• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Psychology of Climate Inaction

Air Date: Week of

Caption: Professor Robert Gifford, University of Victoria in British Columbia. (Robert Gifford)

Most Americans agree that climate change is important, but few see it as an urgent issue. The American Psychological Association has published a report outlining the psychological barriers to real action. They include: denial, uncertainty, lack of control and mistrust of scientists. Report co-author Robert Gifford talks with host Jeff Young about why people believe climate change doesn't require their immediate attention.


YOUNG: Scientists have made it clear about climate change: Warming is unequivocal, and very likely due to humanity’s actions.

But you wouldn’t know that from the debate on Capitol Hill. Consider these comments from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

INHOFE: You let me just once again state my belief, that global warming is an alarmism and it's a type of a hoax.

ROHRABACHER: Wake up America, we haven’t had any global warming for ten years!

YOUNG: Now psychologists are turning their attention to the great divide between science and public opinion on climate change.

Professor Robert Gifford, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, led a task force studying global warming attitudes for the American Psychological Association. Gifford sees a telling parallel between those who doubt climate change, and those who ignore health warnings about smoking.

GIFFORD: Early on in the smoking campaign, it was learned that people reduce what we call cognitive dissonance in one of two possible ways. You’re told that smoking is bad for you, but you’re addicted to cigarettes. You have two choices. You can either stop smoking, which is very difficult; or you can change your mind about smoking, which is easier.

So, in terms of climate change, it’s the same thing. You’re told it’s a problem, so either you can change your behavior, which, because of all these different obstacles is difficult – or you can change your mind. So, it’s fairly easy to listen to the radio commentators who tell you it’s not a problem. It’s comforting, because it’s easier to change my mind about it and become a denier than it is to actually change.

YOUNG: And I guess it doesn’t take that much injection of uncertainty or doubt around the issue to help you along that path.

GIFFORD: That’s right, because that’s the easier path, right – you know, path of least resistance and all that.

YOUNG: The denial camp isn’t really your target so much as the folks who accept that climate change is real, but have a hard time grasping why there should be a sense of urgency attached to it. Is that correct?

GIFFORD: Exactly. Very roughly if you look across different countries including the U.S. and others, figure about twenty percent of the population is what you might call a denier or hard questioner. But the other eighty percent are people who say yes, it’s really a big problem, but, but, but.

The eighty percent are willing to change, but they don’t know how, they don’t know why and they have other barriers such as the one that I call conflicting goals and aspirations, which is climate change is not the only goal that people have. They’re also worried about their health, their children’s safety. And some of these other goals trump climate change, and again it’s gonna take some time to really hit home.

YOUNG: So your report lists several reasons that might explain why people would say yeah, climate change is real, but I don’t really need to do anything about it. What are they?

Professor Robert Gifford, University of Victoria in British Columbia. (Robert Gifford)

GIFFORD: Well there’s at least a dozen reasons that I’ve identified. One is just a sense of uncertainty. There is unavoidably a little bit of uncertainty about just when and where and what is gonna happen. Second, there’s mistrust in some people of scientists and policy makers.

Next up, people sometimes think that what they do won’t have much affect. Then there’s something called optimism bias and that is as part of healthy functioning we tend to be overly optimistic about a lot of things. We think that - something like eighty five percent of people think that they’re more intelligent than average. A majority of people think they’re better looking than average. It’s psychologically healthy to be optimistic, but when you apply this to climate change, “well, don’t worry about it, mother nature will take care of it,” etc, you can see where optimism can be a bias that doesn’t work very well.

YOUNG: You also list just doing the same things we’ve always done.

GIFFORD: You know habit can be a good thing. William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, called habit the flywheel of society. And what he meant by that was that if we didn’t have a lot of habits, society would be chaotic and we wouldn’t be able to really function as a society. But really habit can also be a negative thing. If I drove to work yesterday, I’m quite likely to drive to work today. It’s easier to do the same thing that we did yesterday as today. And maybe it’s not the best thing for the climate.

YOUNG: You know, I get the sense from some scientists that there is some frustration here. They think, hey, we’ve laid out the facts, and these are the conclusions we came to, but is just laying out the facts necessarily gonna lead someone else to the same kind of thinking?

GIFFORD: Absolutely not, and this is one of the main roles I think that psychologists can play on both sides – helping the scientists understand that laypeople don’t always understand or accept what they say instantly and on the other side, helping lay people to understand how scientists work and how they think and what they’re doing.

YOUNG: Well let’s say you’re successful in getting a person to change behavior. At some point that person might ask, “well, what good does it do if it’s just me changing my light bulbs?” There has to be some connection to a broader something going on, right?

GIFFORD: Yeah, when people feel that they’re part of a positive movement, they’re happy to join in. So you get a kind of tipping point effect at some point. It’s what everybody is doing. And people reward each other in subtle ways for sharing that goal.

YOUNG: And by the way, you do know how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb, don’t you?

GIFFORD: [laughs] I think I’ve heard this one. [laughs]

YOUNG: Just one. But the light bulb has to want to change.


YOUNG: Robert Gifford is a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Thanks very much for your time.

GIFFORD: You’re welcome. I enjoyed talking.



Professor Gifford’s Website

APA press release on the task force report


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth