29 Psychological Barriers to Climate Change Action

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Written by Alison Page

“We have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.” - Conor Seyle, psychologist

A majority of the population is aware of climate change and many understand it is an existential threat that requires a response. Despite this awareness, progress in addressing climate change and mitigating its adverse effects remains slow. A significant factor impeding swift action is the presence of psychological barriers that are unique to climate change.

Below is a list of 28 psychological barriers contributing to individual and collective inaction. We encourage you to read through the list to see which apply to you. Recognizing these barriers is the first step towards overcoming them.

1.  Climate Denial & Disbelief

We have lived in a geological epoch that has a stable climate and supports life. Some of the public continues to deny that current global warming is human-caused or denies the severity of what is to come if we continue with business as usual.

Recommended Actions: Talk about climate change, Give a public climate talk, Engage in climate change education

2.  Political Polarization

Political polarization, leads to a dangerous level of inaction on climate change and a slow transition to clean energy. Divide and concur strategies has been in the toolkit of bad actors since the beginning of humanity. To succeed, we need to move beyond politics and division and act collectively and objectively on the science.

Recommended Actions: Contact your reps and Talk about climate change

3.  Greed & Disconnection

We have become disconnected from the Earth and overuse its finite resources to satiate our appetite for accumulation and excessive consumption.

Recommended Actions: Check out this list of actions to lower consumption

4._ _Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that arises when a person’s beliefs are inconsistent with their actions. To reduce this discomfort, individuals may rationalize and justify harmful behavior. Many people care about the natural world and want to protect it, but are unwilling to sacrifice or make the changes necessary to respect planetary boundaries.

Recommended Actions: Talk about climate change and learn about the most effective ways to communicate.

5.  Herd Mentality

Herd mentality is the tendency to follow the crowd to be accepted and maintain social status. Making money, consuming, and traveling are how a lot of us spend the majority of our time. To maintain a safe, habitable planet and our prosperity, we need to adopt a lifestyle that respects planetary boundaries and protects the natural world.

Recommended Actions: Lead by example by living a sustainable lifestyle, switching to green energy, and talking about climate change.

6.  Optimism Bias & Toxic Positivity

Optimism Bias leads us to underestimate the likelihood of negative events, such as the impacts of climate change, affecting us personally. This bias can result in a lack of urgency and a delay in taking necessary actions to mitigate climate risks.

Toxic Positivity, on the other hand, involves an overemphasis on positive narratives and can dismiss genuine concerns about climate change. It can create a false sense of security, leading to inaction to do what is needed to transition away from fossil fuels and stop overusing the earth’s finite resources.

7.  Manipulation & Consumer Blame by the Fossil Fuel Industry

The fossil fuel industry has known about the dangers of oil, gas, and coal for decades, just as the tobacco companies knew about the dangers of cigarettes. The fossil fuel industry chose to withhold this information from the public and instead devised a campaign to shift the blame back to us, telling us that we need to focus on lowering our carbon footprint when systematic changes to laws and regulations are needed. Individual lifestyle only accounts for 30% of emissions.

The industry greenwashes consumers with empty promises of lowering emissions and transitioning to green energy. They brand themselves as trustworthy and commendable, but then lobby politicians to act in their financial interest, block being held responsible for the damage created by burning oil and gas, and deny the harm they have already done and continue to do.

Recommended Actions: Join a climate action group, Nonviolent civil disobedience, Switch to green energy, Contact your reps

8.  Guilt

Hearing about the climate crisis can cause feelings of guilt to arise about one’s inaction, and about living a high consumption, high energy lifestyle. Feelings of shame can cause people to shut down and avoid acting on the emergency.

9.  Misplaced Trust in Government

We have been trained to trust the government to protect and care for us. When it comes to climate, governments are failing to do their job. Rarely are any politicians' policies aligned with climate science and most are falling short of what is needed to maintain a prosperous planet.

Recommended Actions: Sign climate petitions, Contact your reps, Attend local ralliesJoin a climate action group, Comment on government regulation, Register to vote, Nonviolent civil disobedience

10.  Bystander Effect

The bystander effect occurs when people expect that others will take responsibility during an emergency. When it comes to climate, we all need to take action and demand systemic change.

From LSE, “Many factors have been shown to contribute to the bystander effect, such as ‘diffusion of responsibility’ - when an individual assumes that other people are responsible for taking necessary action, and ‘ambiguity’ - when there is an element of uncertainty surrounding the situation…It is possible that our inaction on the issue of climate change is the outworking of the bystander effect on a global scale.”

11.  Overwhelmed and Powerlessness

Many people are so overwhelmed trying to survive and succeed within our hyper-individualistic, capitalist system that they do not have any bandwidth left for activism. Many have resigned themselves to the fate chosen by big business and politicians who minimize climate science and bypass the will of the people.

12. Learned Helplessness

After being ignored by politicians and decision-makers for long enough, it’s normal to lose hope and give up. If fighting for change is not effective, it is no longer rational. Younger people, who will bear the brunt of climate breakdown, often say they feel abandoned and betrayed by politicians. It is important that, even when these feelings of powerlessness arise, we keep hope and keep acting.

Recommended Actions: Keep demanding change and focus on things you can control.

13.  Fear of a lower standard of living

We are accustomed to excessive consumption, a growth-oriented economy, and thinking little about alternatives, which also happen to respect planetary boundaries. Many people cannot imagine transitioning away from the rat race of buying more and more stuff to something more sustainable. However, many are waking up to better ways of living that lead to a higher quality of life, happiness, and meaning. Taking action on climate change is a great way to also save time, save money, improve health, and be more in control of your life.

14.  Limited Empathy

We can always utilize cognitive empathy, but the human brain is predisposed to experiencing empathy for a small local tribe, which was most common for most of our history. We are more likely to withhold empathy from anyone outside of our community, including other species and ecosystems. We need to develop empathy, even if it’s just cognitive, towards the species and ecosystems that we rely on for survival.

15.  Superiority & Dominance

A recent study shows that humans consider human life to be more important than plant and animal life. This mental paradigm of human dominance and superiority over nature can be dangerous. This could ultimately be a maladapted approach because our behavior is destructive to the environment that sustains us.

16. Boiling Frog Effect / Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Shifting baseline syndrome occurs as we incrementally adjust to climate and ecological breakdown, more extreme weather events, worsening crop failures, droughts & floods, and fail to take the action needed to avoid collapse. The slow-moving nature of climate change on a human timescale, yet shockingly fast on a geologic timescale, creates a barrier to noticing the small changes adding up to something that impacts our prosperity and way of life.

17.  Self-Care and Mental Health

Denying and ignoring the climate crisis can alleviate stress and protect our mental health. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is a real threat that requires a collective response and action. It’s a threat that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring without severe consequences.

_Recommended Actions: _Keep taking action but take breaks from bad news and activism to recharge. Practice resilience and join a supportive community.

18. Resistance to Change

In this poll, some people admit that they want climate action but are unwilling to change to respect planetary boundaries. It is normal for people to be resistant to change because they question whether the change will have the desired outcome, leading to inaction. Plus being comfortable with current circumstances also reduces the motivation to pursue change.

19. Misunderstanding the Science

Climate science is complex and abstract. It is hard for some decision-makers and people to understand it. Lack of comprehension may be hindering people’s capacity to fully grasp the severity of our planetary emergency and take necessary action.

20. Confirmation bias

Rather than objectively accepting and acting on climate science, people may feel the need to protect their opinion that current climate change is not caused by humans (which it is). Confirmation bias is a common cognitive bias that describes the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs instead of searching out credible sources on the topic, like NASA.

21. Willful Ignorance

“A decision made in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something to avoid making undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.” The climate emergency confronts excessive human consumption, which comes at the expense of ecosystems and species we rely on for survival. Most people understand the problem but are unwilling to sacrifice their privilege and creature comforts.

22. Press Restrained

Most of the public is aware of the climate crisis, but it’s not receiving the urgent press coverage it deserves. As the climate and ecological crises worsens, big publications are beginning to cover these topics with less frequency. When these publications report on extreme weather events, they usually fail to draw the connection that burning coal, oil, and natural gas is causing increasingly dangerous storms, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and floods.

Recommended Actions: Contact media outlets and ask them to cover climate change with more urgency.

23. Undervaluing Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous people are sometimes left out of decision-making spaces so their knowledge about environmental protection ends up under-represented and under-utilized. Lessons can be learned from indigenous people who have lived sustainably for thousands of years. People from all backgrounds must work collaboratively to implement effective solutions to the climate crisis.

24. Fear

The climate and ecological emergency threaten our food & water supply, health, safety, and survival. In the face of fear, it is normal to shut down and choose to distract.

25. Focus on Other Issues

A lot of people are focusing on other short-term issues which is resulting in less pressure on politicians to act on the climate crisis. In Europe, for instance, they are asking for governments to focus on curbing migration, perhaps failing to recognize that if climate and ecological breakdown continue unchecked, there will be mass migration events that will overwhelm borders.

26. Misogyny

Research has linked misogyny to climate change denial and the refusal to pass climate policy. People who believe that women should be dominated are more likely to condone the exploitation and destruction of the natural world.

27. No Experience with Activism

Becoming an activist can feel intimidating for people who have never done it before. Downloading the Earth Hero app and joining a local climate group is a great way to receive support and get started!

28. Religious Fatalism

Some religious people use faith-based arguments that climate change is the will of God or that humans are supposed to have dominion over nature and, therefore, climate action is moot.

29. Overly techno-optimist

Techno-optimism is the belief that technology can drive progress and solve many of society’s problems, including those related to climate change. Technology is certainly part of the solution, but an overemphasis on techno-optimism might distract from other vital approaches. On one hand, phasing out fossil fuels and ending deforestation are clear solutions to address climate change with no new technology required. On the other hand, over-relying on unproven technology like carbon capture is risking disaster.

What We Can Do

Research shows that we are in the first stage of civilization collapse caused by climate and ecological breakdown. It’s already causing widespread collapse for some nations in the global south

However overwhelmed, apathetic, or powerless we may feel, we need to vote for climate-aware candidates, demand climate action from our representatives that is in line with climate science, make informed decisions about where and how we invest and spend our money, and live a better lifestyle that respects planetary boundaries and sets a positive example for others.

Governments must act to limit the effects of global warming and ecological collapse to protect current and future generations. Our prosperity is at stake.

Through action comes hope.

Additional Reading


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