The psychology of climate change: why we do nothing

People who appear apathetic may be paralysed by the problem of climate change
People who appear apathetic may be paralysed by the problem of climate change
Well-publicised simple steps like using energy-saving light bulbs may be making it more difficult to prepare people for the bigger changes needed to tackle climate change, argue psychologists

Upwards of 75 per cent of the general public, going by recent polls in the US and UK, say climate change is an important issue.

But few of us are doing much to actually tackle the problem and reduce our own emissions.

It is a conundrum that we are, perhaps belatedly, realising should be seen as a psychological one.

Anxiety and helplessness, argues a report published last week by the American Psychological Association, rather than ambivalence or apathy are the biggest barriers to individuals taking action.

The report says that unlike other environmental problems like river pollution or GM food, people do not see climate change as an immediate threat.

’What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behaviour,’ said report chair Janet Swim, of Pennsylvania State University. ‘We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act.’

The report identified some key barriers, including:

  • Uncertainty – Research has shown that uncertainty over climate change reduces the frequency of “green” behaviour.

  • Mistrust – Evidence shows that most people don’t believe the risk messages of scientists or government officials.

  • Social comparison - People routinely compare their actions with those of others and derive subjective and descriptive norms from their observations about what is the “proper” course of action. i.e. Al Gore’s large residence has been used as a justification for inaction.

  • Undervaluing risks – A study of more than 3,000 people in 18 countries showed that many people believe environmental conditions will worsen in 25 years. While this may be true, this thinking could lead people to believe that changes can be made later.

  • Lack of Control – People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.

  • Perceived behavioural control - Because climate change is a global problem, many individuals understandably believe that they can do nothing about it.  This is the well-known collective action problem.

  • Habit – Ingrained behaviours are extremely resistant to permanent change while others change slowly.

The report says psychology has already been used by government and campaign groups to tackle these barriers. 

For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient appliances if they are provided with immediate energy-use feedback. Devices that show people how much energy and money they’re conserving can yield energy savings of up to 12 per cent.

‘Behavioural feedback links the cost of energy use more closely to behaviour by showing the costs immediately or daily rather than in an electric bill that comes a month later,’ said Swim.

However, there are potential shortcomings with this approach.

Big changes

WWF change strategist Dr Tom Crompton points out that appeals to self-interest such as the recent Act on CO2 TV campaign will not necessarily translate to the bigger changes people need to make.

‘It may be the most effective way of engaging people on this simple energy saving action but not as a basis for escalating up to more ambitious changes,’ he said.

‘The evidence is that people pre-occupied with saving money or buying things to look cool tend to be more resistant to adapting the big changes needed.’

WWF has produced a number of reports over the past few years looking at psychological barriers to tackling climate change. Dr Crompton said there needed to be a shift away from short-term campaigning.

‘The environmental movement has for too long focused on the policy response, without considering the social and psychological barriers.

‘Policy is critical but if we are going to contemplate the scale of policy intervention needed we are going to have to address the way we work round with these barriers,’ he said.


Among the research currently been done, Renee Lertzman from the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, is looking at the unconscious motivations behind many people’s responses to climate change. She has argued previously in the Ecologist that people may simply be paralysed by the size of the problem.

‘If people don’t recycle I am not going to assume they don’t care about the environment. There is not a simple causal relationship. In fact it could be if there is a sense of inevitability or powerlessness then recycling is not going to make any sense to them,’ she said.

‘If a psychologist was confronted with the same situation with a patient they wouldn’t shout or bombard them with all kinds of facts about their damaging or destructive behaviour.

‘They would actively try to work out ways to mobilise their ability to respond constructively,’ she said.

Lertzman said more participant-led models such as the Transition Town movement where people were encouraged to bring there own ideas rather than being lectured at, were more likely to succeed.

‘We need to find a way to communicate these issues with people in an honest and realistic way that doesn’t trigger anxiety.’

Get involved

Do not dispair. If you're starting to feel helpless, don’t forget the success of individuals like Rob Hopkins, who started the Transition Town movement, and other local heroes profiled in the Ecologist over the past few years.

Individuals can make a difference.

If you’re looking for a campaign to join, try any or all of the following:

Tom Levitt is the Ecologist news editor

See also
What campaigners need to know about human nature

It's all in the mind - Rupert Sheldrake
The myth of apathy - Renee Lertzman - the ultimate climate change campaign?
WWF - Strategies for Change

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