Climate change, what stops people from acting?

Climate change features in our lives in some shape or form: A huge tropical storm linked to climate change, polar bears on melting arctic ice and floods or droughts on TV. We may make changes in our lives in response: a donation to a worthy environmental cause, turning off the water while brushing teeth or car pool. But why haven’t we as society taken wholesale steps to reduce the chance climate change will happen in our lifetime?


Climate change, to act or not to act (Image courtesy of Orangejuiceblog)

Apart from barriers to change being mainly political – the government is not doing enough to stop climate change and economic – it will just cost too much, there are barriers inside each and every one of us that prevents us from taking every possible step to reduce our own environmental impact on Earth, that collectively would reduce the extremities of climate change.


These barriers can be classed into psychological and social barriers where psychological barriers exist due to the desire of humans to have security, in particular order and predictability, while social norms and values (including culture, perceptions, customs, knowledge, and traditions) act as barriers by ensuring prevailing activities are deemed satisfactory, ensuring current practices continue into the future.


It is important to recognise these barriers so that we can break them down and collectively, as one society, ensure climate change does not result in human suffering.


Psychological barriers to climate change



Many people have little awareness, knowledge or understanding of the importance of sustainability and how their personal decisions impact the environment. This lack of information and knowledge directly impacts the likelihood of individuals taking pro-environmental actions as knowledge of the environment increases people’s willingness to take positive environmental action increases.


Lack of connection with nature

People’s values are frequently shaped by their self-image and so they act in ways that enhance their image. The more a person perceives their self-image to be connected with nature the more pro-environmental actions the person will take to preserve nature. However, as populations have become more urbanised the portion of time people spend in nature has decreased significantly, resulting in people having a lack of familiarity with nature.


Uncertainty/Scepticism towards climate change

Humans frequently fail to act on climate change and environmental issues because:

Humans are often unable to perceive slow incremental changes and therefore are less likely to modify their behaviour for a threat they cannot see; second, climate change and environmental problems are complex, however, humans often tend to simplify issues, which leads to the loss of deeper understandings of the consequences of human behaviour and underestimating of the extent of the problem; and third, people are uncertain about the existence of climate change and this uncertainty provides justification for inaction or postponed action.


Distrust in information sources

Studies have revealed that people fail to take action on climate change and environmental problems because they believe the media exaggerates, or sensationalises, climate change stories. As such, research has shown the more trusted the source the more likely individuals are to take positive environmental actions.


Fear framing and denial/lack of action/fatalism

There is an assumption in environmental public policy is that when people are provided with information they will naturally change their behaviour in an environmentally beneficial way, however, frequently people fail to do so. This is because environmental messages are frequently framed around the use of fear. While fear of climate change and environmental degradation can influence pro-environmental behaviour, there is, however, a limit to the amount of fear that can be invoked in messages that aim to modify behaviour. When too much fear is applied, rather than initiate pro-environmental actions, it can lead to inaction, feeling of hopelessness and even the denial of the threat’s existence, resulting in pro-environmental inaction.


Technology will solve all problems

Research has found the more over-confident people are in technology solving climate change and environmental degradation, the less pro-environmental actions they will take in reducing their own personal impact on the environment. This ignores the fact that humans and their economic, social and cultural values are the drivers of environmental degradation.


Climate change is a distant threat

It is common for people to view climate change and environmental degradation as a distant threat spatially and temporally: Spatially, climate change only impacts remote areas of the world, for example in the Arctic, while temporally climate change will only happen ‘in the future sometime’. Combined, individuals fail to connect their personal consumption choices and behaviour with climate change and environmental degradation, resulting in less motivation to improve their local environments.


Other issues are more important

Because most people fail to understand how climate change and environmental degradation can directly threaten property and life they place higher importance on other issues such as poor economic growth, personal issues, unemployment and even transportation.


Reluctance to change lifestyles

Research has found that people will take pro-environmental actions when it does not seriously decrease their lifestyle or quality of life. The reasoning is that people often view sustainable lifestyles and pro-environmental behaviour as less fun, progressive, advanced or developed and subsequently of lower quality in comparison to others who are not acting sustainably. Therefore, the greater the personal sacrifice the less pro-environmental actions individuals will take. In addition, when it comes to sustainable technologies, it is common for people to believe they are costly, expensive and therefore their uptake will decrease standards of living and quality of life.


Drop in the ocean feeling

When people are confronted by large-scale issues, such as climate change and environmental degradation, their motivations to act pro-environmentally (reduce their personal contribution to the problem) depends on their perceptions of whether action taken by themselves can make a difference or not. Specifically, the more people feel their behaviour will not make a difference the less likely they are to act pro-environmentally.


Social barriers to climate change


Lack of action by business and government

Research reveals that many people believe it is businesses and the government’s responsibility to address climate change. When people perceive businesses and governments as not doing enough it gives an indication to individuals that the problem is not as large or urgent as it is made out to be, or that solutions are unavailable and therefore it will be ‘business as usual’. In response, individuals will not feel morally obliged to change their behaviour to reduce their environmental impacts.


Worry about free-rider effect

People’s feelings of personal responsibility towards protecting the environment are frequently influence by the actions of others. In particular, people are less willing to translate their concern for the environment into pro-environmental behaviour if they perceive other individuals to be unconcerned or unwilling to take pro-environmental actions.


Different demographic groups

Institutions often fail to mainstream pro-environmental behaviours because of a lack of understanding of the various demographic groups that comprise society. In particular, programme managers often fail to determine what pro-environmental behaviours specific demographic groups already engage in and how additional pro-environmental behaviours can be promoted based on each group’s unique experiences, knowledge, interpretations and responses to climate change, which are dependent on each group’s worldviews, values, identities and beliefs.


For humans to ensure climate change does not threaten our very survival we need to identify every barrier as best as possible because once we know them we can act to overcome them.


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Author: Robert C. Brears

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  1. Good article but I would still argue that people – and businesses and the economy at large! – respond once framework conditions are right. And this is not new subsidies. The lack of a level playing field is what really hinders a more rapid progress in the adoption of renewables and of energy-efficient low-carbon systems and lifestyles.

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  2. Climate change, pollution, war and peace are all indicators of maturity. Bottom line. The more intelligent a pesrson is the better off the world becomes. If you want to train folks like pets, that’s do’able but not the same as having a person that goes to the store and choices a carton of milk vs a plastic jug or a paper detergent container vs a plastic one…..It’s pretty dynamic for us at the bottom level. For those at the top: Simple, stop using the containers that screw our environment….This would be all beverages, all detergent manufactures, all car manufacturers, etc…let’s get real, the waste we present is far heavier than the benefit we create.

    We will have 10 billion folks by 2100.

    What’s the plan leaders….We can solve most everything I know of.

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  3. Very interesting article, and i agree that the cause for environmetal degridation are society, multinational companies and goverment. But most of the problems happing to climate cahnges are due to the aggressive multinational investments not due to the lack of awearness in the society. So if thoese companies reduce their ways to investment like using renewable energy, minmizing chemical desposing and concentrated to sustanaible development instead to only economic development. And the seconed thing also the international and national NGO’s must work daily instead of focusing in only one week or day seminars, workshop and palnting trees or else slogen in world environmetal day.
    Socities are award of everything they need only good and well leadreship.

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    • Well-thought-out article, but presented solely through the prism of “it’s all our fault since 1770” so it is up to us to reverse the perceived damage – excessive carbon emissions and temperature rises consequent to this. This ignores the possibility that there may be an alternative, namely that warming is part of a planet-old cycle in which warming and icing ages alternate every 25,000 years or so, and we are now several thousand tears into the latest warming segment of this cycle. Mankind has little chance of halting let alone reversing this natural cycle, for which there is enough evidence over the last millenium. The best man can hope for is to take short-term mitigating actions such as halting deforestation and further improvements in energy efficience, while preparing for life in a warming climate with the enormous expenditures and leadership challenges this presents. It really is high time this alternative is considered properly, and either refuted or actioned. It is actually far more important than current arguments about Climate Change and man’s role in this.
      Ian Wylie

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  4. I agree with Roberts comments but there’s more than that. Many people are bogged down in their daily lives, just getting through from one day to the next takes all their time and thoughts. So they take the easiest solutions – climate change is not a conscious factor in their lives. The power of media in consumerism and what makes people happy (but doesn’t really). The paradigm that the economy has to grow! Play in the environment being replaced by play on the computer etc. Our government (NZ) has no interest in doing anything substantial about climate change because it is controlled of a small very wealthy influential minority. And money talks. Successive governments have had their climate change intentions blocked by business. And we are supposed to be a progressive green country!!!

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