On the psychology of climate change

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[1]. 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[2].

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[3]. 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.

Personal beliefs

Think about going to a conference of flat-Earth believers in an attempt to convinceo 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[4].

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[5]. 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.

Related image

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.

Switching narratives

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.



[1] Sophie Nicholson-cole, ‘“ Fear Won ’ T Do It ” Visual and Iconic Representations’, Science Communication, 30.3 (2009), 355–79 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547008329201&gt;.

[2] Ajay S Singh and others, ‘In Fluence on Support for Adaptation Policy’, Environmental Science and Policy, 73.September 2016 (2017), 93–99 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2017.04.011&gt;.

[3] 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&gt;.

[4] 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&gt;.

[5] 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&gt;.

11 thoughts on “On the psychology of climate change

  1. I very much enjoyed reading your blog! I agree with your conclusion, and think it would be a great solution to focus more on community based projects. However, I was wondering how (or if) these community based projects can influence the personal beliefs of people who are not involved in those projects because of their belief that the climate is not changing?


  2. Well that’s the thing, it doesn’t really. At first such initiatives would be helpful only for people who (are willing to) understand climate change. At the same time I think that if a person who doesn’t agree with climate change due to his contradicting personal beliefs has an existing project like this in his neighborhood and thus can see the other benefits of community projects, he might be willing to join and somewhat break his strong opinions regarding climate change. What to you think?


  3. hmm I am doubtful whether someone would join a community project for the ‘side benefits’ when the main aim is in contradiction with his/her beliefs. It could very well be the case that trough these projects local governments start to get involved more (as you mentioned), and that it then doesn’t matter anymore if a minority still does not belief in ACC. However, this sounds very much like a ‘perfect’ scenario to me. Do you think it is realistic that trough these bottom-up initiative (local) governments can be influenced? Especially when there is no consensus?


  4. I think if such initiatives grow large enough, then more and more people will be influenced (as in, you see something cool going on in your neighborhood, you talk to the people about it, you realize its related to climate change, you become more interested and engaged). And once you have a large enough portion of the population thinking pro-climate action, then the local government gets more pressure into acting as well. Of course, some people will remain skeptical even if the initiatives are super nice and so on (so for them I think different strategies should be applied e.g. talking money to people who are skeptical about CC because mitigation will be very expensive). But I also think that a safe, clean etc. neighborhood speaks to a lot of people esp. families so I believe the impact could be big enough further on in elections for local government.


  5. I agree with @dalexieva that even people with different beliefs may get involved due to other positive aspects that come with community-based initiatives. I think the point is that people will not join such community initiatives because they want to do something against such a distant thing like climate change, but because they want to do something concrete for a direct (environmental) improvement within their community. To get interested in such projects does not necessarily require understanding climate change nor to give up beliefs. Nevertheless, it requires a sense for community.
    @auctamara In the case of a very strong community with many community-based projects, I can imagine that especially (local) politicians will be influenced by these bottom-up initiatives. It would be unwise to not get involved in the community’s interests, if they want to be (re-)elected.
    Of course there are always people that just do not care but at least it increases the possibility that more people get voluntarily involved in doing something positive, rather than wanting people to fight against something negative that they do not (want to) understand, or do not even believe in.

    The fact that several of us have already written about community-based, local movements and developments (@charlotteeybl about the role of cities, @maxvangeuns about the green politics in Amsterdam, @agneeesss about community empowerment, @dalexieva about community-based projects), makes me hope that local thinking and the strengthening of communities is gaining more and more of importance within an increasingly globalised world with ever more complex problems.


  6. I see your points, and agree with both of you as well. I was just questioning whether it would happen on a short time scale, but I agree that is is definitely feasible on longer terms that bottom-up initiatives to have a significant impact.


  7. @auctamara I think that if anything, projects on the local scale are implemented easier and quicker because all you need is a group of enthusiastic people to start acting and then it easily catches up. Of course only one project like this won’t make a big difference but having a few in each city which grow quickly and then influence higher levels seems quite feasible to me.


  8. @dalexieva I totally agree that it all starts with small local projects, that was also not my point! I was referring to time scales, so I am wondering on what time scales these local projects will grow into larger ones, and are able to influence governments on local, national, and hopefully international scales. I do also think it is feasible, but I am not sure what timescales you think it is feasible, do you happen to know any examples?


  9. I know of a program in the US called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) started on the neighborhood scale a few years ago when residents of Berkeley I believe tried to come up with ways to sponsor renewable energy for their homes (solar panels specifically). So then they got into contact with this guy in the local government who helped them create this organization which now finances solar in houses in more than 20 states in the US through sponsors. I think this is a nice example of how a small initiative can grow large and spread out 🙂 Of course, the initial kick off takes time but I think that once it happens, such initiatives can grow rapidly.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. First of all, nice post @dalexieva! Concise and relatable.
    I like your analysis of effective grass root initiatives: Finding the balance between small scale (reducing psychological distance, building ownership) and large scale (having an effect) – that’s where the magic happens!
    About the question, whether bottom-up action is fast enough to turn the tides (@auctamara). Personally, I think grass-root action is the only way we can push policymakers into significant change. I still haven’t read it (shame on me) but I guess this is what Naomi Klein is arguing in “This changes everything” (right?).
    Anyhow, one example for bottom-up transformation of an entire region is the recent rise of urban agriculture after the collapse of the local automobile industry in Detroit. Born out of a desperate necessity of work and fresh food, communities came together and created a new economy with sustainable, local food production at it’s core (https://www.ted.com/talks/devita_davison_how_urban_agriculture_is_transforming_detroit).
    I’ll throw in the Transition Towns Network here as well: https://transitionnetwork.org/.
    Along these lines I would also highly recommend the documentary “Tomorrow” (https://www.tomorrow-documentary.com/). Maybe the most hopeful account of the transformative power of community based initiatives I have seen so far.


  11. Good points by everyone so far. I agree with Dia, it is important how societies imagine themselves and we are in need of a different narrative.
    Of course it is hard to say on which timescale grassroot actions will grow to a size sufficient to “turn the tides”. Personally, I don’t think that individual projects need to grow in size to have an impact, but rather in number. Big projects are often rated higher than small ones, but I believe that having a multitude of small actions may actually be better, since they address the challenges and tap into the potential of their specific environment. Like Jan, I believe that grass root actions are among the most important strategies to push policy change. Will they have a big enough impact soon enough? I don’t know. But the same way that climate change is a diverse problem, solutions will have to be diverse too. This goes for governance as much as it does for technical solutions, and grassroots projects are an integral part of the climate change governance regime.

    Liked by 2 people

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