Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Earth to Humans: Why Have You Forsaken Me? Discredence

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

Posted Aug 31, 2015

Source: Flickr user Andrea Della Adriano; no changes made; license at

Why do we continue to fail to respond to severe and growing climate change and other environmental problems? In previous post, here, I set out to discuss all seven categories of psychological inertia assembled by the environmental psychologist Robert Gifford in his article, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.”[i]

These dragons must be SLAIN for us to transition to a healthier, more sustainable world. The fifth group of dragons is termed…


What if someone—an authority figure such as a scientist, a politician, a news anchor, or a friend—tells us that climate change is a serious problem to which we contribute every day by our ordinary choices such as those around driving and eating, and that if we care about future generations we should fly less, drive less, and eat less meat? What types of psychological mechanisms might allow us to discount what the person is telling us (and thus make our lives easier)?

Holding in a negative light the view of the person bearing the news or suggesting the policy change helps us dismiss what they say and continue on with life as usual. This negativity can take various forms: a lack of trust in the other; seeing the other person’s solution (or understanding of the situation) as inadequate; denying the possible veracity of the other’s beliefs; or simply brushing off the other person’s advice.

Mistrust. Healthy relationships are based on trust. It’s easy to resist the recommendations of government officials or scientists when you don’t trust them. The trust of a suspicious public (perhaps particularly when their lifestyles are in question) can erode easily, such as when one scientist exaggerates claims about climate change. But for behavior to change, the public must trust such authority figures to not take advantage of them; they must believe that the change will be “effective, valuable, and equitable”;[ii] and they must believe that the authority figure is honest and has the public good at heart.

Action: The onus is on scientists and public servants to gain and retain the trust of the public by being rigorously truthful and keeping the public good in view. But members of the public can also occasionally give them a break by realizing that a few mistakes on the part of scientists or an undisciplined scientist or two is not necessarily cause for distrusting all scientists or all the science on climate change. It’s an extremely complex and wide-ranging phenomenon, so there are bound to be mistakes or predictions that are off target. That doesn’t negate the primary findings that climate change is driven primarily by human activity and is on the path of widespread ecological and social destruction. Do your homework. Here are a couple of great places to start:

Perceived program inadequacy. Most climate-change mitigation programs to date are voluntary and thus their impact can be deemed to be limited from the start. It’s easy to dismiss a program (such as purchasing carbon credits when you buy a ticket for a flight) when you think it has little chance of success, and thus excuse yourself from participating—an easier path. It’s easy to resolve the cognitive dissonance between knowing you might do some good on the one hand and not wanting to bear the cost of doing so on the other hand by simply down-rating your perception of the effectiveness or adequacy of the program: “That program is feeble. Why should I accept any cost by participating in it?!”

Action: Realize, first of all, that it will take many small steps by everyone in the industrialized world to really tackle climate change, along with gradual and ongoing lifestyle shifts. No single program will solve climate change. It’s embedded in our lives. Choose what you’ll do in your life. If you find a program inadequate, choose your own solution(s).

Denial. In her book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life the environmental scholar Kari Norgaard showed how members of a community can manufacture denial about climate change by building on mistrust, uncertainty, and sunk costs. And that denial can be about whether it’s occurring, whether it’s caused by human action, or whether you personally play a role in it. In many societies large groups (always a minority, however) adopt one or all of these forms of denial (and in the United States denial is prevalent among conservative elites, as I’ve written in previous posts).

Denialists are louder in the public realm than people who accept that climate change is happening and human-caused. Certain pundits have made it their jobs to spin conspiracy theories about how the scientific community or “liberal politicians” are inventing climate change as a power grab. Just last week, Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal wrote an open letter[iii] to President Barack Obama urging him not to discuss climate change on his visit to New Orleans to mark the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He wrote,

…the temptation to stray into climate change politics should be resisted. While you and others may be of the opinion that we can legislate away hurricanes with higher taxes, business regulations, and EPA power grabs, that is not a view shared by many Louisianians…. I would ask you to respect this important time of remembrance by not inserting the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.

Meanwhile, the science says pretty unequivocally that climate change will continue to make storms such as Katrina more intense and destructive while raising sea levels, which in turn worsens flooding from such storms. Commemorating Katrina without mentioning climate change would be strange indeed.

Action: Remain skeptical and do your homework (beginning with the links above). In particular remain skeptical about climate denialists who want to deflect attention away from this critical set of problems facing society.

Reactance. Many people react against messages from scientists or government officials, particularly when suggested policies seem to threaten their freedom. Lack of trust in the authority figures behind the policy or advice intensifies resistance. Parties with economic interests threatened by climate change mitigation policies, particularly the fossil fuel industry, are working hard to oppose mitigation strategies and to foster mistrust of the scientific consensus around climate change. The petrochemical billionaires David and Charles Koch, for instance, famously fund groups that seek to deny climate science or resist mitigation measures.[iv]

Action: There’s not much to be done when deep-seated denialism is confronted by requests or demands for change. But take a closer look at industries, organizations, and individuals who fund climate change denial. Compare their motivations to make money with those of scientists and policy makers to benefit the public good. Both can be corrupted or faulty, but whom are you more inclined to trust? People coming for your money, or people who’ve accepted vocations to reveal the truth and serve the public good?

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] “The Dragons of Inaction,” p. 295.

[iii] Bobby Jindal, “In Letter to Pres. Obama, Gov. Jindal Says Keep Climate Change Politics Out of Katrina Anniversary.”