The Psychology of Climate Change – Why Do We Fail to Act?

We are setting new records. The last decade wins the first prize for the hottest decade on record, with temperatures far above the long-term average. The award for the hottest year on record goes to 2016, closely followed by 2020 and 2019.

News of hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires travel around the world faster than ever. Climate change and excess heat or cold claim more yearly deaths than the entire population of New Zealand. Numbers are subject to increase.

And yet we fail to take action.

“I’m just an individual. My choice is one of seven billion.”

We’ve all heard it before – and if not, we have probably said it before: “If they aren’t recycling, then why should I?” (Note that “recycling” can be replaced by any other green deed.) When it comes to climate change, we convince each other not to act. And we also judge each other into inaction – at least we think we do. If you are conscious of climate change, chances are that you think that people judge you for your environmentally friendly choices. Because after all, what impact does one more electric-car-driving-vegan have?

Environmental psychologist Susan Clayton who teaches at Wooster College in the United States says, “One individual can serve as a model for others.” For example, if someone starts recycling and talks about it to friends and family, they inspire them to do the same. “We can have influence through affecting other people, so it starts to have a ripple effect.”

Climate change is a global problem, which makes it easy to believe that we can’t make a difference. In fact, Clayton talks about how we can create “positive tipping points” by making sustainable lifestyle choices. Change only happens if we take action.

“Where I live won’t be affected by climate change.”

By thinking that something won’t affect us, we protect ourselves from fear. The thought of climate change happening to farmers in developing countries gives us reassurance that climate disasters are far away – but where’s the empathy and justice? After all, developing countries contribute less to climate change than western countries do.

“We tend to treat the immediate and personal quite differently from the distant and uncertain”, writes Tania Lambrozo, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Climate change is often presented as abstract.”

So, psychologically, we see climate change as a distant issue that won’t affect us for another few years, no reason to rush. It’s easy to ignore something that’s far away. At least we can blame our ancient brains for that: Over the last thousand years, our brain has developed less quickly than our environment. At the time of its current development, our ancestors were rather dealing with here-and-now problems than abstract predictions of the future. While we have the capacity to understand climate change, it is not our top priority.

“I don’t understand climate change.”

While “climate change” is slowly turning into the word of the century, a surprising number of people doesn’t know enough about it to form an opinion. But even people who are educated about the greenhouse gas effect, climate tipping points and sustainable living struggle to interpret the numbers and figures in the news.

Again, we can blame our brain. Abstract information like average temperature increases, the 1.5°C goal and carbon dioxide emissions make us think, not act. On the other hand, concrete information about how climate change makes sea levels rise that leads to land loss in coastal areas, evokes emotions that inspire action. When information about climate change is translated into stories that we can connect to, we understand it on a different level.

According to Clayton, the media plays an important role in helping people understand climate change. “People respond very well to individual cases and stories about people who were affected by storms or wildfires that are associated with climate change.”

“I don’t want to give up my lifestyle.”

The discussion around climate change is nothing more than a clash of interests – not only on a global level, but also on a personal one. We strive to be more environmentally friendly, but we work hard to buy a bigger car, a larger house, the newest iPhone. In short: We want change, but we don’t want to change.

“It’s very easy for us to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Clayton says. “But sometimes those [changes] aren‘t just sacrifices, they’ll actually have benefits. We will probably be happier, because there’s research that suggests that walking makes people happier than driving a car.”

No one ever said that habits are easy to change. And habits such as diet, turning off the lights and driving short distances are every-day climate actions – if we were willing to change our habits. In psychology, it’s called “behavioral momentum”, the tendency to maintain the same behavior in a change of environments.

“Climate change isn’t real.”

The climate change deniers. We all know someone who refuses to believe that climate change exists. Or people who acknowledge the existence of climate change but believe that the issue will resolve itself. Both are summarized in the belief that there is no problem – and no change needed.

At the bottom of it all lies mistrust. If someone doesn’t trust authorities, scientists and governments, it is easy to deny climate change or interpret it as panic-mongering. Another reason why people deny climate change is unfettered belief in capitalism. While capitalism follows the illusion of an endless planet with never-ending resources, climate change prompts us to manage our resources well. And from there, we full-circle back to the fear of giving up our current lifestyle.

The media and governments have to change the narrative around climate change by implementing environmental policies. “The media shouldn’t hide the truth, but I think they can talk more about possible responses and the government,” Clayton says. “This is something that matters, something on the agenda.”

“It’s too late to prevent a disaster.”

Climate change feels like a problem too large to tackle. We watch the news, see shocking figures and images of destructions and we turn off the TV with a feeling of resignation. A feeling of doom. We’ve heard the same news over and over again and yet nothing has changed. It just seems easier to shut off TV, skip reading that article or not watch the video titled “Climate Change as the Cause for 2021 Summer Heat Wave”.

“We can’t stop climate change, but we can make it less,” says Clayton. We can’t stop the planet from getting hotter, but we can reduce the impact. Every sustainable action we take helps us achieve this goal. “There’s definitely still hope.”

How can we take action?

To take climate change action, we need to start with us, not others. But humans are social beings, we can’t change the world on our own. Climate change presents itself with an enormity that we can only stem as a team.

We respond to social norms, for example handshakes as a form of greeting. During the pandemic, the handshake evolved into a fist bump (or, its alternate version: the elbow bump). Why can’t we turn driving a car for short distances (handshake) into taking the bike or walking (elbow bump)? Or eating meat every day into having vegetarian days? Leaving the lights on into turning them off when we don’t need them? By changing habits, we can change social norms.

But citizens alone don’t make a team without the media and the government. We need them to provide us with concrete information that activates empathy. Despite the belief that climate change won’t affect where we live, it is already there. Last year, the heat wave in the western USA caused 600 more deaths than usual. Heavy flooding in central Europe killed more than 150 people. Bushfires in Australia didn’t only cause 450 human deaths, but also harmed 3 million animals. Instead of hearing those figures, we need to hear the stories behind it – and how they relate to climate change.

And yes, news like this are difficult to deal with because, once again, we are empathetic social beings. Key is to tell climate change stories that deliver an effective solution – something that the audience can do to alleviate the problem at hand. Because if there is one thing that motivates human beings, it’s the feeling of progress.