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Climate (In)Action: Behavioural Insights

Dernière mise à jour : 19 sept. 2021

In this article, I will mostly introduce some of the behavioural canvas of obstacles to climate inaction that inspired me to start this project. These are also some of the notions that help me maintain my focus about climate change - and not get so depressed about it, which, as a newly-enrolled student in sustainability, I find quite useful. I'll talk about the works of several researchers who are trying to answer the same question : since we know both the urgency of the situation and what we should do to react to it, why are we standing so still?

I'll use Per Espen Stoknes canvas of behavioural obstacles to structure these first Climate Thoughts, and several other Ted Talks, conferences and papers that you'll find in the bibliography.

My view of behavioural change, when it comes to the environmental transition, is quite simple. Three steps should be implemented: mourning the world as we know it together, conceiving the world of tomorrow, and, to paraphrase Shia LaBeouf, just doing it. The second step - understanding the stakes, issues and solutions to global warming - is a role today held by scientists, international institutions, economists, and professionals. The first and last steps - accepting that we need to change, and changing - on the other side, meet a great deal of behavioural and psychological obstacles.

From hearing we should act... to deciding to act

A lot of psychological and behavioural barriers happen between the moment we receive climate news and the moment where we decide to change - when we do.

Obstacle: the first obstacle when we hear about the climate is distance, or the absence of immediate perception : we don't (always) see, smell, feel nor hear climate change, which makes it feel unreal to a lot of us, even though the urgency is immediate. Like Sheldon Cooper would say, "I can't see subatomic particles, nevertheless, they're there."

Solution ? The good news is: our brain is capable of extrapolating and associating information from our immediate perception and our social interactions, and "bring home" (Per Espen Stoknes) something that is not immediately tangible.

  • Talk about the climate with your friends, your family, or people who have already embraced the issue. The best part about this ? If you start doing so, your friends and family will most probably start thinking about climate change as a more personal matter as well.

  • Inform yourself on the physical and direct consequences of it, on the impact of the food you have in your plate, or on the plane ticket your work asked you to take. Some simple indicators and carbon calculators exist to that effect! You might apprehend the "here and now" aspects of climate change and your control upon your impact much better.

Obstacle: The second one when it comes to climate news is "disaster framing". Have you ever felt numb whenever NGO's would send guilt and anxiety inducing communications ? This long-term "doom" and "sacrifice" strategy can go against our desire to feel in control of the situations we're in, and therefore will create stress instead of generating the dopamine and satisfaction we feel when we manage to anticipate and control something. (Elke U. Weber, Thibaud Griessinger, Sébastien Bohler).

Solutions ? Although knowing the risks and consequences of the situation is key, when it comes to feeling engaged and useful, it is even more important to adopt a more positive framing.

  • Don't consider letting go of your habits as a sacrifice for the planet, but as an opportunity to reinvent yourself and find new ones. Let's be honest, those new habits will probably be amazingly good for your health, as well as for the climate.

  • Don't neglect the power of good news! Fill you Instagram feed with news and advancement from zero waste companies, climate news analysis and communities with the same values, adopting a supportive speech - not only on climate change, but on mental health - instead of a continuous collapsology mindset.

Once we've accepted the need for behavioural change, why can it still be so difficult to act ?

To analyse the question of changing our behaviours, it is important to first acknowledge the following: our cerebral plasticity and our intelligence make us capable of great change, and we are not subject to any kind of fatal behavioural inertia. But there are reasons that make it hard to rapidly switch our individual or collective behaviours.

Obstacle: the one I'll talk about here is cognitive dissonance. It occurs when our actions (old non-eco friendly habits) and our values (climate action) are not aligned, and our reflex is to modify either our decisions or our beliefs so that they would match. We can often feel like we're just "too used" to our old habits a certain way and we can't change it, but I think this is way more complex than this.

Habits are very often almost automatic and in part conditioned by our environment (Thibaud Griessinger) and our social perceptions, and trying to change them when no valid options are available can lead to frustrating scenarios: avoiding plastic while shopping, and then realising your favorite snack is wrapped in a double plastic packaging; becoming a vegetarian and only having the vegetarian whopper option at Burger King (the horror...). Many of us might therefore retrograde and go back to our old habits.

This dissonance often triggers a catalog of eco-emotions, like anxiety, fear, which ultimately leads to denial. Here, denial (of your actions, of your beliefs, or of climate change altogether) acts as a defense mechanism seeking to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Solutions ?

  • I believe one step is identifying what simple habits we can change first, and changing our environment (stores, work, conversations), so as to cultivate a feeling of stability and consistency in our decision-making process.

  • Separating our feelings of frustration from our values: identifying our dissonances and our triggers can help avoid our automatic instinct of denial.

  • Finally - this is what Thibaud Griessinger advocates - the change should be collective; we also need new habits to be pushed to us from our environment, and, to achieve this, we need to stop considering ourselves as helpless individuals, and start considering ourselves cogs to this environment, so as to change it. Social influence is one of the greatest drivers of climate action: experiments show that the people who save the most energy generally aren't the ones who believe in sustainability, or even the ones trying to save money, but the ones who believe that saving energy and sustainability are important to their neighbors (Jachimowicz, J.M., Hauser, O.P., O’Brien, J.D. et al., Per Espen Stoknes). Values are contagious!

Changing the speech and opportunities of climate action

Extract of Per Espen Stokne's Ted Talk: the 5 D's and S's

Obstacle : Finally, the last obstacle identified by several researchers is identity, or culture. Our values, our political stances and our social environment can have a much stronger influence on our actions and aforementioned preferences than scientific facts, or even than our own well-being. If an environment-friendly measure is expressed as going against your values, you're probably less likely to even acknowledge it. This is a consequence of our unconscious biases. Our confirmation bias, for instance, makes us remember better the information that tells us what we already believe in, whereas we'll put aside the information that contradicts it.

Solution ?

  • Constructing a new narrative around climate change, free from political stances, cultural biases, and, as previously mentioned, encouraging positive and personal framings, could help solve this issue. Elke U. Weber mentions a study where people from various stances were asked to pay a carbon tax (first group) or a carbon offset (second group). The word "tax" having so much more political connotations, most people didn't want to pay, whereas the word "offset" seemed quite neutral, and the majority of people would spend their money on it.

  • Identity and culture might also benefit the fight against climate inaction if we adopt a positive speech, as universal values might be accepted in a community. As mentioned earlier, peer influence is one of the strongest allies of behavioural change, and no one should be shy about their action! According to Per Espen Stoknes, finding and telling inspiring stories about the ones who act for climate could be a push an individual, a neighborhood or even a city needs. Julien Vidal's podcasts in France can be a great example for this.

The importance of speech...

This general - and very complex - canvas (that I went through rather quickly) might help you understand why it can sometimes feel like a struggle to adopt environment-friendly actions, and the keys to allow you or the people around you decide to act for the better - or actually act. A lot of details haven't been developed, for example the need to "spread" eco-friendly behaviours and call to our social nature, or the mechanisms or habits; I hope to talk about them more in the next articles!

I am still studying these issues and concepts, so please send any feedback that could help me improve my work!



  1. Per Espen Stoknes, 2017: How To Transform Apocalypse Fatigue Into Action On Global Warming. [Video] Ted Conferences. Watch Online

  2. Per Espen Stoknes, 2014: Rethinking climate communications and the "psychological climate paradox". [Article] Visit Online

  3. Thibaud Griessinger, 2019: Notre Cerveau Face A La Crise Ecologique. [Video]. Ted Conferences. Watch Online

  4. Thibaud Griessinger, Camille Morvan, 2021: Pourquoi notre cerveau nous pousse-t-il à détruire la planète? [Video]. Roundtable, organised by Cosciences. Watch Online.

  5. Elke U. Weber, 2015: Climate Change Demands Behavioral Change: What Are The Challenges?. Social Research, Johns Hopkins University Press. Read Online.

  6. Sébastien Bohler, 2019: Rééduquez notre cerveau pour sortir de la crise écologique. [Video]. Ted Conferences. Watch Online.

  7. Jachimowicz, J.M., Hauser, O.P., O’Brien, J.D. et al. The critical role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation. Nat Hum Behav 2, 757–764 (2018). Visit Online

  8. Jachimowicz, J.M., Hauser, O.P., O’Brien, J.D. et al., 2019: Research: People Use Less Energy When They Think Their Neighbors Care About the Environment. Read Online.

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