Climate Change: Why we just don’t give a….


Climate change does not tip the human moral balance according to novel research compiled by psychologists at University of Oregon. Evidence from behavioural analysts and those studying the human condition suggest that we as human beings do not feel motivated to engage in urgent action to solve the issue of climate change, although climate scientists have had a long standing consensus for action.

Why is it that only a small population of US citizens support an increased duty on electricity and gas, whilst a majority support limits on greenhouse gas emissions imposed on big business. Is it purely to do with perceived scale of responsibility? The disconnect between the public and the scientific community and ever further, climate change communicators is now impinging on our psychological processing of the climate change issue as a whole.

Psychologists have now suggested that climate change actually challenges our perceptual, cognitive and information processing systems leading to emotionally charged reactions that are either defensive or counterproductive or both. So understanding the challenge in manipulating the moral intuition within individuals is particularly important to communicators and those that wish to initiate change.

Six psychological challenges

So why doesn’t climate change register as a moral imperative? Well Markowitz and Shariff have published their review in Nature Climate Change, attempting to untangle the mess that is our moral judgement.

1. Abstractness and cognitive complexity

To mount a response that uses our moral judgement, we have to first understand the issue. Climate change  is inherently complex, abstract and cognitively challenging. First of all, there are the temporal and spatial considerations. So the issue may not affect us now but it certainly will in x number of years; and it won’t happen on my door step, rather it will affect those living on deltas. Furthermore the issue can at times seem counterintuitive which further exacerbates the complexity of the situation. So for example climate change may lead to the increased rainfall in some areas coupled with significant and sustained droughts in other areas, the idea which at first glance seems incongruent. As a result, the in depth cognitive processing required to negotiate our way through these problems leads to poor activation of moral reasoning.

2. The blamelessness of unintentional action.

The thing about climate change is that no-one actually wants it to happen, no-one is intentionally trying to make the situation worse. This further inhibits our moral intuition because there is no single identity or person to blame. It has been shown that in child behavioural psychology that our moral reasoning weighs unintentional harm as being less severe as intentional harm. Intuitively, it has also been shown that intentional harm highly motivates a corrective response. As climate change is the unintentional by-product of our modern day lives it actually reduces the motivation to correct the issue and in extreme cases some us remove the human influence in the issue altogether…(not naming any names)

3. Guilty bias.

A lot of communication trying to convince people to act upon climate change and correct behavioural programs is about invoking a sense of guilt, but this can also induce fear as an emotional response. To mitigate the feeling of guilt we assume a cognitive bias to minimise our own complicity in the issue. So by putting ourselves in the stance of “it’s not my fault, it’s someone else’s fault” we mitigate our guilt, reduce complicity and avoid engaging our moral judgement to promote an action. This is highly detrimental as in the case of climate change, those that are contributing the greatest share of the harmful effects don’t act and rather point the finger elsewhere.

4. Uncertainty breeds wishful thoughts. 

Scientists studying climate change have had a very challenging task. That have had to try and communicate the implications of our actions, essentially extrapolations are the salient points in the climate change debate. Yes some of these things can be proven, but even so there are hotly contested uncertainties in the climate change debate and sadly the more space there is for uncertainty the more wishful thinking we have. The example provided by the scientists are is the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that led to interpretations that the outcomes described were much less likely than the authors had intended. Uncertainty breeds default optimism and this itself leads to a reduced motivation to act.

5. Moral tribalism. 

The mixed attitudes we have towards climate change is partly due to isolated moral spheres which often fall along political divisions. Liberals focus on welfare, harm and fairness. Whilst conservatives focus on maintaining group loyalty, authority and purity. The moral framework of climate change has had a liberal bias- i.e think about the harm to future generations and the unfairness of economics that may arise out of the situation, poor people suffering more whilst the rich get away scott free. The consequence is that conservatives are not morally engaged in the debate. Furthermore, politicising the situation actually increases the probability of polarising the issue as it has been shown that our group identity has a significant impact on the way we behave on political issues. So conservatives that promote discourse that is synonymous with their in-group beliefs are less likely to accept conflicting evidence and more likely to accept evidence sympathetic with their own view without contention.

6. Long time horizons and far away places. 

The idea of in-group and out-group is important here. Climate change won’t affect us now, it’ll affect us in the future, but worse it won’t ever affect us sitting in a developed country, rather it will affect those living far away, people from our out-group. This is incredibly self-destructive thinking, and yet social psychology research shows us that our treatment of out-groups are distinctly worse than our treatment of in-groups.

Strategies to overcome these psychological challenges (climate change communicators take notes!)

I particularly enjoyed reading this review, because not only have Markowitz and Shariff so elegantly broken down why our moral stasis on the issue exists, but they have also gone one step further to suggest novel approaches in communication to solve the issue.

1. Use existing moral values. 

Talking about the harms and injustices caused by climate change doesn’t do enough to activate our moral intuitions so other moral foundations should be identified and used. Furthermore, over politicising the makes us fall into the trap of moral tribalism. Preliminary research has shown that if environmental degradation is discussed in terms human beings destroying the purity of the natural world, you get higher levels of moral engagement from those of liberal and conservative backgrounds.

2. Burdens vs. Benefits

Markowitz and Shariff characterise these two words very carefully. A benefit is a more stable climate system, or services such as natural resources and surpluses. Whilst a burden is referred to as a negative endowment implying heritability of the issue, such as debts and health concerns like epidemics. New research has shown that people are more concerned with growing burdens than decreasing benefits i.e the reduction in available food and clean water (a benefit) is not as concerning as a greater spread of infectious diseases (a burden), which promotes a more significant concern. So rather it is suggested that the communication be focused on discussing the burdens for the next generation to invoke change.

3. Emotional carrots, not sticks. 

This is important in challenging the guilt bias issue mentioned previously. Essentially by communicating positive moral intensive emotions, such as hope, pride and gratitude you are more likely to drive prosocial behaviour and it has been shown scientifically to encourage further prosocial activities in a positive feedback loop. Communication campaigns that induce guilt, shame and anxiety are not really more successful, because it induces a defensive response followed by guilt bias, so focusing communication in a rewarding way is far more sustainable. The psychologists even suggest that communicators should increase feelings of pride, by stating that a generation can rise to the challenge of addressing climate change and reducing the associated burdens. Furthermore, scientists have shown that increasing pride improves task performance in humans, but also elevates perseverance.

4. Be wary of extrinsic motivators. 

Extrinsic motivators are defined in the paper as something like “green jobs”, you highlight the economic benefit you automatically motivate corporations and individuals alike to act responsibility towards the environment. However, such extrinsic incentives have been shown to work antagonistically with the desired outcome. Repeated reinforcement of the extrinsic motivator leads to a reduced self-mediated approach to continue the positive behaviour, i.e. once you remove the motivator the whole process comes to a halt. Although the researchers have stated that these motivators are good in the short-term, we should consider the long-term sustainability of such an approach.

5. Highlight positive norms. 

This one is quite interesting. An experiment where home owners were sent an invoice saying that their electricity use was lower than the average household led to an increase in electricity usage in the subsequent month. But homeowners that simply received a smily face on the invoice- a sign of approval, kept their usage in the subsequent month at the same level encouraging maintenance of the existing behaviour. So taking this example communicators should look for pro-environmental social norms which have a consensus across all societies, one such example provided by the researchers was to “avoid wastage” something that is a golden rule for most societies in the world.

Looking forward

The review by Markowitz and Shariff brings in my opinion a novel spin on the climate change debate. Now it’s not just about providing the evidence for climate change, but it is about learning how to communicate the issue in such a way that we will act upon it. I really hope we do, even if it takes a full analysis of the human psyche!

As always full reference below, I really recommend reading the original paper, it’s not too tough to digest!


Markowitz, E.M. & Shariff, A.F., 2012. Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change, 2(4), pp.243–247.


Published by Sunniyat Rahman

Hello! I'm a Postdoctoral Scientist at UCL Cancer Institute. I investigate the role of the non-coding genome, sometimes referred to as "The Dark Matter" of Biology, or mistakenly called "Junk-DNA". Interestingly these regions have been shown to acquire mutations in cancer which affect the role of nearby genes. [All views are my own]

2 thoughts on “Climate Change: Why we just don’t give a….

  1. This is an excellent summary which has helped me decide that I will not be reading Markowitz and Shariff again with respect to climate change mitigation. As authors, their principal crime here is that they are boring, despite the best efforts of the reviewer. So boring in fact, that it is difficult to muster up the effort to critique it. I find what they say to be either plainly obvious or to have been said before a million times (which brings into question why Nature CC is publishing un-original articles). Moreover, they seem woefully ignorant of political influences on climate change. My advice to Markowitz and Shariff would be to improve their communications strategy with other research disciplines, for if there is one certainty about using research to mitigate climate change, it is that we face a truly interdisciplinary research challenge.

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