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The Psychology of Climate Change Inaction

A team of psychologists, biologists, and economists lays out a plan of action.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

For decades, climate scientists have wondered why their near-consensus on the existence and danger of global warming hasn’t translated into government action, much less a public that accepts climate change as reality. Now, a diverse team of scientists has an answer: Basically, human psychology is ill-suited to comprehend and deal with what’s going on with the environment.

“Why has it been so difficult to elicit substantive actions to alleviate this climate disruption?” writes a team of scientists led by Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross. In part, the answer lies with businesses and politicians who are more concerned with short-term gains than long-term sustainability, but that’s only part of the problem. “Some specific features of the climate change threat combine with certain aspects of human psychology to make the challenge of collective national and international action an especially daunting one,” the researchers write.

The team, which includes Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow and biologist Paul Erhlich, author of The Population Bomb, outlines a number of different problems that lie at the nexus of climate change and psychology. Some of those problems are matters of scale. When temperatures swing by tens of degrees over the year or even over a day, for instance, it’s hard to understand how a one- or two-degree increase in the global average temperature could lead to more floods and famines.

“People are all too aware that their own efforts, and those of their communities, will not really make a difference.”

Similarly, addressing climate change means taking a very long view. For many, weighing the choice between driving and walking to run errands is a matter of convenience, not the state of the climate 100 years from now.

That’s compounded by the fact that no one person has the power to avert a climate disaster. “People are all too aware that their own efforts, and those of their communities, will not really make a difference,” the authors write. “To the extent that people feel [global] collective efforts will not be undertaken, they are understandably unwilling to exert effort” themselves.

One surprisingly powerful way to combat those problems: creating social norms. In one 2007 experiment, psychologists found that distributing flyers with the message “the majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy-saving actions every day” worked to encourage conservation better than distributing flyers emphasizing environmental impacts. In that vein, television shows that address climate change, even obliquely, could foster a norm of environmental responsibility.

“There is obviously no magic bullet that would alleviate the environmental crisis, but some obvious opportunities exist for constructive action [and] we cannot afford for the pace of social change to be slow,” Ross and his colleagues write. “The scale of the task is daunting, and many more individuals and organizations must be recruited in order to undertake the necessary steps. But the task is nowhere near as daunting as the prospects for civilization if it is not accomplished.”