When I read the news, I stumble upon at least one new article about how bad climate change is, how we’ve reached temperatures hotter than anytime previously available on record, how ice sheets are melting faster than ever and so on and so forth. I have stopped reading such articles. Why? Because my brain is human and is wired strongly at ignoring fearful or gruesome scenarios, such as the “doom and gloom” climate discourse which has been circulating around the media. This is the same reason why people are not concerned about climate change until a devastating climate-related catastrophe occurs in the area where they live. Even if such an event occurs, climate action on the individual level remains minimal. Thus, below I will explore the psychological factors which have been obstructing action against climate change, as well as how a change in narratives and imagery can potentially help society “grow” to the point of dealing with anthropogenic climate change (ACC).
The common phrase “think global, act local” is often applied to climate change by assuming that global change starts with individual initiative. However, there are a few issues with this train of thought related to innate human psychology. Therefore, below I will distinguish between three main factors which influence an individual’s perception of climate change, namely a person’s beliefs, their understanding of the issue, and their perception of the psychological distance to ACC.
Understanding of climate change
ACC is a complex issue. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the issue, particularly when looking at the exact impacts it will have on the climate system, and thus, society. For many people it is simply too difficult to understand, while many others have never had the opportunity to understand it (e.g. by being taught in school). This makes it difficult for scientists and environmental activists to urge the general public to act upon climate change. Of course, an individual will not be willing to make changes in their lifestyle (e.g. by flying less) in order to help “fighting” an abstract term created by scientists. However, it is not impossible to break down the complexity of climate change when explaining to a person by using simplified narratives, as long as they are willing to listen. So, the lack of understanding of the problem is not the only obstacle in the path of dealing with ACC.
Think about going to a conference of flat-Earth believers in an attempt to convince them that the Earth is round. Even if you show them a photograph of our round Earth taken from space, most people will most likely remain convinced that the Earth is flat and you are crazy/unreasonable etc. Similarly, if you have a conversation with a strongly religious person, you will not be able to convince them that ACC is real and serious, due to an argument along the lines of “God created the Earth and we humans are incapable of changing it at such a large scale, even if we wanted to”, although science clearly points we are. Of course, I am not saying that it is impossible to be strongly religious and understand ACC, as people have controversial beliefs all of the time. What I am saying is that in the moment of acknowledging such a controversy, one belief will trump the other one. That is also why many climate skeptics are not actually against the science of climate change (this would make it relatively easy to debate them), but rather masters of distorting the science to fit their ideology. More often than not, this ideology is the belief in a liberal market system, unregulated by governments to a large extent.
However, a large portion of the population does not have strong beliefs which directly go against the science of climate change. There are also people who understand the issue at hand, however still do not act upon it. This brings me to the next point.
Perceived psychological distance
For those who acknowledge ACC, a large barrier to acting upon it (by changing lifestyles, urging policymakers etc.) is psychological distance, which can be separated into spatial and temporal. Temporal distance is related to the time lag between the causes of ACC (GHG emissions) and the consequences (impacts on society). Temporal distance is connected strongly to an individual’s sense of intergenerational justice. Of course, people may want future generations to be able to live a life as good as ours. However, it is also difficult psychologically, but also economically due to discount rating, to act in the present when the benefits are thought to be reaped only reaped in the future.
Spatial distance, on the other hand, is related to the fact that many of the impacts of ACC will be felt in places which have caused the least of the problem and have the smallest capacity to solve it (e.g. least developed countries and small island states), which makes the consequences of ACC less relatable for citizens of an industrial country. Because the impacts of ACC will be felt disproportionately, a strong sense of intragenerational justice is required for people in the global North to act upon the issue.
As was shown above, there are three main barriers to individual action against climate change. While the understanding of ACC is a necessary step to action, by itself it is not enough. Changing an individual’s beliefs is difficult, as they are deeply engrained in peoples’ identity. Therefore, reducing the psychological distance of a person may be the key to changing motivations for action. Changing peoples’ ideas on intragenerational justice are difficult as humans have a deeply wired sense of short-term thinking. Thus, it may be easier to reduce the spatial distance by changing climate narratives, related in particular to the causes of ACC and possibilities for action.
Until recently there has been a focus on top-down approaches to deal with climate change, as well as an emphasis on the importance of individual action. The former increases the psychological action gap (aka the gap between behavior and beliefs) by leaving the responsibility to states. However, the latter often results in free riding, as there are so many others not taking up this action that it “does not matter” if one individual will make a change or not. An alternative to the current narratives could be community-based programs which are at a large enough scale for the participants to feel like they are making a difference, yet on a small enough scale to keep the spatial distance relatively small.
Apart from increasing the psychological incentives to participate in climate action, community-based projects have other benefits, such as a pooling of resources which can then be distributed among the group (e.g. by buying a wind turbine collectively, the gathering of produce from community-based urban gardens), health benefits (by reducing air pollution from cars through carpooling) and feelings of belonging through group identity. Additionally, community-based projects can push local governments into more stringent climate policies, which can then have a domino effect onto larger scales of governance.
Thus, the climate change narrative should move away from “doom and gloom” scenarios to conversations of a “climate of change”, by empowering individual action through community-based initiatives which then share the responsibility and benefits of climate action through reducing the spatial distance to climate change without the need for dramatic devastating events as triggers.
 Howard Kunreuther and others, ‘Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies’, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group III to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, 2014, 151–206 <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415416.008>.
 Paul Matthews, ‘Why Are People Skeptical about Climate Change? Some Insights from Blog Comments’, Environmental Communication, 9.2 (2015), 153–68 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2014.999694>.
 Rachel I Mcdonald, Hui Yi, and Ben R Newell, ‘Personal Experience and the “ Psychological Distance ” of Climate Change : An Integrative Review’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 44 (2015), 109–18 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.10.003>.