Why Doesn't Direct Experience of Extreme Climate Push Us to Action?

If you’ve even been half-awake the last month, you can’t have missed the climate emergency sirens are going off all over the planet:

  • Wildfires raging across the American west, with billowing smoke drifting into cities and national parks
  • Record-setting rainfall in Houston
  • Extreme flooding in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, displacing millions
  • Unprecedented heat wave in San Francisco
  • Record-shattering hurricane wind speeds in the Caribbean
  • Persistent drought in many parts of Australia
  • …and many others, some not widely reported in mainstream media

Yet, as a species, we’re doing our best not to connect the dots.  It’s doubly hard when many confuse “weather” with “climate.”  Listen carefully to experts such as MIT’s Kerry Emanuel (short video here).  While we can’t say with complete certainty “climate change caused such and such a weather event,” we can say, for example, that we’re going to get a lot more water where we don’t want it and a lot less where we do. [See Climate Central's Extreme Weather Graphics] Even people who experienced the above events directly may not see a link to climate change…

Why do you think we’re having such trouble here?? 

I’m definitely aware of media and corporate complicity in downplaying the risk – why else do we continue to invest billions in real estate on or near harbors (e.g., in Boston’s Seaport District!) and coastlines that are clearly at significant climate risk

But, maybe another key factor lies inside us. 

Have a look at George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (and reviewed here)  – and let’s talk – online on ClimateX, that is!


Dave Damm-Luhr's picture

Hi Damian -

Hi Damian -

thanks for that great reference from Norway!  It takes George Marshall's ideas a step more specific - which helps a lot in understanding how most of us as individuals and in our institutions do our best to avoid reality.  It's also encouraging that the interview you linked us to includes specific suggestions for breaking through the barriers.  Let's make sure to talk more (here on ClimateX) about examples where the proposals have worked well, or if not, why.

What have been other people's experiences, either with the 5 barriers or successful breakthroughs?


I think this paradox is

I think this paradox is addressed succinctly in the Norwegian Psychologist, Per Epsen Stoknes's book: What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.

He refers to 5 psychological barriers to action:

  1. Distancing: Climate change is far away in time / socially / geographically or outside of your scope of influence.
  2. Doom: The fear and guilt of the climate change message makes us want to avoid the messenger and the message
  3. Dissonance: When what we do conflicts with what we know. e.g. our energy intensive life is damaging the environment but we belief we are good, this creates a demand for disbelief and moral licensing.
  4. Denial: A self defense to remove dissonance. Claim the scientific evidence is poor etc...
  5. iDentity: We strive to protect our existing beliefs, self esteem, group identitly. Climate science has become politicized and is polarizing.

Proposals to break through these barriers are also discussed in this interview :
Social, Simple, Supportive, Stories and Signals.

Jim Walts's picture

For myself and I suspect many

For myself and I suspect many others the easy answer is that we have not experienced effects of extreme climate.  The summer of 2017 here in NE Ohio has been rather cool actually.  It was

a very ordinary summer. 

I am not a denier but am trying to answer your question.  The weather has always had a lot of variety to it.  For someone to realize a major shift in the weather it would have to be drastic and prolonged.  If someone told me, 2017 was the hottest year on record, while I could mentally grasp that averaged all over the planet that may be so, but I am not experiencing it.  It just doesn't have the motivational factor that personal experience has.


Rick Shankman's picture

"Why Doesn't Direct

"Why Doesn't Direct Experience of Extreme Climate Push Us to Action?"

Because we are focused on digital learning and conversations instead.

Then, of course, there are places like ClimateX espousing Malthusian ideals, the MITEI funded by Big Oil, talk of "carbon pricing" - pay-to-pollute - fixes (brought to us by Big Oil and Wall Street), and endless personal greening distractions to lull us into thinking that Teslas and planting trees are "climate action" to help save the planet.