductionism. We can say that the air is 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and less than one percent argon… and as little as 0.04% of CO2, methane and helium. So, it’s just a mixture of passive atomic molecules, and even this doesn’t mean very much to people.

We all know our body temperature, and when we have a fever. And do you know what it is like to live in a forty-degree body? Then I know what fever means and I know I am sick. I don’t feel well anymore. And, if I have high blood pressure, then I feel really sick from that.


So, will this be our future on Earth?

I think it’s a very good way of starting to look at the question, because there you relate the air and the climate to people’s bodies. Maybe, in the case of climate change, an increase in the global surface temperature of one degree per century doesn’t sound much, but, if you talk about a one-degree increase in fever, then you suddenly understand that. The element of air is very special to us humans. We are born into the air and we feel it is normal. We just don’t think about it. It’s simply the invisible background to our everyday life and we rarely speak about it, although we sometimes say, ‘Oh, how nice the air is today, what a nice smell we have in the air today.’ Or, in the morning, the freshness of the morning air or sometimes when there is wind…

… or humidity?

The humidity of the air… But it’s still something that is somehow outside of us. So, it’s me, and then there are the surroundings. There’s the air and the atmosphere, the molecules, somehow out there, and, of course, with the modern meditation movement and the increasing number of people paying attention to their breathing, this artificial duality of the air out there and me in here, starts to break down when we start to think about breathing. And the more we do this – the more we think about breathing – the better we understand that this lady breathing over there is affecting us by her smoking. And the more we realise that the way the air transmits and connects the world for us, the way it opens the world up for us at any given moment, is a mystery. And it’s very tangible, it’s very much here and now, it makes all sensations possible. It carries the wafts of smoke and its smells, it carries waves – sound waves, music, my voice now. Thus, my voice, my inner movement of air, is somehow transmitted to the movements taking place outside, the little winds in the air, and then this makes its way into your air and into this little black thing here (the microphone) and changes its internal structure. And what does all this is really the air, connecting me to you, connecting what the other citizens of Oslo are doing, connecting what the people of the world are doing, to me, connecting us all in a very direct, tangible, sensuous way. And this work brings forth my life-world as the phenomenologist would say. My best map of life is an abstract affair, but the life-world is the world I am in. So, it’s not about the world out there and me in here, it’s about the way that I am in the world. Being in the world means being in the air, because we are already in the air at all times, using it to set up the world for ourselves, bringing everything together and constructing the world. And there’s only ten kilometres of it, above us. That’s it. It’s amazingly thin. It’s like the point that I make in my TED talk: if we compare the size of the Earth to the universe, then, of course, the air above the Earth is much thinner than the skin of an apple compared to the apple. So, it’s just a film, a very tiny film, but it’s so active and it’s so full of information, it’s so full of relationships. It makes all networks possible – all conversations, all radio broadcasts and all transmissions of sounds and smells. And it carries all these things at the same time. And it does this work every day and we hardly notice it, and we’re hardly ever grateful for it.

We are not separate from the climate.

So, I like to repicture the climate as the living air, and this layer of air is like an extended mind, an extended consciousness. Because what is my mind? Well, it’s related to my brain. We know that, but do I know that my mind stops at my brain? Or is it just that the brain is a means of participating in the air’s awareness, the consciousness of the air? And, when I walk into a forest or I walk into a city among buildings, I can sometimes flip things over and then I feel like I’m walking into this larger brain where all the signals, yes, the internal signals, are inside me. But, there are maybe even more signals being transmitted and configured by the air all the time. So, when I enter a forest, I like to feel that I’m walking inside this forest brain. How the trees speak to each other, change the conversation of the air, the way it moves, the way it sounds, together with all the other inhabitants of the air. And this is the conscious, living entity in which I’m allowed to participate as I walk through it and breathe.

And I think this. I don’t know if this is something for ECO123, but I think this isn’t new, but it is (shall we say?) an ancient but refreshing awareness of the air as an active co-creator of my life, of your life, of everyone’s life. This is a very necessary condition for everything, for having a good life, for being positive, for being constructive, for being creative. Also for tackling climate issues, because there’s no point in going through all of these struggles of parliament and business and wildfires or whatnot, if I don’t have this personal nourishment and relationship with that air. Even if it’s only for my own sake that I do it. I know I’m a narcissist, but if I can only let the air work through me, healing itself, keeping life whole or keeping life well, as it has been doing for the last maybe four billion years. We don’t know exactly when the first kind of one-celled things emerged and started to change the air, but since then the air has been caring for itself. And it’s unbelievable that it’s exactly this condition of the air – with the proportion of different percentages – that gives us, or the Earth, the possibility of life.

I mean, is it just a coincidence? I know. It’s unbelievable that no other planet has exactly these conditions. How can that be? If there was life on Mars, it would show. There would be traces of molecules interacting with life. In a way, then, the air on Mars would be nourished and it would also have influenced life, such as we have it here on Earth. Because Earth is the only planet where there is a chemically unstable composition of the air: meaning that there is activity here. Things are going on here. We can see, we can feel from the air, that life is going on. That’s the feeling of the living air. How the Earth cares for the trees, how the air surrounds me, how it holds my body right now with exactly the right pressure. … without its support, I would explode. So, I can only exist because the air is holding my hair, my skin, my eyes, in place, and every second giving me what I need to continue. So, I am an air being, and it’s not just me exhausting myself because I need to save the climate, to save the planet, but I am really part of this living, breathing thing that is caring for itself. And being ‘in tune’ with that larger being brings me a great motivation and a deep sense of satisfaction, happiness and joy. Like a party, a celebration of the living air. I know there is suffering, I know there is pain in the world, of course, but there is this thing – the air – always going on, always opening up its magic, you understand. And, speaking about this, the mystery of the living air, something that is not “other worldly”, but something that is so concrete, so physical. I think it’s the key for those involved in the climate movement, helping them not to pollute the air any more.

Thank you.

Uwe Heitkamp (60)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123.
The interview with Dr Per Espen Stoknes was held in Oslo on Thursday 2 August 2018.

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