The Psychology of Climate Change

Updated: Apr 9

Professor Adam Aron talks about why we’re not all doing something about it right now


Psychologist and neuroscientist Adam Aron teaches a class, offered both Winter and Spring this year, on the psychology of the climate crisis. It includes material on the psychological determinants of real-world activism. I talked with him about what motivates some people to get involved with collective action, while others don’t or won’t.

“We are really facing a disruption to organized human existence within a matter of decades. It's imminent, right, and it puzzles me that people are so willing to just keep doubling down on the standard thing they're doing without really getting engaged with this.”

As we chatted, Professor Aron shared his thoughts on the psychological barriers to climate activism. He broke it down into five basic issues. The first: obfuscation — aka “greenwashing.”

“What we really need is ‘zero carbon’ or ‘fossil free.’ We need real emissions reduction, right? We need to get off the fossil fuels. But the language is usually not ‘zero carbon’ or ‘fossil free.’ The language is ‘net zero’ or ‘carbon neutral.’ So one of the barriers is the language. To some extent I think it's propagandist and it's deliberate. It's a kind of greenwashing in order to deflect and obfuscate.”

“Apple and Google are going ‘carbon neutral’ — woohoo — and you look under the hood and they claim to have bought a bunch of offsets somewhere. So it requires people being educated enough in the issues to understand, what are offsets? And what are the problems? The whole concept of offsets is fundamentally bogus. And few people understand that, I didn't understand that myself until a year and a half ago.”

The second issue Aron talked about: people staying in their own lanes. “They’re not used to asking questions about the social value of what we do; they’re not used to being activists. There’s a discomfort with really challenging their own institutions. One can even say that, people in professions have been selected to not ask questions about the wider social value of their work, or their responsibilities.

“That issue connects with the theory of change or the faith in institutions. You'll hear this straight up — when we generated the UC energy petition — which asked the UC to make plans to stop burning fracked methane and go electric — we got a lot of responses from various profs around the UC that we were trying to encourage to be part of it, asking if they would contact students about it. ‘No,’ we heard, ‘that's a complete waste of time, what you're doing. It's all about China — it doesn't matter what the UC does. It doesn't even matter what the U.S. does. China is emitting so much CO2.’ So this is kind of a denial of responsibility, and I think that connects with the theory of change. People don't realize that we need to do this here, we need to be part of this ourselves. Related to that, people have excessive confidence in the political system through voting. Oh, the Dems will take care of this. I’ll vote for them. Yeah sure, the Biden administration is making some good noises, much better ones to be sure. But without a very big grassroots push their actions will never be radical enough to actually reduce emissions. If you have too much faith in institutions you won’t realize that, you’ll go back to sleep.”

He also explained that the promotion of techno-fantasies — like injecting carbon dioxide into the ground or inventing machines to suck it out the air — is another major barrier to activism. “Of course technology development is going to help us on the climate crisis, but not without profound social change. If people place their confidence in technology alone, they will go to sleep for a few decades. I think a related issue is that the official prognostications by the IPCC and so-on, that we’re going to keep heating to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, also keeps people asleep. I’m influenced by what Earth Scientist Wolfgang Knorr and colleagues are saying, it would be better for scientists to publicly admit defeat with regard to the 1.5 C goal. If they would say, we think this is impossible, it would really get attention. Then the world could focus on urgent action to prevent things getting much worse.”

Specific to academia is another barrier: the fact that many professors, researchers, postdocs, and grad students receive funding from fossil fuel companies makes people nervous to speak up. Aron continues, saying, “ if they don’t receive funding from fossil fuel companies, they receive it directly or indirectly from the defense department — so any consideration of asking hard questions about the complicity of our institutions is hard for them”.

So what sociological and psychological dispositions motivate people to get involved with collective action? Professor Aron enumerated a few factors.

“There’s some magic pixie dust that's a bit mysterious, but the list includes biospheric values. That refers to a love of nature, probably acquired from early life experiences. That's a very strong determinant. Research has also pointed to the personality trait of Openness ...” Openness is one of the big five components of personality. It refers to being willing to try new things.

“Some people come in with the biospheric values, they appreciate the devastation that is being wrought on plant and animal life, and how that will escalate. They want to bat for Nature. Others come in with a social justice frame. They're more concerned about human impacts. They appreciate the enormous injustice that the most vulnerable, poor people here, those in the Global South, who did the least to make the emissions are going to suffer the most. Injustice makes people angry, and that gets you out.”

Another factor is threat perception. “That's partly, I think, why there's a lot more women in the climate movement. A lot more women in my class, by the way. There’s data that women have a much lower threshold for threat perception across the board, but it seems to me it’s especially strong on climate change. There's a kind of visceral sense of threat and stress about it. That can deaden people, so they want to look away, but it can also be a big part of motivation, particularly when it combines with high biospheric values or high social justice concerns.

“An important factor is a sense of collective efficacy or self-efficacy; that you have confidence that you can accomplish something if you set about to do it. It's not really that you know you have skills, it's that you know that you can deploy your skills to make change. A lot of people don't feel that they have any efficacy, they feel kind of helpless and hopeless. But people in the grassroots movement don't feel that. They feel like ‘yes I can do it and I will do it and we can do it.’”

For his part, Aron involves himself in the Green New Deal at UC San Diego and advocacy for getting UC to go fossil-free on energy and to go fossil-free on finance. He wants the UC to get off the gas, and to stop using the worst banks and insurers from a fossil fuel financing perspective. He hopes his class will be part of a larger effort to educate undergraduates on all the aspects of climate change to get them thinking and acting together on the issues. “We need to prepare students on this,” Aron emphasized. “It's much more than the physical science of climate change. It's basically thinking about the entire social edifice around us, and capitalism, and how our world is constituted. We are running a system that's driving us to catastrophe.”