Hardwired to Ignore Climate Change: The Psychology behind the Growing Issue

Explore how our world's most pressing issue is also our most neglected.

Image From: https://www.pexels.com/search/climate%20change/

From incredibly destructive hurricane seasons to record-breaking wildfires, it is becoming increasingly clear that climate change is an issue that affects everyone across the globe. In 2014, 262 million people suffered from natural disasters alone, and 300,000 people were estimated to have died from health issues related to climate change. Pollution kills more people per year than war; one in six people will die from pollution by the end of 2017 according to the EPA (EPA, 2016). Overall, society is facing enormous challenges due to the changing world, and there is an increasing need to create a sustainable system. This can not be achieved without proactive responses. However, many people chose to remain inactive on climate change even though it presents so many dangers to society which is one of the main reasons why humanity faces extreme social challenges. Collective action is desperately needed. In order to determine the best methods to spur human action on climate change, the effectiveness of current approaches, the way culture affects perceptions, and psychological distance will be analyzed and discussed.

It is important to realize that there is some action already occurring to address climate change but the effectiveness of this action remains unknown. One way humans respond to climate change is usually in the form of activist organizations. These groups attempt to spread awareness and prevent negative impacts on the environment by promoting environmentally sustainable solutions. However, these mainstream environmental groups often try to appeal only to businesses, and not too wide bases and grassroots organizations which limit their ability to cause change. To achieve sustainability, global warming reformers must build popularly rooted support and appeal to corporate players, ordinary citizens, and local groups. Skocpol, a researcher in climate change at Harvard, says, “In order for effective climate change activist groups to be formed it is imperative that all citizens are engaged.” (Skocpol, 2016) Currently, mainly upper-middle-class people in coastal regions of the United States are contributing to resolving the issue.  (Dryzek, 2011) Their argument would be much stronger with a broader array of supporters from different regions led by local groups.

The media is another outlet used by many to spread awareness and promote change about climate issues. Yet, media portrayal of climate change also causes people to disconnect from the climate change debate. Too often reports and news outlets promote climate change as a “gloom and doom scenario”. A study done by Stoknes, a prominent Norwegian researcher, found that 80% of news articles relating climate change assessments show the situation through the lens of it being a catastrophe. Only 2% showcased the benefits of remediating climate change. Additional  studies found that media that uses a fear factor only decreases engagement in climate change efforts: “If you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive.” (Stoknes, 2015) In addition, people lose their capacity to be creative and problem solve. More media needs to highlight the opportunities fixing climate change can provide, not the classic story of doom.

Another layer of how humans respond to climate change is nested in the culture of a place. The manner in which people respond is dependent on the culture of the place prior to major issues in relation to the environment, and the severity of the risk the place faces. A study done by Bernadet van de Pol, a leading climate change researcher, shows the impact of the different cultures of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States on climate change policy. Germany takes a structural approach to creating a climate change policy. While the United Kingdom underlines individual freedom and meeting international commitments. The US is also an individualistic country which focuses on the present. Therefore, a changing climate is not perceived as a great threat (van de Pol, 2009). All of these countries have different policies based on what the nation values.

In addition, the way climate change is perceived is different based on a country’s location and income. Wealthy democracies in Western Europe and the United States tend to have a lower concern for climate change issues because they have the resources to temporarily evade the effects of climate disruptions. On the other hand, countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines are actually experiencing the direct effects of climate change, so they have a very high concern. (Stoknes, 2015) It is hard not to do something about climate change when the failure of the monsoon or devastation of crops means destitution and poverty, and there are no alternative ways to make an income or feed families like there are in many wealthy countries. These differences in culture and situation although often viewed as negative can help to fuel international and national conversation that is productive and yields results because a mutual understanding can be achieved.
Basic psychology also subtly impacts the decisions humans make about climate change and their response to it, especially in the wealthy, unaffected countries. First, it is important to note that people struggle to think on a long-term basis. Most of the reports published by the IPPC or other science organizations show graphical representations and data tables that predict events that will happen in 2100. This positions most of the facts available to people in a way that makes the impacts seem distant, thus less important and urgent. People also tend to see news reports and assume that it will not affect them only other people or regions. This creates another type of psychological distance that undermines facts and makes things seem less important than they actually are. Facts need to be presented in a more meaningful manner that reduces psychological distance.

Although the challenges presented by climate change are daunting, there are ways in which they can be dealt with if all sides are determined. Locally and nationally, organizations that have large bases and strong roots are essential to promoting legislation that remediates climate change and inspiring everyday people to make the difficult changes needed. This must act in coordination with big corporations to make the largest difference. On an international scale, countries must understand the motives they all have entering the debate and aim to make policy that fairly incorporates all of these goals. If this is not done, governments will be less likely to follow through with their commitments and remain dedicated to resolving the issue. Most of all, society and media need to tell a new tale of a promising future that can occur if people take action as stewards of the earth and find happiness in nonmaterial ways. Now that the barriers of human psychology are known they can be used inversely to promote positive outcomes. Reports need to summarize facts in a way that makes them appear urgent, while at the same time, media needs to try to portray climate change as something that can widely benefit the economic and social nature of the world if acted upon. If society moves forward together and plans for the future, climate change does not have to decide the course of human action, and people can continue to thrive.


1. Dryzek, J. S., Norgaard, R. B., & Schlosberg, D. (2011). Climate Change and Society: Approaches and Responses. Oxford Handbooks Online, 1-18. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199566600.003.0001

2. EPA. (2016, November 02). Climate Change Indicators: Health and Society. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/health-society 

3. (2016, January 27). Social Movements and Climate Change. Retrieved October 06 2017, from http://environment.harvard.edu/news/huce-headlines/social-movements-and-climate-change

4. Stoknes, P. E. (2015). What We Think About When We (Try Not to) Think About Global:  Warming. White River Junction: CHELSEA GREEN PUBLISHING CO.

5. Van den Pol, B. (2009, March 16). The Connection between Culture and Climate  Change  Retrieved September 30, 2017, from http://www.bing.com/cr?IG=37CC05D6319544BE9E36416869FC7A67&CID=3A2C88BF199969D9187D83AE189F68E1&rd=1&h=CCGBtxhxe-1CLKuQ-QKtG7nqJEhsspdD32ZebtMitgE&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fwww.culturaldiplomacy.org%2fpdf%2fcase-studies%2fcs-bernadet-van-den-pol.pdf&p=DevEx,5065.1

My name is Ellie Hummel and I'm a junior at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. I am a contributor and the outreach coordinator for The Student Scientist. I love biology research and computer programming and hope to spread these passions to others through my writing. Over the course of the past three years, I have researched spinal cord injuries and axon growth. I also work for STEMY, a local non-profit dedicated to providing STEM resources to youth and lead my school's SNHS and HOSA chapters. In my free time, I play with my dog, Harry, and coach swim lessons.

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