The Psychology of Climate Change: Why Some People Do (or Don’t) Mobilise
It’s hard to argue with the understanding that humans are quite possibly the best problem-solving species on the planet today. Nearly every global challenge has been met with a collective force of resistance; industries rallied to protect their dependants, and everyday people adapted to new lifestyles in a matter of days.
But throw climate change at us, and we’re puzzlingly passive. While one side of the global population agitates and organizes, other hovers about the side-lines, and a third is seemingly apathetic to the drumbeat of doomsday predictions. Why is there such a disparity in reactions to the greatest crisis that collective humanity is facing?
The psychology of climate change and human behavior have much light to shed on that question. Environmentally harmful (and helpful) behavior has roots in cognitive biases that are developed partly due to nature and partly nurture. It is incorrect to assume that the public divide is solely charged by a lack of information or understanding. Some psychological and evolutionary systems serve us in the short term but are hamstringing long-term climate change action.
The evolutionary short-sightedness working against us
If the Average Joe saw a snake near his foot, would he wonder whether it was the last of its kind and a part of an ecosystem, or would he try to kill it or run to save his life?
The difference between our responses to immediate dangers versus issues perceived as “slow burn” is a result of our evolutionary wiring. Humans are evolved to pay attention to threats that are immediate and proximate. It seems absurd that our futuristic minds still rely on centuries-old protective characteristics– in the words of Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, humans are “running 21st-century software on 50,000-year-old hardware” 1.
In particular, events closer in time are processed in more concrete terms and tend to spark fight-flight-freeze reactions that have been hard-wired into human DNA for centuries. However, events that happen in the future– or, in the case of climate change, are a driver of hazards than a hazard in and of themselves– are processed in abstract terms. In simple terms, concrete events spur immediate action and reaction, while abstract goals are perceived to be dependent on a lot of moving parts and speculations.
And here lies the reason behind the overwhelmingly passive attitude towards climate change education and action — mitigative climate change action, more often than not, requires the sacrifice of concrete benefits for abstract goals. It’s why we decide to buy that single-use cup of coffee just this once or are resistant to change in habits that work for us already. Indeed, the negative effect associated with immediate sacrifices may well be a powerful driver of ecologically damaging decisions, however small.
Common psychological barriers to climate change mobilization
We’ve probably encountered many of these in our daily lives, either in our behavior or that of others. Bringing together some psychology of climate change barriers in this list 2 serves to expose how multi-layered and ingrained our actions and inactions are.
Ignorance: This barrier is two-fold– many don’t see climate change as a significant problem or are generally unaware of the impact. Some are aware but are unsure or ignorant about what actions to take and how futile or useful they are to the larger fight.
Mistrust: This reaction is usually geared towards climate activists and governmental policies that seem to threaten individual freedom. It could also mean a lack of trust in those who create policies, rather than the policies themselves (think political parties and nation-based stereotypes).
Force of habit: Many modern habits counteract the climate action movement, yet being ‘set in their ways’ serves as a ready excuse for many to be hesitant about changing their practices. “I’d switch to an eco-friendly brand, but this one works for my skin” is a sentiment along these lines.
Tokenism: Those who know about climate change might show low-cost actions, such as switching to bamboo toothbrushes. These could be born out of a need to relieve themselves of performative guilt or a simple case of good intentions with, unfortunately, minimal impact.
Rebound effect: Some individuals may make climate-positive choices but erase their gains in other ways. For example, someone may buy second-hand clothes from overseas vintage stores but discount or be unaware of the carbon emissions during shipping and transport.
Some cognitive biases that explain the lack of will to act
Psychologists have discovered more than 150 brain biases that humanity shares, many of which are particularly insightful as to how we deal with climate change:
Hyperbolic discounting: We’re evolutionarily wired to respond to what will hurt us now, not later. This bias, helpful in times of immediate danger, is also what puts blinkers on our eyes against distant-feeling challenges regardless of mounting evidence.
The bystander effect: In short, we’re waiting for someone else to fight against climate change. While this evolved as a way of maintaining roles in smaller groups– the outside ring kept the danger out– it has helped climate change spiral into a political and economic hot potato.
The sunk-cost fallacy: This bias wire us to stick to a course even in the face of adverse outcomes– and it only increases the more we invest time, money, and effort. This is glaringly obvious in the use of fossil fuels and vehicles in general, despite the evidence that we can and must shift to clean, sustainable and renewable energy.
An upside to the psychology of climate change
It may seem that our species and evolutionary makeup are working against us, considering no other species has evolved to create such a catastrophic problem. Then again, no other species has evolved into beings with the extraordinary capacity to solve problems and cultivate foresight.
So how do we rig our psychology to work in favor of climate change action? We marshal the right behaviors.
Peer pressure: peer pressure has been recognized as a powerful motivator. The same pressure to wash our hands regularly can be rallied to increase climate change action. The key is to make behavior observable– if you didn’t post a photo to your friends and acquaintances, did you really do it? 3
Power of small: there is more power in small groups put together than a single large group. Dunbar’s number holds that an individual can only sustain stable relations with 150 people before the circle starts to break down, and trust diminishes 4. Smaller groups who trust in each other are more likely to succeed in climate action. In an office setup, this would be teams engaging in tree planting or other climate-positive actions– this will sway senior management, whose connections would persuade local governments. As more groups rally around common goals, it generates political pressure to affect national legislation.
The more the climate change narrative is shaped to focus around individual interests and safety, the higher the chances of it being taken seriously. Just as it has identified behaviors that cause gulfs in climate change response, psychology may well have the answer to a global clarion call.