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Are we psychologically primed for inaction in climate change mitigation?

Vanessa McCorquodale is the Committees & Projects Officer in the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability and is also currently studying for an MSc in Carbon Management. This blog is a personal reflection on how climate change mitigation could be improved, submitted as part of her degree.

Despite being one of the 21st Century’s important game changers, climate change continues to be a societal challenge.  I often see my friends’ eyes glaze over when I start discussing the topic, followed by complaints of depressing conversation. It’s almost as though it’s a taboo subject and best to go about it quietly.

However, we all generally accept that every mitigating action we accomplish can make a difference, e.g. recycle more, reduce waste/energy usage, carry reusable bottles on our person. We also know these are just a drop in the ocean of possible actions, so why aren’t we raising our game and optimising our mitigating opportunities?

Because we are wired up with an ancient brain.

Our brains reached their current physical development 1000’s of years ago1, when we concerned ourselves with finding our next meal or avoiding immediate dangers, rather than careful planning for future events.  Studies show that, even today, if we believe a threat is excessively far into the future; we Psychologically Distance 2 ourselves from it.  Climate change is viewed as a future threat because the predicted catastrophic impacts are 50-150 years in the future (with variability and uncertainty); too far in the future for our ancient brains to pay much heed to.  We are generally more concerned with today, so we discount the costs and benefits of taking action, until we feel we can justifiably ignore the issue.  But what mitigating decisions might people make if they accepted climate change is in the present day?

We make decisions using our feelings over analysis.

A study on behavioural responses to climate change 3 showed that people who take action, generally do so for unconnected benefits than environmental e.g. saving money.  This could be because when making decisions our brains go on feelings (Affective Reasoning) rather than analysis (Analytic Reasoning)4.  The study of climate change is quantitative (for scientific validity) and therefore speaks to the analytical side of our brain functions.  Social psychologists describe our decision making as fast, automatic and unconscious and to achieve this speed, we ‘go with our gut’(our biases) on the subject and that does not allow for the slower, analytical thought processing required for quantitative information processing.   So, people are unlikely to partake in mitigating behaviours unless their feelings respond positively to the mitigating action.

Presented with these brain behaviours, are we as a society at fault for delaying our mitigation efforts and if so, are we accountable?

We cannot be at fault for internal automatic processes, but we certainly shouldn’t rest on our laurels and be done with it.  As climate change communicators, we must improve communication methods so that the topic can be talked about across all societies, sectors and governments.

An interesting video by David Marshall a leading climate change communications advisor details more psychological influencing that we have (and don’t have) over our brains.

So, no-one said it’s going to be easy…

We are social creatures and have always been, evidenced through anthropological studies of humans evolving in groups.  Being social, we have a strong reaction to social rejection, the brain even likens the pain to a broken bone and that motivates us strongly to avoid it.  So we follow social norms, we follow a group mentality, either to partake in climate change mitigation (if our friends or idols do) or abstain from it if they don’t.  However, social norms vary across religions, culture, poverty/wealth; so how to convince all these individual but collective decision makers to take up mitigating behaviours?


Communications should show climate change impacts occurring in present day to reduce temporal psychological distancing, making the issue tangible and thereby requiring a mitigating response.  To reduce geographical psychological distancing, a useful strategy would be to communicate local climate changes to local communities.  If we frame the issue appropriately for each local area across the globe, mitigation buy-in might increase, followed by a possible mitigation boom as others follow the social norm.

Another aspect is the notion of loss.  We don’t like losing, let’s face it, so when mitigation highlights a loss today for an uncertain win in the future, it seems a risky bet and the status quo more attractive.  Therefore, communications should be positive and explain immediate gains of climate change mitigation and not only the losses of tomorrow.  This will encourage public support and pave the way for policy makers 5.

Although climate change still seems to be taboo at dinner parties, studies of social media communications show that online dialogue has increased in recent years.  Social media provides a relatively safe space where users can share and receive reports on climate change.

If communications can be framed and directed to local communities/demographics in the present and highlight all the positives of taking action, I believe we can affect significant global engagement in climate change mitigation.

Email Vanessa at


  1. Gifford, R. (2011). The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaption. American Psychologist. May-June2011. P.291-302.
  2. Spence,A. Poortinga, W. Pidgeon,N. (2012) The psychological distance of climate change. Risk Analysis. Vol.32. No.6. P957-972.
  3. Whitmarsh, L. (2009) Behavioural responses to climate change: asymmetry of intentions and impacts Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 29. P13-23.
  4. Evans, J.S. (2008) Dual-processing account of reasoning, judgement and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 59. P255-278.
  5. Linder, van der S. Maibach, E. Leiserowitz, A. (2015)Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practise” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Nov 2015. Vol 10. P758-763.

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