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The Psychology of Why Climate Change Efforts Typically Fail

Low interest in Paris meetings underscores environmental difficulties ahead.

While the world is riveted on recent, horrible tragedies that senselessly claimed the lives of dozens in San Bernardino and Paris, a far deadlier threat is receiving far less coverage in the news — climate change. As world leaders meet this month at the Paris Climate Change Conference, the sense of urgency to combat this threat seems low even though global warming has already contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and will ultimately impact the national security and lives of billions worldwide.

This is not to say that we should not be concerned about terrorism and all-too-common mass killings, but it is striking how much attention is devoted to episodes that kill dozens while most people seem relatively unconcerned about addressing conditions that will ultimately affect billions. Although there are many reasons for this lack of climate change responsiveness, a number of psychological factors, including social dilemma challenges, motivated reasoning blindspots, and faulty causal attributions seem important in explaining the relative apathy toward reversing global warming.

Climate change is the greatest threat to the planet

During the last 50 years, the average global temperature on earth has increased by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit (for an excellent overview, see Braasch, 2009), and the correlation between increases in temperature and carbon dioxide emissions (one of the chief greenhouse gases released from sources ranging from coal power plants to automobile emissions) is a staggering .93 (a correlation of 1.0 is a perfect one-to-one relation). This increase in temperature is already contributing to the deaths of thousands. For example, last summer in India more than 2,000 people died in a single, record breaking heatwave. Two years ago, heat waves in five European nations (e.g., France, Germany) killed more than 35,000 people. Clearly not all of these deaths are attributable to global warming, but fatal heat waves like these are exacerbated by climate change and will become increasingly common. Warmer temperatures are melting glaciers, and by the end of the century, sea levels are projected to rise by approximately 3 feet. Although such numbers seem hard to appreciate in the abstract, consider the plight of the 160 million people who live in Bangladesh, a country where 90% of its land lies in a floodplain and millions dwell in homes at less than 3 feet above sea level. This country, along with others (e.g., the Maldives), will face wholesale destruction, not just mere inconvenience, by the end of the century.

Before 2100, millions will die, endure disease, and face financial, economic, and political upheaval because of climate change. Yet, time and time again, world leaders are unable to make significant headway to curb greenhouse gases. In developing countries like China, 75% of electricity comes from coal burning power plants, which produce a considerable amount of carbon dioxide. Although the pollution from these plants has a significant impact on the health of the Chinese people (e.g., 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China; World Bank, 2007), the global warming impact of greenhouse gas knows no boundaries and affects the health and safety of the entire world.

These climate challenges are immense, complex, and dire. When the Kyoto meetings were held in 1997, countries such as China and India were not included in carbon reduction targets because of concerns that doing so would curb their economic development. Other developed countries were not signatories to the Kyoto treaties, including the United States, which has 5% of the world’s population but generates 23% of its greenhouse gases. Overall, effectively combating climate change will require broad and meaningful participation from all countries. But how can this occur?

The psychology underlying why we fail to address climate change

One of the key psychological principles that impedes our ability to effectively engage climate change is the challenge of social dilemmas. Although there are many social dilemma types (e.g., tragedy of the commons, prisoner's dilemma), most involve the difficulty in people making short term sacrifices (e.g., giving up the convenience of driving one's own car to work in order to carpool) for long-term benefits (e.g., carpooling reduces greenhouse gases). In short, it's more attractive to behave selfishly than to do what's best for the long-term health of the environment and planet.

Yet, we know a lot about how to solve social dilemmas (Komorita & Park, 1994; Van Vugt, 2009). For example, we know that focusing people on long term good (e.g., avoiding climate disaster), putting behaviors in the public spotlight (e.g., monitoring emissions), payoffs for cooperative behavior (e.g., cap and trade programs), and regulatory frameworks (e.g., UN agreements such as Kyoto and Paris) can produce better outcomes. Yet, when politicians' focus more on their next election than on long-term environmental good, when countries do not participate in these regulatory mechanisms, and when everyday people doubt the scientific consensus regarding global warming findings, we continue to spiral toward climate catastrophe rather than averting it.

This raises the question about why so many people doubt that climate change is real. While people have no hesitation in accepting conclusions such as "smoking causes cancer" or "the Earth revolves around the Sun," many argue that global warming is a hoax. Why is this the case? Although many factors likely contribute to people discrediting climate change science, one prominent cause is motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990).

A great deal of research has demonstrated that people find it very difficult to accept the validity of scientific evidence that discredits a preferred conclusion. For example, a classic study by Lord et al. (1979) found that people who are strongly in favor of capital punishment and others who are strongly against capital punishment view the scientific evidence supporting their positions as sound while simultaneously attacking the veracity and convincingness of scientific evidence inconsistent with their own beliefs. In short, when one is partisan toward a particular point of view, science that contradicts this viewpoint is viewed as flawed rather than compelling.

Why might people have a bias against climate change research? For one, the sort of change required to fight global warming will require considerable change and sacrifice in life styles. As noted above, Americans produce a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases, but significant alterations to "the American lifestyle" would be hugely unpopular. We love to drive our own cars to work rather than use mass transit. Creature comforts such as consumer electronics (which require the mining of exotic materials and electricity to operate) and next day delivery by airplanes are things that people would not give up easily. Accordingly, it's seductive to be skeptical of science that would encourage fundamental lifestyle changes, especially among those who have the most to lose (e.g., people whose comfortable lives benefit from maintaining the status quo).

Finally, there is yet another factor that enhances the difficulty in motivating action on global warming: faulty causal reasoning. The process of seeing cause-and-effect connections is complex, and climate change presents a number of conditions that makes it even more difficult. For example, because the causes and consequences of global warming can be separated by centuries (e.g., increases in greenhouse gases beginning during the Industrial Revolution will lead to island countries like the Maldives being destroyed in the 21st century), it makes the causal link more difficult to accept. For example, when cause and effect are closer together in time, people are more inclined to see the link (Shanks, 2004). Further, not only is there a greater gap in time between cause and effect with global warming, there is also a gap in proximity as well. For instance, it's easier to accept that pollution in China affects the health of the Chinese than it is that the same pollution is contributing to melting ice in Greenland. In short, the global nature of climate change makes seeing cause and effect more challenging because of the time scale and expansiveness of the problem and its complexity (e.g., greenhouse gases produce myriad effects ranging from sea level increases to ocean acidification through very complicated systems of interdependencies that are physically invisible and causal complex).

Can we save ourselves from ourselves?

Overall, the science behind climate change and its consequences is well accepted by the vast majority of climatology researchers in the world (see IPCC, 2014). The importance of engaging climate change is revealed by the fact that world leaders have traveled to Paris this month while their emissaries currently negotiate new agreements to fight this paramount challenge. Yet, the road ahead to avoiding climatological ruin is steep given the nature of the psychological processes that conspire against change, especially in the developed world. The challenges of social dilemmas, motivated reasoning, and accurate causal inferences reduce the outcry from people to demand change and to adopt regulations necessary to coordinate efforts on a worldwide scale. These are unprecedented problems in the history of humanity, but just as psychology exacerbates them, psychology is also the key to overcoming them as well.


Braasch, G. (2009). Earth under fire: How global warming is changing the world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

IPCC (2014). Climate change 2014: Synthesis report. Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland.

Komorita, S. & Parks, C. (1994). Social dilemmas. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Lord, C., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098-2109.

Shanks, D. R. (2004). Judging covariation and causation. In D. Koehler & N. Harvey (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making (pp. 220–239). Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Van Vugt, M. (2009). Averting the tragedy of the commons: Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 169-173.

World Bank (2007). Cost of pollution in China: Economic estimates of physical costs.….

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