The psychology of climate change

Here’s how we can overcome our inertia

Never have the devastating facts of climate change been so apparent, yet collectively we have taken little or no effective action and we remain stubbornly on course for the worst outcome on Earth. Why is this? Given the clear scientific knowledge and a growing awareness among the public, how come we are not changing course? Part of the explanation lies in our psychology and our emotional reaction to our predicament.

Facing up to the reality of climate change can be terrifying. The problem can feel so overwhelming and terrifying that it is tempting to avoid thinking about it altogether and to try to just get on with our daily lives.

We can avoid difficult feelings of anxiety or despair by engaging in “wishful thinking”, active denial or distracting ourselves with trivial concerns. We can manage our guilt by blaming others – “sure it’s up to government” or “there is no point in doing anything, when China keeps building coal plants”.

We just keep doing what is familiar and avoid thinking about the biggest elephant in the room because it is simply too distressing and too overwhelming to face.


Needless to say this collective “head in the sand” emotional reaction has to be overcome if we are to act to stop the worst aspects of climate change and to prepare for its devastating consequences. Never has this been more important than now during this week when world leaders meet at Cop26 in Glasgow. Below are some ideas as to how we can overcome our inertia and use our feelings to motivate rather than hinder us.

Face your feelings

So much pain is caused by people repressing their uncomfortable feelings. Being able to feel, understand and express your feelings is the key to good mental health. Rather than avoiding, I suggest you face up to your fear about the future. Feel your anger at the lack of action and experience your grief at the destruction of nature and the extinction of species. Notice your guilt and your accountability at the harm humanity has caused. At times, be prepared to descend into despair and hopelessness, but remember it does not have to be your final destination. Be brave and face your worst fears eye to eye, but then use these to motivate and move you. How do you want to live now in the face of these?

Talk about feelings

In the narrative about climate change, a lot of the communication is about the facts. The belief has been that if you educate people about the facts they will act accordingly. However, when it comes to taking action, how we feel about the facts is as important as the facts themselves. That is why it is important to talk about feelings as well as facts.

Talking about our collective fear for the future and our anger at the lack of action is not only good for us emotionally, it is also good collectively and can overcome inertia to move us to campaign for real change. When people engage in denial about climate change, I no longer try to argue back with facts. Instead, I try to address the feelings that underpin their stance – “It is terrifying to face up to the reality of climate change – it takes bravery. Change is difficult, it is scary to think about what we will have to give up in the future.”

Feelings can drive us towards action. Difficult feelings are relieved by constructive action. Our anger can drive us to take action against injustice. Our anxiety can push us to prepare better for the coming threats. Our guilt can help us take responsibility and our grief can help us change and adapt to the new life ahead of us.

Collective action

Joining others to take action or leading others in action builds momentum and makes our actions more powerful. Indeed, any successful actions on climate change have to be collective. While vested interests might deflect responsibility and say addressing climate change is a matter of personal change, what is clearly needed is system change. No number of LED light bulbs or shorter showers will change humanity’s course, we have to radically change the way we live on the planet.

From a psychological point of view, the good news about collective action is that it feels better than being an isolated changemaker. Being part of a community working for change reduces our negative feelings and propels us forward. lists scientifically supported examples of collective and systemic actions that can make a difference. The think tank Feasta, of which I am a member, proposes a workable fair system to limit global carbon emissions that can also provide dividends to the poorest and those most affected by climate change (see

Accept necessary losses 

There is a common illusion that we can act on climate change without any loss or personal cost. That we can keep our cars, regular flying, and our whole consumerist lifestyle while someone else pays. This is of course simply not true. Our future will involve less and sharing more whether we like it or not.

However, it is much better for us to act now to create simpler, more sustainable lifestyles, rather than waiting for these changes to be imposed on us by runaway climate change and collapsing ecosystems and economies. Good mental health is about knowing when to let things go that no longer serve us.

While there can be real fear at making lifestyle changes (how can we possibly live without our consumerist lifestyles?), there are also many positive possibilities in living more connected simpler lives.

Set positive goals

Positive change is more likely when we visualise positive goals. As well as facing loss, setting out a vision for an attractive shared future is crucial. For example, despite being an agricultural nation, Ireland imports a large percentage of its food (including potatoes, carrots and apples which can be grown here). Also, the majority of Ireland’s energy is dependent on imported fossil fuels (despite being one of the best sites in Europe for renewable energy). Aside from being bad for the planet, these two facts also make us food and energy insecure in an increasingly unstable world.

To address this we could set national goals of becoming food and energy secure and producing most of what we need on the island. This will not only drastically reduce our carbon emissions but also create rural and urban employment and potentially better communities. Galvanising our collective energies around an imaginable future goal is one of the best ways to motivate us to act collectivey.