Psychological barriers can prevent people from acting to avert the climate threat, even when they recognise the problem. So how can we best engage individuals, companies and communities in the quest for solutions?
Three golfers stand together on a putting green, planning their shots. Such is their focus on the game, they seem not to have noticed the danger looming in the distance. A massive fire surges through the forested hillside above the course, leaving a swathe of charred tree trunks in its wake.
Captured by US-based photographer Kristi McCluer, the image went viral on social media in the summer of 2017. It was hailed as symbolic of our shared failure to acknowledge the reality of climate change. David Simon, creator of television series The Wire, commented it was a “visual metaphor for America today”.1 And the photo has taken on a new relevance in early 2020, as footage of the Australian wildfires blazes across smartphones and television screens.
McCluer seems to capture a psychological truth: Like the golfers who continued to swing their clubs as the flames raced towards them, people have become adept at compartmentalising. Even if we see the evidence that climate change is happening, we turn our attention to other, more trivial things. We all have lives to live, work to do, games to play. In psychological parlance, this failure to face up to the facts is known as The Ostrich Effect, after the apocryphal story of the bird that sticks its head in the sand.
Doubt and denial
Our reluctance to take the climate crisis more seriously presents a puzzle. After all, the underlying science – the evidence that carbon emitted as a by-product of industrial activity gets trapped in the atmosphere, forcing global temperatures upwards – was long ago established in the public consciousness.
As early as 1958, an episode of Frank Capra’s prime-time US documentary series The Bell Science Hour informed viewers that human-driven carbon emissions could eventually lead to catastrophe. “A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,” intoned the narrator. “Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.”2
As documented by the journalist Nathaniel Rich, most governments and fossil-fuel companies accepted the scientific consensus by the late 1970s. Over the following decade, the world came agonisingly close to averting disaster, as carbon taxes and binding international emissions targets were proposed.
More than half of the total carbon emissions in human history have occurred over the last 30 years
In 1992, 165 countries came together to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, pledging to stabilise emissions. But these promises were non-binding and the opportunity to take decisive action was missed. As the author David Wallace-Wells has observed, more than half of the total carbon emissions in human history have occurred over the 30 years since the framework was established, which means “we have engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance”.3
During this time, energy giants led by Exxon Mobil stepped in with a disinformation campaign that cast doubt on the scientific evidence and drained momentum from initiatives to tackle climate change.4 Outright climate denial is now less of a problem, partly because the weight of scientific evidence has become impossible to ignore. Surveys show the majority of citizens in Western nations accept the planet is heating up (see Figures 1 and 2). Nevertheless, many people remain wary of attributing climate change to human activity and are unwilling to countenance lifestyle changes that would reduce emissions. This is the case even in communities that have already experienced the direct effects of extreme weather.5
To explain this, we need to look to the deeper drivers of human thought and behaviour. By paying attention to the underlying psychology, we can come to a better understanding of why we find it so hard to face up to climate change – and begin to develop solutions.
Figure 1: The majority of Americans believe climate change is real…
Figure 2: ...but they don’t want to talk about it
Professor Cass Sunstein, founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School, is one of the world’s leading experts on the deep psychological roots of human decision making. He argues our difficulties in grappling with climate change may derive from homo sapiens’ experiences in prehistory.
Our evolutionary heritage is well-suited to certain kinds of dangers but it is not suited to the climate change problem
“We are the products of evolution and our evolutionary heritage is well-suited to certain kinds of dangers – lions and tigers for example – but it is not suited to the climate change problem,” Sunstein tells AIQ. “The human mind just isn’t wired to think that burning fossil fuels is going to lead to carbon in the air, which is going to lead to a warmer planet. It’s a very complicated mental operation.”
Think about what life was like out on the savannah, two million years ago. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were surrounded by mortal threats, from rival tribes to sabre-tooth cats. In this environment, we were primed to avoid dangers we could see, hear and touch.
These primeval impulses continue to govern human behaviour in the modern world. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert coined the acronym PAIN to describe the kinds of stimuli that trigger our ancient synaptic pathways and rouse us into action. These catalysts tend to be Personal (affecting us or our loved ones directly); Abrupt (relating to sudden changes in our environment); Immoral (things we deem unethical or repulsive); and present right Now (as opposed to occurring in the future).6
For many, climate change is too slow-moving and abstract to press these psychological buttons. Even if extreme weather impacts us directly, we find it difficult to connect the felt reality of fires and flooding to the bigger climate issue, due to that “complicated mental operation” Sunstein describes.
Adding to the problem, many of the proposed solutions to the climate crisis run counter to our evolutionary instincts. In the early days of humanity, when life was nasty, brutish and short, we learned to pursue near-term gains and avoid near-term losses. This means we are disinclined to accept the immediate costs and reductions in living standards that would be needed to curb climate emissions.
The science shows we prioritise immediate wants and needs and avoid planning for the future
“The science shows we prioritise immediate wants and needs and avoid planning for the future, whether that involves saving for our retirement or taking steps to tackle climate change,” says Marte Borhaug, global head of ESG investment solutions at Aviva Investors. “These psychological factors can be a real impediment to action, even when we know what’s best and also want to change. It’s like exercise – you know you will feel better afterwards, but when Netflix and the sofa is right there in front of you, it’s hard to put the gym kit on and start running.”
Bias and social influence
For these reasons, some noted psychologists are pessimistic that societies will be able to muster an adequate response. Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his research into human behaviour and its applications in finance, is among them.7
People may cite the presence of snow on their own driveways to reject the idea that the world is heating up
Kahneman’s research points to further reasons why climate change seems so intractable. He is best known for his theory that people think according to two different systems: “fast” (or “system one”) thought is automatic, unconscious and swayed by physical or emotional reactions; “slow” (or “system two”) thought is said to be more calculating and rational.8 System two might hold sway while we are reading a textbook or solving a maths problem, but most of the time we act according to system one, leaving us vulnerable to various cognitive biases – a kind of mental shortcut.
These biases are particularly unhelpful when it comes to the climate crisis. Availability bias, for example, leads us to rely on the evidence closest to hand – this is why people may cite the presence of snow on their own driveways to reject the idea that the world is heating up. Status quo bias, an aversion to change, is part of the reason we reject lifestyle adjustments that would reduce our carbon footprints.
One implication of Kahneman’s research is that although we may possess all the facts, we still act irrationally. In the same way we continue eating chocolate biscuits even though we are fully aware they are bad for our teeth, we persist with our high-carbon lifestyles in the knowledge we are destroying the planet.
Kahneman also shows behaviour is governed by a subtle interplay between psychological and social cues. One of the most powerful cognitive biases is groupthink, which disposes individuals to mimic the beliefs and behaviours of those around them. This amplifies the effects of other biases among collectives. Like individuals, large organisations often take the path of least resistance, deferring difficult decisions and following the herd. Such institutional lethargy helps account for the wider failure to incorporate climate risk into business plans and investment portfolios.
Groupthink means people’s views on climate change tend to correlate strongly with those of others who share their political or religious leanings
At a societal level, meanwhile, groupthink means people’s views on climate change tend to correlate strongly with those of others who share their political or religious leanings. In the US, studies show Democrats are far more inclined than Republicans to worry about the problem.9 In the UK, Brexit voters are twice as likely as Remainers to believe humans are not responsible for climate change.10
As a result of this partisanship, climate change has become tangled up with a variety of other hot-button social and political issues, making it tricky to build a consensus across different cohorts. “Everyone, experts and non-experts alike, converts climate change into stories that embody their own values and prejudices,” as the environmental activist George Marshall puts it.11
Carrot and stick
Human psychology, then, presents some daunting barriers to action on climate change. But governments, businesses and non-profit organisations have a variety of tools available to tackle these ingrained habits and social influences. And behavioural science offers guidance about which approaches are likely to be effective.
Start with policy. Carbon taxes, which place a charge on CO2 emissions to incentivise greener behaviours, are a common recourse for climate-conscious governments, but they can be unpopular.
“Even governments like the one in which I worked, the Obama administration, were very cautious about a carbon tax,” says Sunstein, who ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama from 2009-2012. “The immediate cost of a carbon tax is tangible, while the benefit of a carbon tax isn’t something you can feel: people have to trust it will eventually be felt.”
Some carbon taxes have worked well. In 2008, the Canadian province of British Columbia introduced a tax on emissions that applied to both companies and households, with the amount rising in increments from ten Canadian dollars to C$30 by 2012. The policy won wide support and helped the province cut emissions by around as much as 15 per cent over the period, with no apparent economic costs (in fact, British Columbia’s average GDP grew faster than most of its neighbours).12
Other attempts to compel green behaviour with carbon taxes have foundered, however. Introduced in 2014, France’s carbon tax was sharply hiked in 2018 to bring it in line with rising fuel prices. This sparked the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, a series of mass protests that brought parts of the country to a standstill and prompted a government climbdown.
Carbon taxes are more likely to work if the punitive measures are offset with economic sweeteners that appeal to our preference for short-term rewards
One lesson to draw from these contrasting examples is that carbon taxes are more likely to work if the punitive measures are offset with economic sweeteners that appeal to our preference for short-term rewards. The British Columbia carbon tax came bundled with other measures that lowered income tax and health insurance premiums and kept citizens onside. Companies also benefited from corporation tax cuts.
No such incentives were offered in France. Neither was the money raised by the tax allocated wholly to projects that might bring tangible green benefits (a measure that tends to make the public more amenable13); much of it was simply added to the federal coffers.
France’s policy also offended people’s sense of fairness. Because many companies were exempt, the carbon tax was deemed to be regressive.14 As so often with climate change, the issue became tangled up with wider political and social dynamics such as inequality, and fomented an “us versus them” mentality, with Emmanuel Macron’s administration cast as the enemy. In fact, the French carbon tax activated all of the “PAIN” points identified earlier: It was seen to be Personal, Abrupt, Immoral and happening right Now. No wonder it backfired.
British Columbia’s careful policy mix of carrot and stick is a more useful template, although a carbon tax is likely to be only one part of the solution. Darryl Murphy, managing director of infrastructure at Aviva Investors, argues governments need to be attentive to context and the nature of the particular problems they hope to address when designing green laws.
The ‘stick’ can be effective when the outcomes are specific – the threat of taxes can bring about faster progress on insulating buildings and cutting energy usage
“The ‘stick’ can be effective when the outcomes are specific – the threat of taxes can bring about faster progress on insulating buildings and cutting energy usage, for example. But you also need to provide the right incentives to invest, especially for large-scale and long-term public-interest projects. In those cases, you might need to offer some form of risk sharing to attract private capital,” says Murphy.
Whichever path governments choose, consistency is important. Sudden policy reversals can undermine confidence and deter investment. Take the UK coalition government’s unexpected decision to retroactively reduce feed-in-tariffs for solar energy in 2015 – an incentive for small-scale suppliers – which led to a significant drop in renewable energy investment over the following two years.15
More helpful is the UK’s recent pledge to make the country’s energy mix carbon neutral by 2050. Murphy argues this is the kind of clear policy framework that provides useful guidance on the direction of travel, focusing minds among investors and the public alike.
In recent years, a policy approach has been devised that seeks to be more sensitive to people’s psychological tendencies and biases in order to change their behaviour.
In his bestselling book Nudge, co-authored with the Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler, Sunstein showed how policymakers can improve outcomes in various walks of life by tweaking the “choice architecture” within which people make decisions.16 The idea works on the basis people are more likely to do the right thing if it is easy – or at least easier than doing the wrong thing.
The technique has proven particularly effective in influencing financial decisions. Under auto-enrolment, for example, individuals are signed up to pension schemes automatically, with the freedom to opt out if they wish; due to inertia and status-quo bias, most people stick with the default option. In the US, auto-enrolment has boosted annual savings rates by $7.4 billion.17
Green defaults have been shown to bring about climate-friendly outcomes
Using the same principle in the area of climate action, “green defaults” have been shown to bring about climate-friendly outcomes when implemented by governments or private organisations. To take an early example, Rutgers University modified the default setting on its printers from “print on a single page” to “print on front and back” in an effort to save paper. The results were dramatic. Within three years of the start of the initiative in 2010, the university estimated it had saved 55 million sheets, a reduction of more than 40 per cent. This is equivalent to 4,000 trees, or more than 100 tonnes of sequestered carbon.18
The principle of green nudging is also behind the use of energy-saving lighting that switches off when no-one is around, and the hotel industry’s now-widespread policy of cutting back on laundry unless guests specifically ask for clean towels and bed linen.
Nudging has been shown to increase the take-up of green energy by households
On a larger scale, nudging has been shown to increase the take-up of green energy by households. German supplier Energiedienst GmbH led the way here, making a green tariff its default offering in 1999. Two other options were made available: one was less climate friendly, but cheaper; one was greener but more expensive. Around 94 per cent of customers stayed on the green tariff – a striking result, given that green energy usage in Germany was just one per cent at the time of the study, even though many consumers said they would be willing to pay a premium for it.19
“Automatic enrolment onto green-energy tariffs can create very significant movement when it comes to reliance on green-energy sources,” Sunstein says. “People have the opportunity to opt out and go for coal-powered energy, but the data shows they don’t, even if the green option is a little more expensive. If that can happen in Germany, it can happen all over the world.”
Powers of persuasion
While nudging may be part of the solution, it is no panacea. Nudges have been criticised as drily technocratic – even paternalistic – and sometimes provoke a backlash similar to the opposition that led to the demise of the French carbon tax. One US-based attempt at green nudging led to increased energy consumption among conservatives who were irritated at what they saw as a high-minded environmentalist conspiracy to control their behaviour.20
More people need to be persuaded of the threat, as well as incentivised and nudged to adopt carbon-light lifestyles
To bring about sustained change at the kind of scale needed to address the climate crisis, experts agree more people need to be persuaded of the threat, as well as incentivised and nudged to adopt carbon-light lifestyles. This will require effective communication that considers our emotional, system-one brains, as well as group identities and core values.
“To mobilise people [on climate change], this has to become an emotional issue,” as Kahneman has put it. “It has to have immediacy and salience.”21
There is a growing awareness that in focusing on making the scientific case through patiently showcasing the data, climate communicators have thus far failed to engage people at this deeper level. So how can this be addressed?
The psychological theory suggests both language and imagery are important
The psychological theory suggests both language and imagery are important. The phrases “climate crisis” and “climate breakdown” are useful in conveying urgency and more likely to trigger our inbuilt sense of threat than “global warming”, which sounds gradual and unthreatening (and maybe even desirable to those living in chilly northern climes). Similarly, pictures of dewy-eyed polar bears stranded on dwindling ice floes play into a sense that the issue is remote from everyday life; images of people affected by climate change are more striking.
“I recently came across a report on climate change with a little leaf on the cover – I deleted it straight away,” says Ed Dixon, head of ESG, real assets, at Aviva Investors. “We need to think about the way we present the crisis we’re in, and one way we can do that is by demonstrating this is a human crisis. The impact is very human and very real and the imagery used should reflect that.”
One key benefit of using more powerful language and imagery is that this will enable better stories to be told about climate change. Humans have swapped stories since they first emerged blinking from the primordial cave, and narrative techniques can persuade individuals and shift social norms.
Climate deniers and sceptics were quick to grasp the role of stories in shaping the debate
Climate deniers and sceptics were quick to grasp the role of stories in shaping the debate. The bestselling book about climate change was not written by Al Gore or Greta Thunberg, but the late novelist Michael Crichton, whose techno-thriller State of Fear (2004) depicts the issue as a conspiracy invented by green extremists. The novel told an exciting story, with clearly delineated heroes and villains, and skilfully tapped into a conservative readership’s mistrust of statist intervention and the environmentalist movement. The book was enthusiastically promoted by political opponents of climate action – then President George W. Bush invited Crichton (a climate sceptic) to the White House to explain the thinking behind his work of fiction.
Marshall, who founded the non-profit organisation Climate Outreach, argues that those hoping to persuade people of the climate threat should take a leaf out of Crichton’s book and pay close attention to the values and beliefs of their audiences.
When addressing conservative communities who have typically been resistant to talk on climate, for example, it is best to avoid the “eco stuff” and find common ground. One way to do this is to emphasise that by working to counteract climate change, they can protect the things they value most: family, property, and the local environment.22
As active shareholders, we usually find it is more effective to compel firms to do better through engagement
Borhaug keeps this principle in mind when working with companies to encourage them to be more sustainable and manage their climate risks. “You do need the ultimate threat of divestment, but as active shareholders, we usually find it is more effective to compel firms to do better through engagement. By stressing the interests we have in common, the need to create long-term value while also doing good for the planet, we can persuade people to act. Threats and criticism sometimes provoke a negative reaction, creating an ‘us and them’ mentality. But to tackle climate change, we need the whole economy to change.”
Bringing emotion into climate communication brings its own risks, as visceral responses to the threat such as despair or anger can be just as unhelpful as apathy or denial.23 There is a fine line between emphasising the urgency of the problem and scaring people into paralysis.
Switching the narrative from a negative to a positive one can be helpful
Switching the narrative from a negative to a positive one can be helpful. In 2009, USA Today published a cartoon by Joel Pett that did this beautifully. Pett depicts a climate summit at which a speaker extols the virtues of energy independence, rainforest preservation, green jobs, liveable cities and renewables. A member of the audience interrupts him to ask: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” Humour has a way of cutting through the absurd and the complex, allowing us to see things as they really are. But climate messaging is often bleak in tone.
“The climate change discourse at the moment is really about doom and gloom. Thunberg is extraordinary in getting people to talk about climate change, but the message has been so negative – ‘Our house is on fire’ – without really addressing in a practical and thoughtful way what they can do about it,” says Geoffrey Beattie, professor of psychology at Edge Hill University and author of The Psychology of Climate Change.
You have to emphasise the positives of what a sustainable lifestyle could look like
“You have to emphasise the positives of what a sustainable lifestyle could look like: the health benefits, the community benefits, and connect people in a communal way. You need to put much more focus on what people can actually do,” Beattie adds.
When countries focus on specific solutions that governments, campaigners, private companies and individuals can get behind, they can make substantial progress. Take Norway’s efforts to increase the take-up of electric vehicles (EVs) to reduce gas emissions. Launched in the late 1990s, the multi-pronged initiative has been a remarkable success. Norway now leads the world in EV ownership per capita, and electric and battery-powered cars account for just under 50 per cent of all vehicles on Norwegian roads – a far higher proportion than in any other country. Out of every 100 EVs sold in Europe, 35 end up in Norway.24
Overarching policy targets, green incentives, behavioural nudges and cultural factors all played a role in the process. The government started by offering incentives such as tax breaks on EV purchases, along with other sweeteners like free parking and permission to drive in the bus lane during rush hour, and made clear it would not allow the sale of fossil-fuel cars after 2025.25 In addition, companies and local governments have been incentivised to build charging infrastructure. Much of this charging network runs on clean hydroelectric power and incorporates behavioural nudges into its design.
“When you drive into a car park or service station in Norway, you have to look extra hard for the non-electric parking bays and petrol pumps, because EV charging stations are now the default, even in remote locations up in the mountains,” says Borhaug. “This makes owning an electric vehicle seem like the normal thing to do for Norwegians – people don’t feel like they are standing out by owning one.”
EV usage has also been boosted by an inspiring narrative: the story of Norway’s collective push to overcome its historic reliance on fossil fuels and become a leader in green living. The government uses the widespread availability of charging stations to promote the country as a destination for eco-friendly travel.26
Harnessing social norms
Norway’s success on EVs indicates the power of social norms in propelling change. Part of the reason action on the climate crisis has been frustratingly slow is that individuals tend to require proof others are doing something before they follow suit. But once people begin to think and act differently, the power of social conformity can begin to operate in the other direction, thanks to a process known as a “cascade”. This amplifies the effect of individual consumer choices and creates momentum.27
There is proof this can make a difference in tackling serious global threats. Sunstein points to a social cascade that worked to expedite international efforts to protect stratospheric ozone three decades ago.
Like climate change, the hole in the ozone layer was once seen as a near-impossible challenge to overcome
Like climate change, the “hole in the ozone layer” was once seen as a near-impossible challenge to overcome. But public opinion shifted extremely quickly during the mid-1980s and policymakers secured a binding international agreement, the Montreal Protocol (1987), to phase out ozone-damaging chemicals. The process involved a combination of shrewd policy design, which ensured economic costs were fairly distributed and eased corporate buy-in, and a clever messaging campaign to raise awareness. The concept of a “hole” in the earth’s “shield”, though scientifically dubious, was clear and emotive.28
Sunstein is hopeful a similar mechanism could accelerate action on climate change. As more people become convinced of the need to do their bit, they will influence others in turn and potentially set off a green cascade across whole societies. Flygskam, the “flight-shaming” movement born in Sweden, provides an example. It resulted in a four per cent drop in passengers flying via the country’s airports in 2018, according to airport operator Swedavia.
“So much of the carbon emission problem is the product of individual consumers’ behaviour, aggregated across large populations. If we can get each person to cut their carbon footprint by a non-trivial amount, then we’re getting very large progress across the planet towards less destruction,” says Sunstein.
As any behavioural scientist will tell you: where there’s a will, there’s a way.