Psychological Barriers to Climate Change Action

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302.

Robert Gifford (2011) proposed that while some of the barriers to taking action about climate change are structural (e.g., buying solar panels is not affordable or riding a bike to work is impractical), many are psychological. He identified seven categories of “dragons of inaction”: (1) Limited cognition – the human brain has difficulty grasping threats that are slow, distant, or not an immediate threat to our well-being. In addition, many of us are ignorant of, numb to, or overly optimistic about the problem of climate change, and the uncertainty surrounding this issue allows us to justify inaction and minimize the perceived risk. (2) Ideologies – religious or political perspectives may clash with climate change action. (3) Comparisons with other people – we may feel that we are already doing more than others to address climate change or fear that we will be taken advantage of if we, but not others, take action. (4) Sunk costs – we may have a financial or emotional investment in items, industries, behaviors, or goals (e.g., car ownership) that perpetuate climate change. (5) Discredence – we may distrust or discredit individuals or policies associated with climate change information or sustainable behavior. (6) Perceived risk – we may view climate change action as functionally, physically, socially, psychologically, temporally, or financially risky. (7) Limited behavior – we may adopt token climate change action rather than make more significant behavioral changes or we may use climate change action to justify our less environmentally friendly behaviors (e.g., buying a fuel-efficient car, but then increasing driving distances). Gifford suggested that social scientists will play a key role in increasing climate change action in future years, as psychological barriers must be addressed in order for structural and policy changes to be successful.

Making Connections

Attitudes and behavior
Risk perception
Social comparison

Media Supplement

In this NPR Talk of the Nation podcast, Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication discusses the findings of a recent survey of Americans’ attitudes about climate change and climate change action.[17 min 22 sec]