The Psychology of Climate Change Inaction

As psychologists, we asked Earth’s most pressing question about climate change. Why the inaction?

Nikole Wintermeier | Apr 19, 2021
The Psychology of Climate Change Inaction

As psychologists, we asked Earth’s most pressing question about climate change. Why the inaction?

Once upon a time, Earth was an Edenic paradise: green, blue, and a yellow sun that shone down on every species equally. There were sloths the size of buildings and sabertooth tigers the size of the office you’re sitting in now.  

The megafauna of this world lived in peace until a new species evolved and hunted them to extinction. This new species was called Man and Man’s first technological feat was to create fire and build tools. 

Billions of years passed. Tools became weapons, and fire became responsible for the biggest onslaught of rainforest ever to exist. Unfortunately for Earth, Man developed these technologies at unprecedented rates. 

What followed was a mass extinction of all animals, resources, insects, and trees. Eventually, Man slowly faded into the abyss of memory... 

The End. 

Or is it? 

Activists, politicians, tech vendors, and NGOs claim otherwise. To parallel the rise of climate change, there have been policies, protests, and press determined to fight back and Save the Planet.  

As expert psychologists working in tech, we want to help too. 

The strikes and grassroots campaigns are responding to the significant and most dangerous thing to happen to mankind as a collective species. This is a cultural movement, and this article will attempt to break it down from a psychological perspective. 


How Did We Get From Denial to Protest?

Firstly, let's try to answer this question. Whilst it’s true that we release more greenhouse gas emissions every day and our collective carbon footprint grows exponentially, something else has happened to switch our patterns of behavior. What began as niche is now a mass movement. 

This cognitive shift can largely be attributed to the reframing of climate change.

Yes, it’s getting worse but, as the strikes have shown, this shift is so immense that it’s caused people to protest in nearly every major city around the world. 

How did we get here?


The Psychology of Climate Change Deniers


Status Quo Bias

As humans, we are big deniers. If things look difficult or miserable, we would prefer to stick to the status quo and ignore change. 

Did you know that climate change research was started in the ‘50s? 

climate change 1950sNYT article 1956 


In effect, lab-coat-wearing-Presley-listening-pioneers uncovered that the Earth was getting hotter and we were to blame (here’s the full NYT article from 1956 to prove it). 

It was only in 1988 (nearly 30 years later) when mullet-totting scientists established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Despite this, hard-line policies at a governmental level to severely stunt the expansion of fossil-fuel drilling have yet to be carried out. And I needn’t remind you that we are living on the brink of 2021, 60+ years after climate change was first brought to the public’s attention.   

Partly responsible for this lag-time are denial campaigns that were carried out by coal and oil lobbies on an international level.

However, on an individual level, we prefer to keep things the same rather than stir up change. 

climate change panels since 1990Victor Ndula 

Stereotyping the messenger

Another problem is that the people who lobbied the hardest for global warming awareness were stereotyped as hippies, fanatics, or extremists, again highlighting an underlying cognitive bias.  

Now, however, this stereotypical perception seems to be shifting: The discourse of climate change is being repurposed into mainstream language.

Yet, you still have a few members of the older generation who fail to see the connection between eating meat and our planet's overheating. If you don't believe me, call up my parents. 


The “Doom Scenario”

Another way audiences disengage from the climate change discussion is through the “doom” scenario: campaigns with facts relating to the ice caps melting X km away, or overheating X years away created a barrier for audience understanding. 

warming warning 19811981 documentary about climate change

Psychologically, fear and guilt cause resistance in audiences rather than acceptance. 


Confirmation Bias

Moreover, nobody wants to panic. 

People want things to remain the same, to be viable by the “status quo”. We would rather look for a confirmation bias, in which what we know to be true is reflected in the facts (read about our common bias of selective perception). 

New call-to-action

So climate change denial was grounded in psychological biases, with people creating mental shortcuts (heuristics) to deny the truth and stay comfortable in the status quo. 

But what’s happening now is that the effects of climate change are being viewed all around the world, and it's no longer possible to make these false assumptions. Our subconscious biases are being upheaved.


The Psychology of Climate Change Acceptance

Affective Factors for Climate Change Acceptance 

Acceptance happens when we start to care about something. And we can only care about something if there is understanding. 

How did this happen?



Well, the information released in the ‘50s is finally being made digestible, in part thanks to media campaigns.

In order to appeal to the psychology of the masses, numbers change into stories, and facts change into empathetic messages people can relate too.  

stop climate change before it changes you wwfWWF 2008

More than ever, people are also warning against “eco-anxiety”: a neologism for the modern-day millennial that sees school children suffering from anxiety when they consider the state of the Earth. 

The fact of the matter is: humans are fundamentally emotional beings. Campaigns have thus steered clear of playing on rationality, guilt, fear, or the “doom” scenario because this has caused resistance in the past. 

2018 WWF Too Late Gram

Instead, we now see more emotive language. In fact, studies have shown that nature makes us happy, so relating the destruction of the planet to the mental state isn’t that tenuous. 

The WWF campaign (above) shows how campaigns are now using relevant channels (social media) and messaging to show how destruction is already taking place. Unlike the example from 2008, climate change feels more relevant.



The Amazon is burning, floods in the Pacific are ravaging islands, and Australian towns are preparing for the worst water crisis in decades. Climate change is now framed as a global problem that affects developed countries as well. 

climate change view changeUpward trend in how climate change is viewed in the US 2013-2018


Construal Level Theory

What is at play here is something called the Construal Level Theory. This is a bit of a mouthful, I know, but the term essentially defines the experience of decreasing the psychological distance between things (with geography or time). 

Concepts will move from abstract to concrete and therefore feel more relevant on a psychological level. 

For example, the media, government officials, and even your peers have transformed something as abstract as “the overheating of the planet” into an everyday problem, insofar as trends and fashion partake. 

tesla ad environment


In other words, recycling is now common practice, many people compost, and most households in the West use energy-saving light-bulbs.

We now even have “Green” trends that are fashionable and have everyday uses: electric cars, bamboo toothbrushes, reusable water bottles, green labels, etc. 

plastic mermaid influencerZero-Waste influencer 

Egocentric Bias

The Construal Level Theory is egocentric in its approach: if something matters on an individual level, this will resonate more with the target audience. 

Things like, the air I breathe, the food I eat, and the weather I expect in the winter: These are all personal affectations that the Green movement has successfully reframed for the masses to understand and relate too. 


The Psychology of the Climate Strikes 


Framed as a Global Disaster

psychology of climate strikes

This actually echoes a paradox at the heart of the psychology of climate change strikes: the psychology leverages both the egocentric and collective approach. 

Because climate change is framed as a global disaster, communities have found a common “enemy” which is global warming.

People are disillusioned with their governments - and temperatures are still rising. The Green movement has to take action from a grassroots level. 

This is a shift in cognition and emotion, by reframing the movement from a micro to macro. 

How did this shift develop?


The Psychology of the Climate Change Protestor: Who's had enough? 

Social Norms 

The idea of a “mass” movement has been a shift that, in psychological terms, is effective because it leverages “norms” and the Bandwagon Effect (where ideas, beliefs, or fads increase the more people take these up).  

Recycling is now becoming the norm in the West, just like veganism is now hip.

Within the psychology of the climate strike, we see a paradigm shift in patterns of behavior. Protest is now not only reserved for rebels on society’s fringe, but for school-kids with Greta Thunberg as their mascot.

What these movements do is to leverage norms to reframe the climate change message and make it more relevant. 


Prescriptive Norms (in the Everyday Fight Against Climate Change)

Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren have carried out experiments on littering and the recycling bin. Just by having these objects (recycling bin) in place people carry out an “injunctive norm” (prescriptive norm) or, the symbol of what people ought to be doing, which here is recycling. 

In order to suggest how to minizime next-day delivery imapct on the environment, we suggested the green box for this CNN study. Basically, if people were to see that their neighbours had green packages, this would nudge them to want to also have green packages as well. 

Once this catches on, then more and more people are likely to take part because they see the “green box” as an injunctive norm: Approved behavior that they ought to follow.  

psycholgoy and climate strikesEmirates ad “What Goes Around Comes Around”

Since we are predisposed in our psychologies to adhere to norms, the fact that “Going Green”, “Zero-Waste”, or “Plastic-Free” have been trending points to a new cognitive shift in our perceptions of climate change. 

Moreover, the psychological distance is reduced as environmental concerns are displayed on a micro or personal level. 


Psychology and Climate Change: Changing Your Mind 

We Are Now Trusting the Facts

People are now making sense of the facts due to their more relevant framing and delivering coping responses on both an individual and community level. 

The recent climate change strikes are, in a sense, “mitigation behaviors”, which have been analyzed in relation to affective factors (emotion) and risk perception (the reframing of the facts, global warming at your doorstep). 

These psychological factors are the most important for fighting climate change. 


Is This the “Tipping Point” for Climate Change Inaction?

Throughout history, tipping points typically generate mass movements.

In social science, these tipping points are often catalyzed by individuals (like Rosa Parks refusing to give her seat up and the Civil Rights Movement that followed). 

tipping point for climate strikesWikipedia: The Tipping Points (social network diagram)

Perhaps Greta Thunberg is the tipping point for the climate change movement, in light of how the masses have gathered behind her and taken to the streets following her call-to-action.

Maybe the Amazon rainforest fires were the tipping point.

Or the pandemic, as more people are forced to rekon with their immediate enviornment.

bbc climate strikes

nairobi climate strikesAbove: BBC reporting protests, Below: Quartz Africa reporting protests

What we can take from all this is that there is no universal truth or “one size fits all” approach to understanding the psychology of climate change inaction as a mass movement. 

A combination of factors have been analyzed, including the worsening of the planet, the proliferation of media, and the full-force of a generation behind the protests. 

indonesia cliamte strikesJakarta Post reporting protests

But what can be attested to is the fact that the collective has emphasized climate change as everyone’s problem. In these mass, global protests, we’ve seen that people from all generations and cultures have taken to the streets. 


Why Use Psychology to Understand Climate Change Inaction?

Climate change is reaching its tipping point. Why? Because it has too. No governmental policies have yet had serious, actionable policies to combat global warming. 

In order to understand how the movement leverages the psychology of norms, affective factors like emotion and relevancy, we can track how this cognitive shift has happened to change minds on such a mass scale as to initiate global strikes. 

Understanding the the behavior of people towards climate change, from deniers to acceptance is important to see how we can nudge this behavior to enforce change. 

As the world continues to cope with the pandemic, climate change should fall on everyone's agenda moving forward. 

What will happen as soon as you get on board (whether you're a retailer, politician, journalist) is a snowball effect that will increase in intensity.

Hopefully, the human behavior that got us in this mess in the first place can now lead to more ice-caps, less heat, and effective green policies on an institutional level.