The Psychology of Climate Change

Kairi Kim (Author) and Alice Xu (Mentor)

How Many Earth Days Are Left?

The 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill inspired Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to organize America’s first Earth Day. At that time, Americans were concerned about pollution, nuclear war, and habitat degradation; however, since then, scientists have deepened our understanding of climate change, identifying global warming—primarily caused by human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels — as the most significant threat to our planet. The current pace of collective action to combat climate change is insufficient to prevent dire environmental, economic, and humanitarian crises within the next fifty years (Fielding et al., 2014). Why is it so difficult to make the behavioral changes required to stop each Earth Day from growing hotter than the last? Our innate psychological and sociological responses are not well suited to handling the problem of climate change.

Evolutionary Psychology and Climate Change: Invisible Problem, Annoying Solutions

Psychologists recognize climate change as an “intergenerational global commons dilemma,” which is “invisible to humans, the impacts are distal and…is complex and riddled with uncertainties” (Fielding et al., 2014; Pearson et al., 2016). These elements complicate potential impact on human populations and response strategies. Uncertainty creates indecision. Complexity creates confusion. Distal impacts are weighed against current considerations: a person may respond to heat by turning on the air conditioner now, though that response worsens global temperatures later. Global problems are usually not viewed as the responsibility of individuals, and intergenerational dilemmas have immediacy only to those directly threatened by current or imminent effects. The problem of climate change contains many dimensions that challenge common human decision-making strategies, which evolved to address risks that are more proximal, less gradual, and more easily altered than global warming. Making matters worse, our modern ways are no more suited to tackling the crisis than our innate tendencies: urban environments can insulate individuals from the direct and immediate impacts of environmental changes, potentially delaying their recognition of and response to climate change, despite contributing to these very changes themselves (Fielding et al., 2014).

Can these cognitive barriers be overcome by heightened sensory experience? Research suggests that they might. Past research revealed that physical warmth increases belief in global warming, an effect mediated by the subjects’ ability to form mental images of outdoor heat (Riser & Critcher., 2011). Similarly, another study showed that experiencing relative heat prompted increased donations of time and money to climate change charities (Li et al., 2011). However, these findings also expose a challenge associated with relying solely on embodied experience of temperature: global warming brings about periods of abnormal cold, wind, or snow. Such atypical weather events can potentially provoke a backlash against climate change efforts. 

While the embodied experience of temperature might lead to nuanced perceptions, this raises the question of whether more explicitly presented knowledge can influence beliefs and behaviors in a favorable way. Increased information shows a mixed effect on judgment of climate change risk: although aggregated data from multiple studies showed that greater knowledge increased belief in climate change, the subgroup of study subjects with politically conservative orientation showed the opposite relationship: in this cohort, increased self-reported scientific literacy correlated negatively with belief in climate change (Fielding et al. 2014). How could this be the case? Confirmation bias drives individuals to favor or disfavor new information based on existing beliefs and values (Maegherman et al. 2022). Confirmation bias plays a crucial role in the psychology of climate change, affecting behavior-changing opinions about whether global warming is real, whether it’s human-caused, and whether it’s a problem or not.

Individuals are prone to stick with their initial beliefs in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, which is the uncomfortable feeling of holding two conflicting or irreconcilable thoughts at once (Maegherman et al. 2022). As most people think of themselves as “good” in a moral sense, a particularly painful type of cognitive dissonance occurs when we are presented with evidence of moral flaws. It’s hard to think about climate change when we are rationally aware of our own personal contributions: driving, heating our houses, flying for vacations, and nearly everything in our consumer and business economies. When American subjects were given one of two articles—one attributing climate change to excessive energy use in China, and the other to excess energy use in America—those who read the former were more likely to agree that climate change is caused by humans (Jang., 2013). It’s no wonder that individuals struggle when engaging with an already complex issue, especially when it also evokes feelings of guilt. 

Social Psychology and Climate Change: Hot Heads and the Blame Game

Clearly, the interaction between evolutionary psychology – our brains prioritization of immediate threats and harmonious thoughts– and climate change – a slow, uncertain, complex, growing problem – promotes a tendency to see global warming as someone else’s problem, whether that’s another country (e.g., China) or another group (e.g., liberals). This reasoning fuels political divisions in American politics, friction between business and public sectors, and even international conflicts that can become philosophical, economic, and sometimes armed. Group norms within American political parties have guided decision-making about climate change for at least two decades (Dunlap et al., 2008). However, climate change shows some resistance to party entrenchment: In 2022 political polling, nearly 50% of Republicans who’ve experienced an extreme weather event reported concern about climate change, compared to only 17% among those unaffected by natural disasters (Ipsos, 2022). This result warns us that personal suffering may be necessary to break down the social barriers that block an urgent response to climate change.

Many problems are more easily solved by collective effort than individual action alone, certainly including the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the dynamics of group affiliation can distract from climate change as a root cause of conflict. Take the US/Mexico border, a current flashpoint for social tension. In 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota ruined Caribbean coastal land in Central America, exacerbating an existing mass hunger crisis caused by higher temperatures. This led to large-scale emigration from the area, driven directly by starvation and indirectly through increased violence due to resource scarcity. Americans unhappy with unauthorized immigration may have the weight of the law on their side, but to those fleeing climate-affected regions, survival trumps abstract concepts, such as law and borders, and possible future consequences, which could include arrest and exploitation.

Ironically, the elements of social psychology at play at the US border are not humanitarian support and cooperation around mitigation of global warming, but in-group preference, resource protection, and hierarchy construction. Again, evolution is not on our side: the great ape tendency to form and defend kin-based social groups has the effect of elevating inter-group conflict as a preferred method of addressing challenges; root cause analysis is not a natural priority.

Across the Atlantic, the correlation between global warming and armed conflict is even more clear. Rainfall changes worsen famine in South Sudan; the mass exodus pushes rival ethnic groups into closer proximity. Droughts in Syria and Iraq triggered migration that worsens violent political instability already present in these nations (Plante, C., & Anderson 2017). As our planet gets warmer, the correlation between heat stress and aggression will further exacerbate these conflicts. In a series of studies, psychologist Craig Anderson showed that increasing the temperature of a room causes research subjects to exhibit more hostile behavior and decreased restraint with ambiguous provocation (Plante, C., & Anderson 2017). Moreover, a Dutch study of police officers showed an increased likelihood to perceive aggression –  and to draw a firearm – in a warmer environment  (Plante, C., & Anderson 2017). Eventually, higher temperatures may stress intra-group bonds as well as worsen inter-group conflict, making it more difficult to achieve a collaborative solution to the climate crisis.

Clinical Psychology and Climate Change: New Ways to Be Unwell

In the chain of events leading from climate change to extreme weather to food/water/shelter insecurity to migration/violence/poverty, there are victims at every stage. Survivors face mental and behavioral challenges, ranging from trauma and post-trauma to mood disorders, permanently altered arousal states, and stress reactions. Losing one’s family or health due to natural disasters not only results in reduced overall well-being, but also correlates with specific psychological conditions; post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and dissociative identity disorders are notably more prevalent in refugee populations (Brunnet et al 2020). Displacement and homelessness will increase as global temperatures rise. Among those who do not migrate, changes in economic prospects and cultural continuity will affect mental health; for example, as coastal areas become uninhabitable, farming and fishing livelihoods are threatened. Beyond financial repercussions, people suffer “grief about changes to the land and loss of identity related to occupational role and/or gender” (Clayton 2023). These impacts contribute to a broader psychological phenomenon affecting diverse populations. Defined by Gago et al. (2024) as “the negative emotional reactions that a person can experience in response to climate change irrespective of prior direct experience with it,” climate anxiety is a manifestation of these widespread effects. This emotional response reflects a collective awareness and concern that transcends individual experiences with climate events, emphasizing the pervasive nature of climate-related psychological distress. (Clayton 2021). 

Unlike the cognitive, social, and behavioral tendencies discussed above, most of which drive individuals and groups to resist addressing the problem of climate change, climate anxiety involves a person acknowledging the crisis and the need for a solution. For many sufferers of climate anxiety, this realization results in symptoms that are not conducive to effecting change, and the condition simply interferes with well-being. However, change has been catalyzed by individuals experiencing climate anxiety, including Greta Thunberg and many other young people involved in global warming legislation and fossil fuel divestment campaigns.

Summary: Great Minds for Great Problems

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” In reviewing the interactions between human psychology and climate change, we’ve identified patterns of thought that hinder effective responses to global warming: (1) individual decision-making strategies based on instinctual risk-stratification, (2) sensory-based assessments unsuited to invisible phenomena, (3) social structures embedded in competition for resources and in-group prioritization, (4) reliance on historical knowledge in unprecedented conditions, and (5) expectation of action by others. It’s easy to slap labels on the “level of thinking” responsible for our modern technological world and for climate change: industrialization; capitalism; supremacy of individual liberty; nationalism; expansion; and a growth/progress mindset. It’s much harder to envision a shift away from these entrenched priorities. However, a final glance back at mammalian evolutionary psychology suggests possible wells to tap in the quest to survive this crisis of our own making: (1) reciprocal altruism – taking more time and using more money to recycle and use reusable resources in the short term in order to increase survival changes in the future). cognitive plasticity (ability to adapt to environmental factors); conditioning; and learned adaptation. Scientific analysis of human thought and behavior will continue to hold the key to understanding our trajectory on this warming planet.


Brunnet, Dos Santos Lobo, Silveria, Kristensen, & Derivois. (2020). Migrations, trauma and mental health: A literature update on psychological assessment. L’Encéphale, 46(5), 364–371.

Clayton, S. (2021). Climate change and mental health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 8(1), 1–6.

Dunlap, R. E. (2016). The political divide on climate change: Partisan polarization widens in the U.S. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 58(5).

Fielding, K. S., Hornsey, M. J., & Swim, J. K. (2014). Developing a social psychology of climate change. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 413–420.

Gago, T., Sargisson, R. J., & Milfont, T. L. (2024). A meta-analysis on the relationship between climate anxiety and wellbeing. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 94, 102230.

Jackson, C. (2020). FiveThirtyEight Election Tracker. IPSOS.

Jang. (2013). Framing responsibility in climate change discourse: Ethnocentric attribution bias, perceived causes, and policy attitudes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 27–36.

Li, Y., Johnson, E. J., & Zaval, L. (2011). Local warming. Psychological Science, 22(4), 454–459.

Maegherman, E., Ask, K., Horselenberg, R., & van Koppen, P. J. (2021). Law and order effects: On cognitive dissonance and belief perseverance. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 29(1), 33–52. 

Needleman, A. (2023, November 13). Tips for addressing climate anxiety in youth. eePRO; naaee. 

Pearson, A. R., & Schuldt, J. P. (2018). Climate change and intergroup relations: Psychological insights, synergies, and future prospects. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(3), 373–388.

Pielke, R. A., Jr. (2004). What is Climate Change? Energy & Environment, 15(3), 515–520.

Plante, C., & Anderson, C. A. (2017). Global warming and violent behavior. APS Observer, 30.

Risen, J. L., & Critcher, C. R. (2011). Ambient temperature influences belief in global warming. PsycEXTRA Dataset.