Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Earth to Humans: Why Have You Forsaken Me? Cognition

Climate change will keep advancing unless we slay the dragons of inaction.

Posted Jun 15, 2015

By Global Climate Change -- Earth Science Communications Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology (data from NOAA) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Global Climate Change -- Earth Science Communications Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology (data from NOAA) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re like most people reading this, I don’t have to tell you how badly we’re damaging the environment. The rising trajectory of environmental degradation and crisis in the modern era are unprecedented and threaten the future of humanity. It’s starting to look possible that environmental degradation, paired with extreme wealth inequalities, could lead to full-scale societal collapse within the lifetimes of many people alive today.

Environmental crisis continues to proliferate, with major new problems and damages, like global climate change, outpacing every area of improvement, like cleaner rivers in North America. Modern economic systems and technologies seem to be on a juggernaut leaving environmental crisis in their wake: rising sea levels, toxic contamination of soils and waters, plummeting biodiversity. A previous post outlines some of these trends.

Lots of people care, and denial aside, most of us would like to see a cleaner, healthier planet.

So why don’t we act?

This is the central question that I entertain in a series of seven posts beginning with this one. The environmental psychologist Robert Gifford has identified a series of psychological barriers that explain why we don’t respond to our knowledge of climate change and other major environmental problems in his article “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.”[i]

These dragons must be SLAIN if we are to transition to a healthier, more sustainable world.


This post begins by discussing the seven varieties of limited cognition that together form one of the major barriers to change at the individual level. After each of the seven, I discuss what can be done about it.

Ancient Brains. Our brains reached their current form thousands of years ago under conditions drastically different from those we encounter in our everyday lives today. Our ancestors influenced, shaped, and were concerned by primarily their immediate social and natural environments: imminent dangers (threats by other people and animals) and exploitable resources, for instance. Global climate change could hardly be more different: it’s slow, far away, and doesn’t seem to intrude on what’s happening in our lives NOW. As I discuss in my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment, many problems of the environment including climate change are only abstractly related to our everyday choices. Simply put, our hunter-gatherer minds are not adapted to the modern technological world we’ve built.

ACTION: We must make the effects of climate change more present and visible in our lives through several channels: learning (studying articles, books, and talks about climate change and seeing examples through the media (particularly video) or, better, in person. An example of seeing in person is to go to a wetland that’s being ravaged by climate change or visiting one damaged by rising sea levels (encroachment of salt water into fresh-water marshes). An example of seeing through the media is the film “Trouble in Paradise,” which discusses the plight of Tuvalu, “the earth's first sovereign nation faced with total destruction due to the effects of global warming.” See the trailer here:

Ignorance. Many people are simply unaware of these problems of the modern world or of the real (and often simple) solutions to them that are available. Many people answer “don’t know” to polls about climate change, and ignorance of the problem is widespread around the globe. Even those who do know about the severity of climate change may not quite understand how it’s caused. Often, it seems like a technical problem that people working for corporations and the government must solve. Products today are extremely complex, and sometimes their manufacturers can’t even accurately trace the entire “ecological footprint” (the full environmental impact) of a product, so it’s hard for anyone to know how much a purchase might contribute to climate change. The media sometimes confound the problem of ignorance because the science of environmental problems can be very complex—and then there are those, such as Fox News, that seem to set out to deceive the public about climate change and other environmental matters.

ACTION: Schools should all teach in-depth about ecological footprints, climate change, and how our lives contribute to it, and students. Adults should be reading about the state of the biosphere in publications such as the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the article by Anthony D. Barnosky and coauthors, “Introducing the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century: Information for Policy Makers.”[ii]

Environmental Numbness. Climate change can escape our immediate attention because it’s not causing (most of us) any immediate difficulties. We’re inundated with bad news about the environment (along with other bad news), and we must select what we pay attention to from all onslaught of information. It’s fairly easy to discount the abstract, complex, and seemingly remote problem of climate change (and other environmental disasters). When we hear the repeated news about climate change, we become numb to the news and don’t respond as well.

ACTION: Journalists and other communicators should carefully select the type of information they’re presenting about climate change and other environmental problems by showing the problems from different angles so that the information has a freshness about it. The public can seek out new sources of information about climate change and learn about some of the many other dimensions of this complex problem, such as climate refugees.

Uncertainty. Because climate change is so complex and depends on atmospheric science that scientists can only really understand through intricate models of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surfaces, there is necessarily some uncertainty about various aspects, such as how fast it’s happening, exactly how much temperatures have changed, what human activities have contributed the most (and where), and so on. When there’s any level of uncertainty, we tend to respond to environmental problems less, as in, “OK, it might not be happening, so I think I’ll continue to fly and eat as much meat as I always do.” But that approach wouldn’t at all match the (high) level of certainty that climate change is real and human activity drives it ever on. We know what we need to do to mitigate it and adapt to it. If you’re in denial, please see this post for a reality check.

ACTION: Better science teaching in schools would help students and then adults understand the role of uncertainty in science—that some level of uncertainty is expected for findings of any complexity and depth, but that doesn’t mean that they’re invalid.

Judgmental Discounting. This occurs when people undervalue geographically distant or future risks. Studies show that people assume that the risks and problems are worse farther away from them and farther into the future. Judgmental discounting is one of the ways that we absolve ourselves of responsibility for acting. Environmental problems such as climate change seem like other people’s problems because we think they take place in the future and elsewhere.

ACTION: It’s important to realize that we’re responsible for the harms that our actions inflict on other people and the planet today—and in the future. One study estimated that a typical American’s lifetime greenhouse gas emissions will cause the deaths of one to two people at some time, the present or future.[iii] But even wealthy people from rich societies may not remain immune to the problems of climate change. Already many in the United States have been affected by more intense storms such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. And at least one study has found it distinctly possible that the combination of growing economic disparities globally and increasing ecological stresses may be setting us up for widespread societal collapse.[iv] It would be more prudent to start thinking of the environment as a factor in the wellbeing of all of our lives.

Optimism bias. Although optimism can be healthy in moderate amounts, it can be overdone. When we’re too optimistic about this world we live in and simply believe that solutions will present themselves, we may lull ourselves into not acting.

ACTION: Without getting overly gloomy, confront our environmental and social problems and do your part to mitigate them.

Perceived Behavioral Control and Self-efficacy. Climate change is a huge global problem, so many of us believe there’s not much we can do about it. It’s up to institutions such as corporations and governments, we may assume, to solve the problem with better regulations and technologies. Yet they follow our lead to know what’s “in demand,” so they also don’t act—in a kind of ethical shell game. Many people also believe that they have little control over the outcome or their actions won’t make much difference. The latter is a big predictor of whether people choose to take public transportation or drive. This psychological phenomenon is related to fatalism—the idea that no solution is possible, either individually or collectively.

ACTION: Reclaim your political power. Communicate with your elected representatives about your environmentally related concerns and values. Become an active agent in the creation and re-creation of the world in which you live rather than going with the flow as a conforming citizen in the consumer society. Find like-minded people—people who care about the environment are all around you and on the worldwide web. Join up with them and have fun working toward the world you want rather than simply accepting the one you have. Even if progress looks slow or non-existent, recognize that in truth progress is already happening and you’re becoming a part of it. Your efforts will make it easier to look your children and grandchildren in the eye and say, I did not sit by idly without trying to avert environmental catastrophe.

Greenpeace, used with permission.
Source: Greenpeace, used with permission.

My book: Invisible Nature

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My environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind

[i] Robert Gifford, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” American Psychologist, May – June 2011, pp. 290–302.

[ii] Barnosky, Anthony D. et al., “Introducing the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century: Information for Policy Makers,” The Anthropocene Review, Vol 1(1), 78–109.

[iii] John Nolt, “How Harmful Are the Average American’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions?,” Ethics, Policy, & Environment, 14:1, 3–10, DOI: 10.1080/21550085.2011.561584.

[iv] Ahmed, Nafeez, “NASA-funded study: Industrial Civilization Headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?” The Guardian (UK), March 14, 2014.