Psychology of Climate Inaction
Why is it so hard to stop increases in CO2 emissions? 3-minute explainer.
The most significant scientific announcement of 2018 was the consensus that it’s now or never to stop civilisation from being damaged by climate change. It’s clear that failing to cap global warming will cost the world economy tens of trillions of dollars a year and widespread suffering – so why aren’t we stopping it?
Jasmine Cornish, with inputs from Clare Brass, offers a 2 minute analysis of the psychology behind climate inaction.
The Psychology of Climate Inaction by Jasmine Cornish
Unfortunately, the human race has a history of ignoring and denying problems, leading to the mass social phenomenon known as “sleepwalking”. As entire populations sleepwalk through changing times, horrific acts go undetected, as seen in the delayed opposition to Nazi Germany. Sleepwalking can be seen in negative public health behaviours such as smoking which causes around 104,000 deaths in the UK annually. We can be certain that climate change will increasingly harm civilisation so why are we sleepwalking towards a climate change cliff-edge?
Several psychological barriers to climate change have been suggested, the first barrier being that humans simply have limited understanding. Most polls find that a proportion of respondents answer “don’t know” when asked about climate change. Another barrier is the fact that we constantly compare ourselves to other people, and these comparisons then determine our behaviour. This can be seen in a study where homeowners were told the amount of energy that the average community member used, and then altered their own energy use to fit the norm. An additional barrier is the formation of habits; habitual behaviour is resistant to change and requires a large push, making it hard for people to make pro-environmental choices as they already have negative habits. Even when people do manage to make pro-environmental choices, the “rebound effect” means that their efforts can then be counter-acted. For example, when people buy a new fuel-efficient car, but then drive further than they had in their previous car.
Fortunately, knowledge of these barriers allows the government to implement interventions and present information in a way that overcomes them. One way to increase pro-environmental behaviours is to clearly inform people how they can behave sustainably – e.g. energy use, recycling, or using public transport. This will drive pro-environmental decision-making in order to fit in with the norm. Rather than providing information to the public using statistics, the focus should be on persuading people to recall their own personal experiences of climate change through recall techniques, scenarios, narratives and metaphors . Interventions that break habits are also effective, as when freeways are closed, car users switched to public transport and then continued to use it even after the freeway had re-opened.
Another psychological barrier is ‘diffused responsibility’ – the idea that ‘we’ really means ‘them’. We see this at traffic accidents when bystanders assume that someone else will take charge. But climate change can only be solved at the level of collective action, which necessitates everyone to play their part. This means informing yourself about the changes that are happening, and making sustainable decisions regarding food (e.g. less beef and dairy), travelling, recycling, switching to a sustainable energy provider, making your home more efficient (e.g. double glazed windows) and sharing these pro-environmental behaviours with your friends.
Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science, 18(5), 429-434
Marx, S. M., Weber, E. U., Orlove, B. S., Leiserowitz, A., Krantz, D. H., Roncoli, C., & Philips, J. (2007). Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information. Global Environmental Change, 17, 47–58.
“I will if you will – Towards sustainable consumption”, The Sustainable Development Commission, http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/I_Will_If_You_Will.pdf
Arendt, (1950) as seen in Busk, L. (2015). Sleepwalker: Arendt, Thoughtlessness, and the Question of Little Eichmanns. Social Philosophy Today, 31, 53-69.
Taylor, P., Funk, C., & Clark, A. (2009). Luxury or necessity? Things we can’t live without: the list has grown in the past decade, as seen in Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290.
B. Gatersleben, N. Murtagh, W. Abrahamse(2014) Values, identity and pro-environmental behaviour
The Economic Consequences of Climate Change, OECD
Yale University research in 2010 showed that only 1 in 10 say that they are “very well informed” about climate change, and 75 percent say they would like to know more about the issue. Likewise, 75 percent say that schools should teach our children about climate change and 68 percent would welcome a national program to teach Americans more about the issue.
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science, 18(5), 429-434.
Marx, S. M., Weber, E. U., Orlove, B. S., Leiserowitz, A.,Krantz, D. H., Roncoli, C., & Philips, J. (2007). Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information. Global Environmental Change, 17, 47–58.