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InPsych 2010 | Vol 32

December | Issue 6

Psychology in current issues

Understanding the psychological barriers to climate change action

Slowly but surely word is getting around that psychology does indeed have a lot to offer in dealing with climate change. Having over 50 environmental psychologists gathered in Melbourne at ICAP 2010 certainly helped.

The recently released American Psychological Association (APA) report on psychology and global climate change has also helped, as have the APS’ own position statements (www.psychology.org.au/ community/topics/climate/), website information, tip sheets and resources.

Increasingly, journalists are writing about this topic, workplaces are sending their green teams to behaviour change conferences, and more and more, people are realising that we must understand the human factors that are keys to addressing the unfolding environmental crisis.

The ways psychology can contribute are manifold, with research helping us to understand how the public perceives climate change risk, how concerned they are (or not), and how motivated they/we are to take action (or not).

Psychology provides expertise in principles and practices of behaviour change, in measuring and modifying aspects of the external and social environment to achieve sustainable change, and in the design and evaluation of sustainability projects.

Psychology can help policy makers understand how to effectively communicate climate policies, then turn them into actions that work, or provide models of fair sharing of limited resources and methods for resolving conflict in sustainable ways. (See APS position statement on psychology and climate change for a summary.)

All these contributions are critically important, and help correct the misperception that psychology is all about individuals. We might prefer to remind people that changes in individual or household behaviours are only a small part of the picture.

But there’s no denying that, for many people, the things we are most interested in relate to ourselves, our neighbours and the people in our immediate world – household behaviours, the things we can do, should do, don’t do, and the reasons why.

And perhaps this individual level is a useful hook to help people understand the relationship between psychology and environmental issues. Maybe, too, if we start with understanding ourselves and start changing our climate-unfriendly behaviour, we can move outwards from there. Think and act globally and locally.

So, it was no wonder Professor Robert Gifford’s presentation at ICAP 2010 on the ‘Seven Dragons of Inaction – Why we do less than we should’, was delivered to a packed audience. Bob is Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

As an environmental psychologist who has spent over 30 years researching and writing about human behaviour in this context, he has developed an ever-growing list of the reasons people don’t always behave in proenvironmental ways, and has categorised them loosely into seven ‘dragons of inaction’. He’s currently up to his 29th sub-genus of dragons, and is finding new beasts all the time.

Limited cognitions

First on the list are what Bob calls limited cognitions – the limitations that result from how we think about things.

There’s ignorance (not knowing enough about environmental problems, or which solutions to take), uncertainty resulting in postponed action (‘is climate change really a serious and urgent problem, or is there something in what the sceptics are saying?’), optimism bias (tendency to think that environmental problems couldn’t really be that bad, or that surely someone will come up with a silver bullet solution just in time), and temporal and spatial discounting, when people presume environmental problems are going to be worse in the future and in other parts of the planet, and so are less likely to be motivated to take action now.

Knowing people have a tendency to discount things that happen far away and in the future, we can help them attend to the threats that climate change poses in their immediate environment.

Other people

The next barrier is other people. Whilst we might think the media has a huge impact on our behaviour, it’s actually other people who have the greatest impact. People routinely look to others’ behaviour in choosing their own actions.

We have a tendency to compare ourselves, and to alter our behaviour to fit the norm, so if the Joneses are buying up big, we want to too. Of course, what’s great about becoming familiar with these psychological barriers to changing our behaviour is that they hold clues for motivating people towards pro-environmental behaviour too.

So, other people can also inspire us to adopt more climate-friendly behaviour when we observe them taking action. The more we see being green as ‘normal’, the more we want to be green, too.

Colleagues who cycle to work and meet by videoconference, friends who grow their own food and take bike holidays, neighbours who have solar panels or water tanks, family members who purchase ethical investments, children who walk or ride to school, community leaders who use public transport – all encourage us to see pro-environmental behaviour as normal and desirable.

Perceived risks

The third dragon Robert described in his ICAP presentation was perceived risks. People are usually risk-averse, and a person may feel threatened by many different types of risks.

So for example, if you are considering purchasing an electric car, you would weigh up financial costs, physical risks (will it be safe?), social costs (what will people think of me?), time (will I be taking a lot longer to get places?), functional risks (will it fit the whole family as well as our luggage?), and even psychological costs (am I going to feel silly driving it?).

If we know people are usually risk-averse, we reassure them about adopting a new sustainable product or climatefriendly behaviour by emphasising how the risks they deem important can be minimised.

Sunk costs

The next type of psychological barrier is sunk costs. These are the prior investments we have made, that we often find difficult to give up. They could be well established habits, like long hot showers, that are hard to forgo.

They could be significant financial investments, like a luxury car that’s sitting in the garage and because it’s there it seems a shame not to use it. But perhaps the most compelling sunk cost, and the one that trips us up most, is that of conflicting goals and aspirations – the important things in our life that we’ve invested so much meaning in.

“Everyone has multiple goals and values, and goals that involve more production of greenhouse gases can trump goals that support using less” (APA, 2009, p.68). For example, we may choose to fly to an international conference to network in person with colleagues, even though some of this work could be done with internet conferencing.


Next, Bob described barriers to change that arise from having a particular ideology or way of thinking about the world, which can limit our preparedness to adopt pro-environmental behaviours. We may defend our specific worldview or way of living because it’s comfortable and we resist change.

Our beliefs in particular ideologies like ‘techno-salvation’, or suprahuman powers like ‘mother nature’ or God, may convince us that we are protected from ultimate climate disaster, thus minimising the need to change our own behaviour. They won’t protect us, but people cling to these beliefs nonetheless.


Discredence was the next sub-set of dragons, which Bob explained as meaning a general sense of unbelieving. Here he included things like denial, mistrust (of science, of politicians, of the adequacy of a new climate-friendly project etc), and reactance (‘you can’t make me do it’).

Limited behaviour

Finally, Bob described barriers that come from limited behaviour – the idea that we limit the effectiveness of our behaviour in a variety of curious ways. We might choose less effective proenvironmental actions because they are easier or cheaper to change, or more noticeable, but the gains we make in reducing carbon emissions might be negligible.

These efforts then become tokenistic, and create further problems if we think we’ve done our bit for the environment, and are now off the hook for any further action. Another example of limited behaviour is the rebound effect, where it is commonly found that after making some savings in emissions in one area, we often erase the gains by using the savings to treat ourselves on an even higher carbonemitting product or activity.

Bob illustrated the rebound effect, or Jeven’s Paradox, as the “Hey honey, let’s take the Prius and drive to Darwin” effect. Bob’s talk concluded with a section on slaying dragons. At risk of over-stating the contribution psychology can make, he called this ‘Psychology to the rescue!’

Here, he spoke on the importance of first understanding our behaviour. What exactly do people do? What behaviours are most impactful, what are the antecedents? Next, we need to develop and evaluate interventions. We need to make change attractive, so that people want to go there. We need to make climate change now (because it is).

Bob shared a story of how one local community was trying to help people understand how climate change was relevant to their own lives in their own environment. Here, people were encouraged to become amateur scientists in their local area.

By having them notice and record plant, insect and bird activity in their neighbourhood, people could see the changing trends in their immediate environment that were likely caused by climate change.

Finally, and most importantly, Bob reminded us to join the policy development process, and get involved. ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re not a part of the solutions’.

The seven dragons of inaction

Professor Robert Gifford, July 2010

  • Limited cognitions – e.g., ignorance, uncertainty,
    optimism bias, discounting, numbness, lack of perceived
    control over outcomes
  • Other people – e.g., social comparison, social norms,
    perceived inequity
  • Perceived risks – e.g., time, money, functional, social,
    physical, psychological
  • Discredence – a general sense of disbelieving, e.g.,
    mistrust, perceived program inadequacy, denial
  • Ideologies – e.g., political worldviews, system justification,
    belief in techno-salvation or superhuman powers
  • Sunk costs – e.g., habit, previous investments, conflicting
    goals and aspirations
  • Limited behaviour – e.g., rebound effect tokenism

Many of these ideas are elaborated on in the APA taskforce report ‘Psychology and global climate change’, of which Bob Gifford was a co-author: Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges - APA.

An ABC program profiling Bob Gifford, and APS member Professor Joe Reser, can be downloaded from: Climate change and behavioural change: what will it take?


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2010. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.