Why Aren’t We Fixing The Climate: Psychology Behind Climate Change

So, if there is such strong evidence for anthropogenic climate change, why is nothing happening to fix it?  And why is there such skepticism about climate change?

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 12.12.48 AM

Some researchers have turned to psychology to explain this phenomenon.  Here are a few psychological explanations for a lack of motivation for action on climate change:

Status Quo Bias/Choosing Among Losses

Choosing among losses states that a potential gain for any individual is less significant than a potential loss, even if they are of the same magnitude.  Since climate change solutions require tremendous amounts of individual sacrifice, such as a decrease in individual energy consumption, people generally believe that that sacrifice would impact their lives far more than any benefit they could gain by preventing global warming.  This is partially because the threat of climate change is a problem that society is already facing, and since major impacts have not occurred yet, the public does not see the problem as urgent enough.  Another way to frame this is the status quo bias; generally, people prefer to keep the status quo.  People are usually unsure about any major change in their lives, and action on climate change would definitely be a major change.

This actually gets worse in the face of contradictory evidence; if people are presented with two sides of an issue that they already have beliefs about, they will interpret any new evidence as evidence for their current view (this is known as biased assimilation).  This is why the media spreading misinformation about climate change has become such an issue.

Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic states that, generally, people make decisions in favor of problems for which they feel the effects over and over.  The reason for this lies in different processes in the brain being used.  Climate change is a long-term increase in weather variability and magnitude of natural disasters, and therefore comparatively less people in the United States so far have felt the impacts of climate change versus the effects of economic downturns.  Making these decisions about statistical increases requires the use of cognitive processes.  These are generally much slower than affective processes, which are used when making decisions about an issue people experience personally.  Affective processes are immediate and instinctive, so those decisions tend to be higher in priority for people.

This will almost definitely change as time goes on and the magnitude of natural disasters becomes worse and people start to feel the effects of climate change individually, but some scientists fear that by then it may be too late to take action.

Apocalyptic Rhetoric

Some theorists have speculated that a way to get the public to really care about climate change is to frame it as a threat to all of humanity.  Unfortunately, there are multiple psychological phenomena that prevent the public from acting on extinction level events.

(1) Conjunctive vs. Disjunctive Events: A conjunctive event can only occur because of very few events, but each of those has relatively high probability.  For example, the probability of burning a batch of cookies is conjunctive, because it can only really happen because you left the cookies in too long or the oven’s temperature was too high, but each of those have pretty high probability of happening.  On the other hand, a disjunctive event can occur because of many different events, but each of those have pretty low probability.  The extinction of humanity is disjunctive, because a lot of different things can cause it, but it’s fairly unlikely that they occur.  Thus, people tend to assume the extinction of humanity itself could never happen, but in reality if you add all the probabilities up, it may be a much higher risk than people would like to believe.

Additionally, people just like to be optimists when it comes ot the survival of humanity.

(2) The bystander effect: a group of people will not act as effectively to prevent a global-scale problem, because people always believe someone else will pick up their slack.  Additionally, an extinction level event seems so large and imminent that it makes people believe that nothing they can do can ever fix it.

Public Choice Theory

So, maybe even if there isn’t wide public support, the government can still intervene and pass policies to prevent climate change?  Unfortunately, the psychological concept known as public choice theory prevents this from being a practical solution.  Public choice theory states that a democratic government will not pass policies that necessitates great sacrifices on a small percentage of the population, despite benefits it may have to the wider population.  This is definitely the case for climate change, since solutions may require huge sacrifices for individuals and businesses.

So, the question becomes: how do we tailor this information about psychology to develop policies that will pass and adequately curb climate change?

Works Cited

Rachlinski, Jeffrey, “The Psychology of Global Climate Change,” Vol. 2000, No. 1, University of Illinois Law Review, 2000.

Yudkowsky, Eliezer, “Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks,” New York: Oxford University Press, Machine Intelligence Research Institute, 2008.

Nordhaus, Ted, and Shellenberger, Michael, “Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change,” Yale Environment 360, 2009.

American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change, “Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges,” 2009.

Norman, Emma R. ,and Delfin ,Rafael, “Wizards under Uncertainty: Cognitive Biases, Threat Assessment, and Misjudgments in Policy Making,” Politics and Policy, Volume 40, No. 3, 369-402, 2012.

Norgaard, Kari Marie, “Climate Denial: Emotion, Psychology, Culture, and Political Economy,” The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, August 2011.


Paramaguru, Kharunya, ”The Battle Over Global Warming Is All in Your Head,” Time Magazine, August 2013.

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public,” Columbia University, October 2009.

Lewandowsky, Stephan, et al. “Symposium: Global Change and Cognition,” 2013.

Nicholls, Neville, “Cognitive Illusions, Heuristics, and Climate Prediction,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 1999.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s