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date: 21 March 2018

Psychological, Social, and Cultural Barriers to Communicating about Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Given the severity of the threat posed by climate change, why is large-scale societal action to decarbonize our energy systems not more widespread? The present article examines four categories of psychological barriers to accurate risk perceptions and engagement with this topic by the public. First, psychological barriers such as (a) not personally experiencing the threat, (b) not hearing people talk about climate change, (c) being limited by cultural narratives, and (d) not understanding how climate change works can lead to misperception of the threat posed by climate change. Second, individuals may lack knowledge or perceived ability about how to address the threat. Third, social barriers such as social norms not to act and socio-structural barriers can discourage climate change engagement. Finally, worldviews such as neoliberal ideology and conspiratorial worldviews can conflict with climate change engagement.

Keywords: climate change, risk perceptions, public engagement, ideologies, science communication, efficacy

Threat Misperceptions

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘‘What is the elephant like?’’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘‘It is like a pillar.’’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.

— Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Individual perceptions of threats are guided by cognitive and emotional systems adapted to quickly and easily determine the severity of risks (Slovic, 1987; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2007). The human mind is adept at using pattern recognition to identify the perceived similarity of potential threats to known dangers, then using heuristic shortcuts to guide an appropriate response. Emotions also play an important role in risk detection: negative emotions (e.g., worry, fear) increase the perceived danger of potential threats, and positive emotions (e.g., pleasure) decrease perceived danger. These risk-detection systems are useful in deterring us from potentially harmful activities or situations (e.g., walking down a dark alley or into a burning building). However, these systems can also fail to alert us to risks such as climate change, which may not trigger pattern recognition systems or evoke strong negative emotions (Gifford, 2011; Marshall, 2014).

Without the expertise, tools, and training used by climate scientists, most laypeople have limited understanding of the various threats associated with climate change. For most, perceptions of risks are fundamentally derived from sources of information present in our everyday lives. Individuals rely on both personal experiences with risk and the quantity and quality of information about risks they receive from friends, family, and the media. However, these sources of information can be problematic when we do not notice the risk in our personal experiences, when we do not hear much about the risk from others, and when the information that we do get is incorrect, limited, or confusing—all of which are applicable to our perceptions of climate change risks.

Lack of Personal Experience

A key source by which we learn about threats is through direct personal experiences with the threat in our everyday lives (Fazio & Zanna, 1981). Yet, it can be difficult to detect the effects of climate change from everyday experience. The relatively slow pace of climate change makes impacts difficult to detect by personal observation alone. Although unusual weather resulting from climate change is a noticeable event, gradual year-to-year changes are less noticeable because people only tend to notice changes in weather patterns over short timescales of approximately 6 months (Howe, 2012). When individuals do consider weather patterns over longer periods of time, they may evaluate previous weather in comparison to other recent weather—a warm winter may appear normal when compared to recent above-average temperatures (Kahn & Hasbach, 2013). Daily, seasonal, and yearly variability can further mask gradual changes in mean temperatures and weather patterns caused by climate change over longer time periods (Weber & Stern, 2011); for example, a 1°C increase in average January temperature may be unlikely to be viscerally noticed in an area that commonly experiences 40°C temperature swings during the month (e.g., the U.S. Great Plains region).

For many, these complexities in weather patterns which hamper detection of climate change are compounded by the nature of modern, postindustrial lifestyles, which reduce direct contact with the natural world. Spending large amounts of time in temperature-controlled, indoor spaces, for example, may alter one’s awareness of the weather and natural environment (Hitchings, 2011). Further, most people living in industrialized countries have little direct connection with the sources of supermarket and restaurant foods, or have much knowledge of how that food is processed before they purchase it, hindering awareness of the negative impacts of climate change on crops and livestock (Iwaki, 2013). In turn, lower connectedness with nature is associated with reduced concern about environmental issues such as climate change (Nisbet, Zelenski, & Murphy, 2008).

Although lifestyles in industrialized countries tend to steer people away from experiences that make climate change salient, certain types of personal experiences can enhance this connection. For one, participation in voluntary experiences that enhance connection with the natural world and increase the relevance of gradual changes in weather patterns and temperature is likely to enhance one’s ability to notice the changing climate over time. For example, individuals who have grown garden tomatoes for many years might notice gradual warming as they realize that warmer temperatures have made it safe to transplant their crop a couple of weeks earlier in the spring than they had in the past. Alternatively, involuntary experiences that force people to consider the impacts of natural world on one’s own personal life, such as sea-level rise threatening one’s community or the experience of a destructive weather event, may increase the salience of the threat posed by climate change (Brody, Zahran, Vedlitz, & Grover, 2007; Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, 2011).

Lack of Public Discussion

Given the barriers to noticing climate change through personal experience, individuals may derive much of their information about the threat from what they have read and heard about the topic. When dealing with uncertain situations, we look to others to help us judge the severity of risks; evaluating the situation in part by the degree to which others seem to believe it is worth attending to the potential threat (social amplification of risk theory; Kasperson et al., 1988; Renn, 2011). In the case of climate change, these social cues would lead us to downplay the threat posed by climate change: a solid majority of Americans report that they do not regularly hear about climate change from the media or in interpersonal conversations (Leiserowitz et al., 2015). Thus, this lack of public discussion about climate change can decrease the perceived threat posed by the topic.

Limited Cultural Narratives

In addition to the low frequency with which most of us hear about climate change, our appraisal of the threat of climate change may be further hamstrung by common cultural narratives—overarching stories or themes that are most commonly used to discuss a given topic—which promote the salience of certain aspects of climate change and downplay other elements of the risk. Cultural narratives can alter risk perceptions by directly making the phenomenon seem more or less risky or by altering the aspects of climate change to which we pay attention. The present article focuses on three common cultural narratives that can hamper accurate risk detection of climate change: (1) climate change is “far away,” (2) “we could use some global warming right now,” and (3) the “debate.”

Climate Change Is “Far Away”

When considering the impacts of climate change, many people think of consequences that are occurring far away (e.g., melting of the polar ice caps) to people in other countries (e.g., low-lying island nations) and in the distant future (Gifford et al., 2009; Leiserowitz, 2006), rather than nearby impacts that have recently occurred in one’s own country (e.g., heat waves, droughts, and flooding). This focus on events that are distant (rather than close) in time and space tends to promote an abstract, rather than a concrete, construal of climate change (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Abstract construals of threats can encourage action on risks under certain conditions. For example, when individuals are considering a societal risk abstractly, they may be more likely to act in line with their core values, taking action against their own immediate self-interest if they believe it is the morally right thing to do (Spence et al., 2012). Thus, for those who have values strongly congruent with action on climate change (e.g., those who place a high value on conserving or protecting global natural systems for their own sake or for future generations to enjoy), construing climate change abstractly may motivate taking action to address the threat.

In contrast, abstract construals of threats can blunt cognitive and emotional responses that alert us to dangers. People tend to prioritize events that are happening nearby, to the self, and in the near future (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Concrete construals are more likely than abstract construals to promote fear or worry responses that inform us of threats. When we construe climate change in abstract terms, some feel less at risk and feel less responsibility for taking action (Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2012). Thus, these individuals may have more accurate threat perceptions about climate change to the degree that they are considering the local impacts of climate change (Bloodhart, Maibach, Myers, & Zhao, 2015). particularly if one is highly attached to the place where the local impacts are described (Brügger et al., 2015).

“We Could Use Some Global Warming Right Now”

A common cultural narrative ties climate change only to the direct effects of increased atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases: increased average temperatures in many places around the globe (potentially encouraged by the term “global warming”; Leiserowitz, 2006). However, for people living in cooler climates, considering the possibility of temperatures warming by a few degrees (absent other, negative side effects) may seem more beneficial than harmful. Focusing simply on the visceral effects of temperature changes can make a potential increase in temperature seem appealing under conditions where one is cold; climate change seems less of a concern on cold days than on hot days (Zaval, Keenan, Johnson, & Weber, 2014) and even when individuals are in cool rather than warm rooms (Risen & Critcher, 2011).

Considering only the visceral impacts of locally warming temperatures when thinking about climate change impacts can further inhibit accurate threat perception to the degree that this cultural narrative overlooks the broad range of impacts of climate change on global weather patterns and biological systems. For example, climate change has impacted the movement of the jet stream, which is predicted to result in increased snowfall and bouts of extremely cold temperatures in certain regions of the world (Francis & Vavrus, 2015; Tang, Zhang, Yang, & Francis, 2013). Yet, because most imagine warming to be indicative of climate change, many believe that these winter events actually provide evidence against the existence of climate change (Sheppard, 2015). Similarly, this cultural narrative may not facilitate understanding of the idea that climate change has altered precipitation patterns, leading to increased precipitation in certain regions (Frich et al., 2002). Further, this narrative may not facilitate consideration of the effects that climate change has had on human health beyond the direct impacts of heat waves. For example, climate change has increased pollen counts by creating more favorable conditions for certain species of allergenic plants to thrive, which has led to increased allergies and asthma rates (Shea, Truckner, Weber, & Peden, 2008). Further, the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change also negatively impact global food systems and marine biodiversity through dissolving into the oceans and causing the oceans to acidify (Doney, Fabry, Feely, & Kleypas, 2009; Orr et al., 2005). Failure to consider the full range of effects of climate change and, more generally, the systemic changes caused by human alteration of carbon cycle may lead to individuals underestimating the degree to which climate change will have negative consequences.

The “Debate”

Another common cultural narrative portrays climate change as a debate of opinions about the validity and seriousness of scientific claims about climate change. The science of climate change has been settled among the scientific community, with virtually all scientific experts reaching consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change (Cook et al., 2013; Oreskes, 2004). Yet, many people are unaware of this scientific consensus, falsely believing that scientists are still debating the reality of anthropogenic climate change (van der Linden, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2016). The media in certain countries (e.g., the United States) may facilitate this cultural narrative by focusing coverage of climate change on the political and social conflicts arising from the issue (McDonald, 2009) and staging debates between scientific experts and climate contrarians that are falsely portrayed as reflecting an ongoing debate in the scientific establishment (McCright & Dunlap, 2003). The “debate” narrative can be deleterious to accurate perception of and response to the threat of climate change; when people inaccurately perceive that there is much ongoing debate among scientists as to the reality of anthropogenic climate change, they become less receptive to the reality of the phenomenon and less engaged with the topic (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2012; van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2015; van der Linden et al., 2016).

Lack of Climate Literacy

Lack of climate literacy can also contribute to misperceiving threats from climate change. On average, the public has an extremely limited grasp of the details of climate change and the process by which the causes and effects of climate change are connected (Simon, Volmert, Bunten, & Kendall-Taylor, 2014; Volmert, 2014; Weber & Stern, 2011). This limited knowledge of the causal mechanisms of climate change can lead to confusion and failure to reject misinformation about the topic. For example, many in the public mistake ozone holes as a cause of climate change and confuse carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide (Swim, Fraser, & Geiger, 2014). Climate illiteracy may inhibit understanding of the connection between personal experiences with weather and climate change, contribute to public silence, and support the continued existence of limited cultural narratives.

Lack of climate literacy may be due in part to the inaccessibility of climate science to the public. Presentation of climate change information can be filled with scientific jargon or technical details (e.g., textual representations of probability) that are difficult for someone without formal scientific training to understand. For example, a statement such as “the Greenland ice sheet and other Arctic ice fields likely contributed no more than 4 m of the observed sea-level rise” is likely to be misinterpreted by the public (Budescu, Por, Broomell, & Smithson, 2014), not only because of the vagueness of words such as “likely” but also because “4 m” has no relative meaning for someone unfamiliar with sea-level patterns. In general, people may not translate data, probabilities, or other numerical indicators of risk into relatable terms and practical consequences in a manner consistent with accurate assessment of a risk (Camilleri & Newell, 2013; Hawkins, Camilleri, Heathcote, Newell, & Brown, 2014). Instead, people tend to assume that risks that are easy to visualize must be more likely to occur (Slovic, Monahan, & MacGregor, 2000), which presents a host of issues for accurately understanding climate change information because of its difficulty to visualize.

In sum, climate change is an inherently complex topic that may require extensive collaboration between climate scientists and public educators to develop “dejargonified,” effective methods of public communication to boost public climate literacy. Currently, a major national-level effort to reach out to the public on a large scale is underway in the United States at aquariums, zoos, and national parks (Swim, Geiger, Fraser, & Pletcher, 2017; Geiger, Swim, Fraser, & Flinner, 2017). Future research is needed to continue developing a scientific understanding of the impacts of increasing climate literacy on risk perceptions.

But What Can I Do?

“It’s such an overwhelming and grandiose and ridiculous notion to think that you could save the world.”

— Josh Fox

Regardless of whether one accurately perceives the threat of climate change, one may not be engaged in addressing climate change due to a lack of understanding of how to effectively respond to the threat. The risk of climate change can be intimidating, and many lack knowledge about what they can do to help address the topic (Swim et al., 2017; Weber & Stern, 2011) or lack a sense of agency about their ability to become engaged (Geiger, Swim, & Fraser, 2016; Swim et al., 2014). In the face of a risk that stimulates fear and dread and without a sense of agency or hope, individuals may disengage from thinking about the topic to avoid psychological discomfort and negative emotions that they associate with climate change.

Not Knowing What to Do

Related to lack of climate literacy (see the section Lack of Climate Literacy), much of the public shows confusion in understanding the appropriate steps that could be taken to address climate change. For example, many perceive that decreasing the use of aerosol cans is an effective way to reduce climate change, or that addressing the problem of littering will have a major impact on reducing the threat of climate change (e.g., Swim et al., 2014). People also tend to systematically underestimate the energy used by high-impact behaviors (e.g., electricity used by clothes dryers and central air conditioners, petroleum consumption by semitrailer trucks carrying freight) relative to low-impact behaviors (“wasted” electricity from neglecting to turning off lights and laptops when not in use, fuel used by trains carrying freight; Attari, DeKay, Davidson, & De Bruin, 2010), which can lead to the false belief that changing low-impact behaviors can be an effective way to address climate change. These misunderstandings can lead some people to engage in ineffectual efforts to fix the problem (Thøgersen & Crompton, 2009). One’s understanding of the causal mechanisms of climate change, relative to understanding other components of climate science, is a key predictor of the likelihood that one will engage in effective solutions (Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000), perhaps because awareness of the causal mechanisms of climate change helps individuals to better understand and take responsibility for the connection between human actions and climate change impacts.

Lack of Perceived Agency

Efficacy (the experience of agency in being able to take action on a risk) is a strong predictor of the degree to which individuals are likely to actively address threats. Research and psychological theory show that individuals are likely to act on potential threats when they both perceive the danger of the threat and feel efficacy–that is, when they perceive that they are able to adequately address the risk (Cismaru, Cismaru, Ono, & Nelson, 2011; Floyd, Prentice-Dunn, & Rogers, 2000; Maddux & Rogers, 1983). Recent work has extended this general principle to climate change, showing that individuals are more likely to take action on climate change when they feel more efficacious about their ability to do so (Geiger et al., 2016; Gifford & Comeau, 2011; Swim et al., 2014). Essentially, it appears fruitless to waste time and energy trying to act on a threat unless one believes that one has the power to address the risk.

Psychologists distinguish between two types of efficacy, namely, (1) self-efficacy—the perceived ability to engage in a specific behavior (Bandura, 1977) and (2) response efficacy—the perceived likelihood that a certain behavior could have the desired impact (Witte, 1992). Many of the most impactful climate-friendly behaviors are complex and costly; thus, people may believe that they are not capable of doing them—they feel low self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977; Swim et al., 2014). For example, people may feel low self-efficacy if they do not think they can update the insulation on their home or afford solar panels. Conversely, as a global threat, individuals might not believe that their actions could make a difference in slowing or stopping climate change—they feel low response efficacy. For example, a person with low response efficacy might believe that helping an environmentally friendly candidate get elected would not result in climate-friendly legislation.

Related to both self-efficacy and response efficacy is the emotion of hope, which is experienced in the face of stress when there is perceived to be a strong—yet uncertain—possibility for positive change (Lazarus, 1999). Hope tends to accompany negative emotions related to the unpleasantness of uncertainty, yet hope may increase the tendency to focus on taking action to address the risk of what one is worried about rather than emotion suppression or cognitive avoidance. Thus, negative emotions about the risk of climate change may be most likely to encourage action when hope is also present (Swim & Fraser, 2013). Thus, among those who are already concerned about climate change, feeling efficacy and hope are important precedents for taking action. (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009; Swim & Bloodhart, 2015; Swim & Fraser, 2013).

Social Barriers

[Hu]man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

— Aristotle

Individuals’ ability to take action on climate change is strongly tied to their surrounding social environment. Climate change is a large-scale problem demanding cooperative social responses (Koletsou, 2015). When individuals think of themselves as part of a larger group that is capable of working together to address a large-scale problem, they tend to feel a strong sense of personal agency (Besta, Mattingly, & Błażek, 2016). In contrast, when social barriers reduce perceptions that cooperative action is likely to occur, perceived agency and action on climate change are less likely because each individual is aware that they have little personal control over the issue (Kerr, 1989). Two types of social barriers may be particularly likely to prevent action on climate change: (1) social normative barriers and (2) social network structural barriers.

Social Normative Barriers

How an individual behaves is constrained by which behaviors are condoned by social groups that are important to that person. As members of social communities, we seek to behave in a manner that facilitates easy interactions with these social groups (Stevens & Fiske, 1995). Individuals are motivated to follow social norms espoused by relevant social groups, in part because not doing so could incur rejection or hostility from members of these groups (Parks, Joireman, & Van Lange, 2013). These social norms are more likely to motivate individuals to change their behavior the more that individuals feel a sense of connection with the group endorsing the norms (Masson & Fritsche, 2014). Two types of social norms are relevant for understanding the effects of social groups on climate change engagement: (1) descriptive norms—which promote conformity to perceptions of others’ behaviors and (2) injunctive norms—which promote conformity to perceptions of what others think is appropriate.

Descriptive norms relate to perceptions of the types of behaviors and opinions that are common among others in one’s social group, or the perception of what other people actually do. The impacts of descriptive norms on behavior can be difficult to appreciate because people are often not consciously aware of their effects, claiming that they were uninfluenced by descriptive social norms and made their decision based on their environmental values or desire to save money even when evidence suggests otherwise (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008). Yet, descriptive norms strongly influence whether people engage in a variety of pro-environmental behaviors, including home solar panel installation (Graziano & Gillingham, 2015), energy conservation (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007), and reusing hotel room towels (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). Thus, when descriptive norms promote action on climate change (i.e., based on perceptions that most people engage in a given pro-environmental behavior), the norms can be a positive force toward addressing the topic.

In contrast, descriptive norms can act as a barrier to addressing climate change when a majority of people engage in an environmentally unfriendly behavior. For example, despite the large contribution of personal automobile usage to climate change, over two-thirds of Americans still drive to work on a daily basis (Leiserowitz et al., 2013)—thus potentially creating a descriptive norm that driving is the normative way to travel to work. Alternatively, descriptive norms can be formed based on inaccurate perceptions of others’ behaviors (i.e., pluralistic ignorance; Prentice & Miller, 1993). Pluralistic ignorance may be particularly common when the behavior is typically performed out of sight, such as reducing personal resource consumption (Nolan et al., 2008). Pluralistic ignorance can act as a barrier to addressing climate change when it creates inaccurate descriptive norms, suggesting that others do not engage in a given pro-environmental behavior.

Injunctive norms relate to perceptions of whether others in one’s social group will approve of one’s actions, or the perception that one should (or should not) do something. Injunctive norms are powerful motivators because individuals desire to be respected by others around them and gain status (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). Similar to descriptive social norms, injunctive social norms can either facilitate or act as a barrier to pro-environmental behavior. For example, injunctive social norms can act as a barrier to discussion and civic action on climate change when it is considered inappropriate to bring the topic up (Marshall, 2014; Norgaard, 2011). In contrast, injunctive social norms can facilitate engagement when behaviors are considered high-status. For example, some types of “green,” environmentally friendly products are associated with higher status, meaning that people are more likely to purchase these green products when the products or purchases are publicly visible (e.g., solar panels, organic produce; Griskevicius, Tybur, & Van den Bergh, 2010). Injunctive norms can also vary by the local community; for example, politically conservative regions ascribe less status to some types of green products (e.g., hybrid cars) than do other regions (Sexton & Sexton, 2014). Thus, injunctive norms could simultaneously promote a specific behavior in one community and discourage the same behavior in another.

Some injunctive norms can act as barriers for individuals in specific positions in society when particular behaviors conflict with societal roles and expectations. Engaging in “low-status” pro-environmental behavior may be seen as inappropriate for those of high socioeconomic status. For instance, riding a bus is associated with “the poor” (Sadalla & Krull, 1995); thus, there exists an injunctive norm indicating that it is inappropriate for upper-income individuals to ride a bus. The gendered nature of some climate-friendly behaviors and beliefs can be a barrier to engaging in certain behaviors. For example, pro-environmental behaviors such as hang-drying clothes or carrying reusable bags are considered “feminine” and thus injunctively appropriate for women but not for men (Brough, Wilkie, Ma, Isaac, & Gal, 2016).

In some cases, descriptive and injunctive social norms conflict (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990), setting up opposing behavioral expectations. For example, one might believe that saving energy is socially approved of (an injunctive norm to save energy), but believe that one’s neighbors are not doing so (a descriptive norm not to save energy). In this situation, the ultimate influence of these two conflicting norms may depend in part on which norm is more salient to the individual (Schultz et al., 2007); when messages encourage individuals to focus on what others are doing, they may adjust to the descriptive norm, whereas when messages encourage individuals to focus on what others approve of, they may adjust to the injunctive norm.

Sociostructural Barriers

Another category of social barrier is that of structural barriers related to individuals’ connections with others in social networks. Understanding social network processes is crucial to understanding engagement with climate change because, similar to contagious disease processes, information and knowledge about behaviors are transmitted and spread by virtue of the person one comes into contact with (Christakis & Fowler, 2007; Geiger & Swim, 2016). In fact, a meta-analysis examining different interventions designed to increase pro-environmental behavior found that the most effective interventions tend to be the ones that reach people through their social networks (Abrahamse & Steg, 2013).

Social networks influence access to information about climate change. Individuals tend to interact with people who are similar to them (homophily, McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001). This general tendency is further exacerbated by so-called partisan sorting: when individuals move, they are more likely to relocate to places with people who share their political perspectives (McDonald, 2011) and are more likely to befriend those who share their beliefs and opinions on topics (Farrell, 2012). Thus, those who are not taking action on climate change may not have access to information about those who are already taking action on the topic, and the minority who doubt the scientific consensus view of human-caused climate change may be more likely than not to have friends who share their beliefs (Itkonen, 2015). These effects may be increasingly powerful with the rise of social media algorithms that increase individuals’ exposure to friends’ posts with similar opinions and decrease exposure to friends’ opinions that are different from theirs, setting up so-called echo chambers where people are underexposed to differing points of view (Slater, 2007).

Social networks also influence individuals’ ability to engage in climate-change action. Individuals are dependent on their social networks to provide opportunities to create or join community action because community action requires that individuals have the ability to work with others. Individuals are often dependent on their social connections to help them reach specific ends (social capital; Coleman, 1988). Social capital can be used to advance personal goals, but it also tends to facilitate collective action and mutually beneficial behavior (Putnam, 2001). In contrast, a lack of social capital can act as a barrier to climate-change engagement. Not only does low social capital reduce the power of individuals to cooperate, but, in addition, individuals with low social capital are likely to feel low efficacy when faced with a large-scale problem such as climate change (Kerr, 1989).

Worldview Conflicts

Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor’s cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: “Stop! The cup is over full, no more will go in.” Nan-in said: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?


Worldviews and ideologies are systems of culturally informed ideals—interrelated systems of values and beliefs tied together in a manner perceived as logical by the individual holding the ideology. These ideals provide a simplified framework by which individuals can simply and quickly evaluate new information. Because of the importance of worldviews to basic social functioning, individuals may engage in motivated reasoning when faced with information that threatens the logical cohesiveness of the worldview (Kahan, 2012b; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Zhao, 2014). In other words, they can maintain their ideology both by avoiding information inconsistent with their beliefs (Jang, 2013) and devaluing inconsistent information (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2016; Corner, Whitmarsh, & Xenias, 2012). Two examples of ideologies that have been linked to climate-change denial and disengagement are (1) neoliberalism and (2) conspiratorial worldviews.


The ideology of neoliberalism may be a barrier to citizen engagement with climate change. Neoliberalism refers to an ideology characterized by belief in the superiority of pure, free-enterprise capitalism (Heath & Gifford, 2006; Kasser, Cohn, Kanner, & Ryan, 2007) over all other economic systems. The guiding principle of neoliberalism is the belief that socioeconomic systems function most effectively when market forces, rather than democratic practices, military force, or government regulation, dictate societal decisions. Neoliberal economic ideology stresses the ineffectiveness of the government at solving problems, emphasizes privatization and deregulation of many public sector systems, and objects to public, nonmilitary spending to provide public services. A host of related psychological constructs tend to associate with endorsement of neoliberalism: hierarchical individualism (Gastil, Braman, Kahan, & Slovic, 2011; Kahan, 2012a), vertical individualism (Singelis, Triandis, Bhawuk, & Gelfand, 1995), and values related to self-enhancement over helping others (Bloodhart & Swim, 2010; Schwartz, 1994).

Neoliberalism further promotes the “norm of self-interest,”–the social norm that individuals should behave selfishly (Ratner & Miller, 2001)—due to the belief that selfish actors maximize the efficiency of the economy (e.g., Rand, 1964). Individuals belonging to cultures endorsing this norm may feel pressure not to behave pro-socially even if they wish to do so. By extension, ideologies such as neoliberalism that encourage a focus on the self over others can discourage action on climate change even in the face of concern about the topic. For example, the more individuals express concern about how environmental problems will impact them personally (vs. impact other humans or the planet), the less likely they are to engage in behaviors to attempt to fix the problems (Swim & Becker, 2012).

By promoting the perception that market forces are superior to democratic action, neoliberalism also serves to delegitimize citizen engagement with climate change. Many of the proposed solutions to climate change involve democratic or government action, including regulation, government intervention, and community-level action. The perceived conflict between endorsement of neoliberal ideology and concern about climate change may cause cognitive dissonance, leading some who endorse neoliberal ideology to reject climate science (Heath & Gifford, 2006; Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013). Proposing neoliberal, “free-market” solutions to climate change appears to decrease this perceived conflict; those who strongly endorse neoliberalism are more likely to accept the threat of climate change when neoliberal solutions to the problem are proposed (Campbell & Kay, 2014). However, many scholars argue that neoliberal solutions alone will not suffice to address climate change (e.g., Klein, 2014), suggesting that proposing only neoliberal solutions may not be the most effective way to address the issue.

Conspiratorial Worldviews

Conspiratorial worldviews—characterized by beliefs that extremely powerful individuals and organizations are secretly plotting large-scale goals contrary to one’s own interests—may partly explain disengagement with climate change. These worldviews are characterized by denial of generally accepted information about the world and by the belief that groups in positions of authority are engaged in covering up the reality (Wood, Douglas, & Sutton, 2012). Conspiratorial beliefs are generally resistant to evidence contradicting the belief (Dagnall, Drinkwater, Parker, Denovan, & Parton, 2015). Further, individuals engaged in conspiratorial thinking may hold two or more mutually exclusive conspiratorial beliefs at the same time (e.g., “the climate is not changing,” “the earth is getting cooler,” and “the earth is getting warmer due to natural causes”) without perceiving logical inconsistency in their beliefs (Lewandowsky, Cook, & Lloyd, 2016; Wood et al., 2012). Belief in conspiracy theories is related to lack of interpersonal trust and feelings of social alienation (Goertzel, 1994), factors that decrease the likelihood that individuals will act pro-socially (Putnam, 2001). Belief in (or even exposure to) conspiracy theories reduces willingness to act pro-socially, even when that behavior is unrelated to the topic of the conspiracy theory (van der Linden et al., 2015). In addition, conspiracy theories may exert additional negative effects on climate-change engagement when individuals endorse conspiracy theories specifically promoting climate-change denial. Attempts by vested interests to discredit the science behind climate change (Oreskes & Conway, 2011) may have yielded success in increasing climate-change denial, especially among the small percentage of the public who already reports distrust of scientists (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2016) and belief in conspiracy theories (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2015; Lewandowsky et al., 2013; van der Linden, 2015).

Worldview/Message Mismatch

In addition to inherent conflicts between certain worldviews and climate-change engagement, some worldviews might conflict with specific messaging strategies commonly used to communicate climate change. For example, in the United States, climate-change messaging may be more effective in engaging those who hold liberal (vs. conservative) political views (Feinberg & Willer, 2013; Kahan, 2010; Weber & Stern, 2011) due to most messages relying on moral arguments and messengers that appeal to political liberals more than political conservatives (Feinberg & Willer, 2013). Moral arguments that focus on preventing harm, fostering well-being, and promoting equality of outcomes (e.g., many environmental justice arguments) are relatively more appealing to political liberals than conservatives, while those that focus on promoting loyalty, respect for legitimate authority, and preserving the purity of people and nature (e.g., “Don’t Mess with Texas” as an antilittering campaign slogan) may appeal more to political conservatives than to liberals (who may not recognize the latter arguments as moral arguments at all; Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009). Similarly, relying on partisan messengers (e.g., Al Gore or other members of the U.S. Democratic Party) to communicate climate change may turn those of opposing partisan views away from taking the risk seriously. Reliance on any subset of specific message framing or specific messengers can carry benefits in simplifying risk communication by repeating a simple, coherent message and can increase discussion and accurate risk perceptions among groups and individuals with whom they resonate. However, any given frame will be likely to fall flat and lead to underestimating climate-change risk among groups and individuals with whom they do not resonate (Kasperson et al., 1988; Renn, 2011).

Understanding Psychological Barriers to Climate-Change Engagement

Understanding psychological barriers to climate-change engagement is crucial to developing effective advocacy campaigns and educational strategies to better engage the public of industrialized countries. This article has specified and organized some of the most critical empirically identified factors that can lead to disengagement with climate change. These include psychological barriers to accurate threat perceptions, lack of knowledge or perceived efficacy about climate change preventing people from taking appropriate actions, social barriers that inhibit climate-change engagement, and conflicts between climate-change engagement and worldviews. Collectively, a variety of research in psychology and other social science fields suggests that the barriers mentioned in this article can lead individuals to disengage from the phenomenon. However, this research also has provided methods to address many of these barriers. For additional information about psychological barriers to climate-change engagement, see the Suggested Readings section.

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