The Environmental Student Assembly and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute hosted author and environmentalist Per Espen Stoknes Thursday afternoon for a conversation about how students can help address the problem of climate change.
Stoknes, an international award-winning author and psychologist, told USC students that the best ways they can raise public awareness about the prevalence of environmental changes is by personalizing the problem. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger echoed his remarks.
“We know we have to communicate in a way where people feel they can take part and make an impact in this environmental crusade,” Schwarzenegger said.
Schwarzenegger added that people shouldn’t rely on the federal government to spur this movement, but rather, localize the problem by focusing on visible examples like garbage on the streets, smog in the air and runoff in our oceans, would inspire more people to help.
“I think in California we did a great job of always including the people and making them aware,” Schwarzenegger said.
He enforced the idea that politicians need to portray climate problem as something we can all benefit, and even profit, from.
“We all, as people, really have to get together and have a movement going so that everyone personalizes this issue and does his or her share to get us toward a greener and more renewable future,” Schwarzenegger said.
Stoknes’s most recent book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, discusses segments of the population that largely disregard the mounting scientific evidence that supports global warming. Similarly, Stoknes’ lecture at USC expressed innovative ways that anyone who cares about this issue, including college students, can “change the narrative,” so that others can start seeing that helping the environment is not only beneficial for the world, but also to them.
In order to do this, Stoknes talked about creating a movement similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr., where African American citizens protested against centuries of systematic racism. Stoknes said that, like King’s fight, which he called “the idea of the century,” climate change needed to create a “dream,” in order to make change.
One of the ways Stoknes tries to shift public perspective on climate change is by creating a brighter view of the future. He said that people are often discouraged by the multitude of disheartening facts about the environment portrayed in the media and by academics, and that providing a positive outlook on the future would encourage more people to get involved.
“What we need is a better story about the future.” Stoknes said. “When 6 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a solvable problem, 94 percent believe that it is not solvable. And because they believe it’s not solvable, people try not to think about it. So if you are faced with hell, what do you do? We need to sell a dream, and we know what effect King’s had.”
Stoknes added that those who support further environmental legislation shouldn’t have to the defend their position, despite claims that the costs associated with improving carbon efficiency in factories would result to less U.S. manufacturing jobs and more outsourcing. Rather, Stoknes cited recent efforts in energy efficient countries such as Denmark that have experienced a 5 percent growth in the past decade as examples of another personal incentive to help — that it can be profitable.
“I would counter that by talking about the narrative of smarter growth,” Stoknes said. “Smart investors are moving money towards energy efficient solutions, and the story we need to tell people is how we’re building the cities of the future so that we can be just as, and if not more productive, while leaving a significantly smaller carbon footprint. California has recently shown the world that it is not only smart, but profitable.”
Stoknes, who discussed localizing the issue of climate change, said that bringing awareness to college campuses would influence students to take this “lifestyle” and promote it among their own peers. He said that the USC community, which has already fostered an ethos of caring for the local population, could promote environmental awareness by emphasizing simple tasks like recycling, posting pictures of trash on social media or even supplying biodegradable solo cups at parties.
“I love USC because they believe that they should have an influence not only on the future of Los Angeles and California, but the future of all of the world,” Schwarzenegger said. “This is why they reach out to institutions from all over the world to get spectacular speakers like Stoknes and have the most amount of foreign students of any university in America. We want to have students from China going to school here so when they go back, they can be future leaders, who can implement the things that we’ve prioritized here — like doing their part to help the environment. We know it’s a global economy now and we’re all in this together.”
Stoknes ended his presentation saying that if there is going to be meaningful change, there has to be more unified movement, and that in order to do so, the narrative has to be changed from images of droughts, flash flooding and melting icebergs, to facts about the progress we can all enjoy if we do our part to help.
“All of the climate change is displayed within the framing of catastrophe. And of much doom.” Stoknes said. “I think that it has caused a fatigue that has started the stereotype that these problems are too far and out of our control. But really, we all need to help more than ever.”