Climate Inaction: It's All In Our Heads

The American Psychological Association examined the reasons we are reluctant to act on climate change.

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The biggest deterrent to going green is, for most people, a simple matter of habit: We're used to doing things a certain way, and it's hard to break the pattern. That fact is among the findings of an American Psychological Association study of the reasons Americans are resistant to changing their behavior to become more environmentally-friendly, despite recognizing that climate change is a serious issue. The APA's study examined the psychological impacts and barriers of climate change, and found that several factors were to blame. Among them:

  • Uncertainty – Research has shown that uncertainty over climate change reduces the frequency of "green" behavior.
  • Mistrust – Evidence shows that most people don't believe the risk messages of scientists or government officials.
  • Denial – A substantial minority of people believe climate change is not occurring or that human activity has little or nothing to do with it, according to various polls.
  • Undervaluing Risks – A study of more than 3,000 people in 18 countries showed that many people believe environmental conditions will worsen in 25 years. While this may be true, this thinking could lead people to believe that changes can be made later.
  • Lack of Control – People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.
  • Habit – Ingrained behaviors are extremely resistant to permanent change while others change slowly. Habit is the most important obstacle to pro-environment behavior, according to the report.
  • In other words, even though 75 percent to 80 percent of respondents in a Pew poll said that climate change is an important issue, indecision and shortsightedness are among the reasons that respondents ranked it last in a list of 20 important issues. But habit is deceptive—it seems to be the easiest to change, but may be the hardest. That's why there are campaigns designed to help people remember their reusable bottles in lieu of buying bottled water, as well as the entrepreneurs behind Bagnesia, a system of reminders to bring reusable bags to the store.

    One classic way to break a bad habit is to provide an incentive. Saving money is one major motivation, and the design of various smart meters, which tell people how much they're spending on utilities as they go, has been successful in encouraging people to turn down the thermostat. Competition is also a powerful incentive, and other utility companies have pitted neighbors against one another in energy efficiency, with positive results. How would you break a bad environmental habit?