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Psychological barriers to climate change action


Most of us might have watched certain superhero movies, where the clock is ticking and the planet might get destroyed by midnight and the superhero is racing with time to save the planet. Well, the climate crisis is no movie, it is reality, the clock is ticking, the climate is changing and we are the heroes, or at least we can be. We have very little time to save our planet.

About 97.1% climate scientists believe that humans are the reasons behind the rapid climate change, yet there exist certain humans who deny the very concept of “CLIMATE CHANGE”. But the truth is, we all know the climate is changing, but some of us don’t want to see it because seeing it and face it is kind of unbearable to us. Some of us choose to turn a blind eye towards it. This thought process is a huge barrier to climate change action.

Some important questions that must be raised include why people choose to ignore this serious problem, how human psychology is related to climate change, and lastly, why nobody is talking about it.

Human psychology has always been befuddling . It is funny how people today would rather invest in fleeing the planet in case of a natural disaster rather than investing time to work on it.

Social dilemma

“Social dilemma” is the answer to all these questions.

It can broadly be defined, as a conflict between immediate self-interest and long-term collective interest. This is challenging situations as acting in one’s immediate self-interest is tempting to every individual, even though everybody benefits from acting in the long-term collective interest. Many people are usually focused on the short-term self-interest.

Climate change is a social dilemma. One can either think about the entire globe and act in a way to better the climate or; can act in his self interest. For example, one could either drive or walk to the nearby store. The pros of driving are that it doesn’t need physical energy as much, it saves time and is all in all very convenient. And the cons are that it negatively impacts the environment. In fact, transportation is the leading contributor of greenhouse gases. Cars, trucks, buses, and other fuel-powered vehicles are responsible for 28.5% of all Greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other hand, the pros of walking are that it improves our health, it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly. The cons have been just that it is time consuming.

Weighing the pros and cons of both the options one might think the latter is better, yet most people would choose the first option. The only reason being that the benefits are immediate and individual.

The complexity of this particular social dilemma is its abstractness, time extendedness, and inter-group nature. This tends to discourage actions that help reduce climate change.

Abstractness and uncertainty of the environment raise questions about the very existence of climate change. There are Some people who do not believe in climate change which makes the dilemma for them go away. They don’t believe in the very concept of climate change so they obviously behave in their own immediate interest. If such beliefs exist at an institutional level it could be a disaster.

For example, Donald trump is climate change skeptic, and his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement is a huge set back. Since The United States is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is by far the largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter in history. With the United States outside the Paris Agreement , the pact will now cover only about 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, down from 97% previously. Also the termination of the $3 billion U.S funding will ultimately impact climate change research and decrease society's chance of reaching the Paris Agreement goals.

Time extendedness is complex because people tend to favor interests that operate in the “here and now” over the future interests. Trump Administration is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry, and while pulling out of the Paris Agreement might save a few tax payers money, Donald Trump is missing the bigger picture. He is choosing “here and now” over future interests.

The inter group nature often discourages actions. For example, the Paris Agreement is merely an agreement among nations to help and protect the nature. Trump backing out of the agreement could encourage other nations to leave as well. If the second largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter doesn’t feel the need to control climate change , why would smaller developing nations keep up.

The solution

How can human perspective be reshaped in such a manner as to make them act for the benefit of nature?

The major problem is the time extendedness. We need people to favor future interests over immediate interests. People usually tend to respond to personal and immediate rather than unknown and uncertain. One way of doing this is by proving that the children are the most vulnerable. People usually connect and try to help when it comes to children’s vulnerability. We need to make them realize that their children might or might not have a future based on their today's action. We need them to realize that 5 minutes of extra time and effort could mean their children having a future. Also speaking to children and targeting the younger audience would help. Targeting the younger audience and educating them on this issue will reduce their future dilemma.

Climate change is a global issue. It requires the cooperation of nations, it requires a global effort. National level cooperation can be complex, as there are psychological factors like rivalry, distrust involved. What we must do is put nature first.

The first step to national level cooperation can start locally. Spreading awareness among locals by providing them with solid facts. Facts about the local climate change. How the temperature has been hotter lately, or how there has been flooding. Giving them local facts instead of international facts and news would create a great impact as they would connect to the facts. Once the citizens are aware they can pressurize the government to make climate friendly laws and provisions. When political parties realize climate is our number one priority then theses parties will try to outrank each other by making policies that protect our environment. In short, we can use the competitive mindset of representatives to benefit the collective in the future.


Climate change when presented as abstract, uncertain, and time consuming, demotivates individual effort. Policy makers must instead link climate change to how current actions will affect communities and how the current global changes are affecting them here and now. Adding the personal touch instead of mere numbers and data might prove to be effective.

2020 might have been the worst year in terms of climate change. But, waking up to the news of natural disasters has made people experience climate change. This experience has spread a lot of awareness and realisation among individuals. This year social media flooded with awareness of climate change. Let’s make climate change action a trend. The solution to climate change is simple. All that is required is individual effort to be carried out collectively.

Social dilemmas can be challenging, facing challenges is the biggest challenge.


Karthyayani Amblimath

About Author:

BLS.LLB [First Year] DY Patil College Of Law.

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