Contribution | I’m Too Sexy To Be An Activist: The Psychology of Climate Change

Maxime is an entrepreneur educated in Oceanography and Climate Modelling from The University of Southampton (BSc.), and in Environmental Technology and Business & Environment from Imperial College London (MSc.).

Climate change remains today a widely debated topic. We argue with those who deny it and we teach those who ignore it. But are we making any real progress when the vast majority who knows, does not act?

It comes as an evidence that the science alone is not reason enough to act, nor are its consequences.

In this article, we attempt to address the behavioural gap between knowledge and action in educated, conscious citizens. In a later post, we shall go deeper and discuss the information gap and the challenges in communicating the urgency of the situation.

Traditionally, we have assumed a straight-forward, linear model which states that if we educate people about environmental issues, they will start being more concerned for the environment, and in turn will lead to developing pro-environmental behaviours (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002).

Yet, despite the numerous awareness campaigns, the past decades have seen a steady increase in household resource consumption across the world (World Bank 2016). Unfortunately, most environmental NGOs continue to base their communication campaigns on this simplistic assumption that filling the information gap will prompt individuals to adopt sustainable lifestyles.

Climate change reveals itself to be unlike any other problem, in the sense that everyone is both a player and a victim. Acknowledging that “we” should do something means accepting that “I” should do something. And with this, are raised barriers of an inner struggle with one’s values, capacity, and standards of living, as well as with social, institutional, cultural, and religious dynamics constraining one’s outlook.

Are we really too “sexy” to care?

Me, Myself, and I

I don’t think so. Our first mistake is in drawing the conclusion that people are naturally selfish and irrational beings who express no concerns over the unsustainable habits that will undeniably lead to our extinction.

I believe that we are out-of-focus and lack the understanding of the underlying psychology of what makes people care and how they deal with environmental messages conflicting with their personal values.

When faced with the reality of climate change and the requirements of adaptation, an internal conflict arises, and the obvious lack of inner consistency that follows leads to a mental state of dissonance. For the sake of sanity, individuals experiencing dissonance will seek to resolve it, deny it, or displace it.

When people are unsure of how to proceed with a new conflicting information, they become easily overwhelmed and do one of two things. They will dismiss that information regardless of genuine concern, or they will erect a series of psychological barriers to justify their inaction (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001).

Yet, it would be a mistake to describe such people as not caring. Their motivations simply lie elsewhere.

These mechanisms of denial primarily work to preserve one’s luxury, self-interest, and public image (De Young, 2000).

The most powerful barrier was the perceived unwillingness to abandon personal comfort in the name of climate change. From the viewpoint of changing their lifestyles of material abundance and high-energy dependence, people regard the consequences of behavioural adaptation as more daunting.

There exists a notion that the lifestyle we would need to adopt to ensure sustainability would be austere. An environmentally-friendly lifestyle is often portrayed as the behavioural equivalent of freezing in the dark. We are told to expect nothing but hardship and sacrifice in a sustainable society.

The second type of denial mechanism serves to preserve one’s self-interest. Most people will indeed consider any costs to the self as greater than the benefits to others. Moreover, there seems to be a stronger motivation for immediate interests than long-term interests.

The final main type of denial mechanism serves to preserve one’s self-image. Everyone sees themselves as a good person, and therefore people will create a dialogue to downplay their involvement. They might condemn the accuser on their personal actions, deny their responsibility and reject the blame onto others, governments, and even countries.

Doing the right thing…. But only if others do so

Results from psychology studies suggest that, when encountering a new situation, we immediately categorise it as similar to situations we already know, and select scripts that tell us how to interpret it and how to act (Shank and Abelson, 1977).

In this decision-making process, social norms play an essential role. Experts argue that two different assumptions influence our choice to follow a norm: what we expect others to do and what we believe others think we ought to do (Bicchieri, 2006).

For example, when most of your neighbours recycle, you form the assumption that people do recycle. At the same time, you expect that people think you should also recycle. Thus, it is more likely that you will recycle.

Although, these social constraints can lead people to act positively out of mere social pressure, the current tendency points in the opposite direction, and results in inaction amongst many.

An example of this could be the inability to follow a vegetarian diet because of pressures or mockery from social, cultural, or even religious circles.

How is this environment thing benefiting me?

Instead of seeing people as irrational and selfish, we now see them as rational and self-interested. The distinction here is critical in understanding what motivates people.

Selfishness presumes an egocentric, gain-maximising mindset, having evolved to consume resources with little concern for efficiency, to pass waste and costs on to others, and to exclude all external interests. Self-interest on the other hand, implies that an individual prioritises self-development, growth, and wellbeing for oneself.

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that our primary motivator is meeting our own self-interest above that of others and nature (Lehmann, 1999). However, this could be the solution to engaging people in acting sustainably.

It is interesting to note that strategies appealing to one’s self-interest, as well as economic incentives and social trends, can motivate people to act pro-environmentally without doing it out of environmental concern. It is equally interesting to note that only a small fraction of pro-environmental behaviour can be directly linked to environmental awareness. Indeed, experts find a strong lack of knowledge among environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike (Hobson, 2003).

To conclude, people are not too “sexy” to care, but we need to appeal to their realistic interests. We must realise that we cannot blame or worry people into action. A new strategy must be followed in line with realistic social dynamics, and people’s motivations.


Stay tuned for a later article on sustainability in a capitalist system of consumption!

Written by: Maxime Jullian

Originally published on 

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