Research on a missing link in climate action (Post 1 of 3)

In 2009, Israel’s Water Authority ran an ad campaign warning about impending droughts due to climate change. The images were graphic: well-known celebrity faces turning to dust, cracking and blowing away. Netflix’s recent film IO envisions a dystopian future where environmental catastrophe makes earth nearly uninhabitable for human beings. But does scaring people into action on climate change really work?

The answer seems to be both “Yes” and “No”. Not every individual responds to dire warnings about the environment by joining Greenpeace. The use of “mortality awareness” in climate change communications has unexpected and unexplored results. Ironically, alluding to mortality in climate change warnings can actually push people in the opposite direction. Some research has indicated that climate change denial or skepticism is a psychological coping response to the fears generated by worrisome climate information.  Others decide to binge on earth’s precious resources when reminded that “you only live once”.

Currently, most research on responses to climate change is focused on systems, not on individuals. Yet environmental psychology has shown that some of the most powerful obstacles to climate action are the social-psychological factors that shape human thought, preferences and behaviors. Trust and fear are both powerful behavioural influences, but it is often fear that is most widely employed in the public domain of climate change, with mixed results.

It’s urgent to better understand these dynamics because climate-related mortality reminders will increase in both frequency and intensity. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association observed that the “cumulative and interacting psychosocial effects of climate change…are likely to be profound” (Swim et al., 2009). That trend has only intensified as millions of people – connected via social media – have direct experiences with more frequent extreme climatic events. Climate change will continue to dominate news headlines with ever-greater information about potentially life-threatening impacts. A clearer appraisal of the psychosocial (de)motivators of climate action is critical – and we may not yet be using the right tools for this analysis.

One overlooked tool in climate action research is Terror Management Theory (TMT). For 30 years, based on the conceptual work of researcher Ernst Becker, empirical TMT studies have shown that a greater awareness of mortality changes our attitudes and behaviors in fairly predictable ways. An increased awareness of death is disorienting – and we often deny or repress this awareness to restore cognitive equilibrium.

The same dynamic may be at work in our response to climate change. The science about climate change is conclusive. But even in highly adaptive communities, climate action lags behind the mounting scientific data. To accelerate climate action, researchers and practitioners need to better understand our deep social-psychological responses and how the awareness of mortality motivates or demotivates us.

The following two posts explore specific predictions about how mortality awareness influences behaviour. There may be some instances, for example, when humour about climate change may be more effective than cold, hard facts. In other cases, dire warnings inspire stronger levels of collective response. There are no easy answers, but this interdisciplinary field of research fills an important gap in understanding why climate action remains woefully behind the speed and scope of climate change.

Further Reading:

Brügger, A., Dessai, S., Devine-Wright, P., Morton, T. A., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2015). Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change. Nature Climate Change, 5, 1031–1037.

Fritsche, I., Barth, M., Jugert, P., Masson, T., & Resse, G. (2018). A social identity model of pro-environmental action (SIMPEA). Psychological Review, 125(2), 245–269.

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. A. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. New York, USA: Random House.

Swim, J., Clayton, S., Doherty, T., Gifford, R., Howard, G., Reser, J., Stern, P., & Weber, E. (2009). Psychology and global climate change: Addressing a multi-faceted phenomenon and set of challenges. Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Retrieved from:

Funding Acknowledgement: Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Grant/Award Number: #430-2012-0264