June 15th, 2016
With the impending doom of rising sea levels, emanating deserts and hot summers, not every one of us is at the forefront of the fight against climate change. In the last decades, the percentage of people who worry about climate change in the US has been more or less flat , even though the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been linearly increasing for the last years. If the problem is really that big, why is there no visible change in the behavior of people?
In a study on the psychological barriers to climate action, Robert Gifford distinguishes ‘dragons’, ‘mules’ and ‘honeybees’ as the key players in this contradistinction between the rising problem of climate change and the persistent inaction. ‘Dragons’ are the psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior, ‘mules’ are the people that take a lot of steps to mitigate climate change, but are only a small minority and therefore carry a non-proportional share of the responsibility, while ‘honeybees’ are the people that reduce climate change without consciously striving to do so, they are ‘unwitting enablers’. However, there are too few people that fall into these categories. The bulk of the people are not concerned about the environment at all.
The article distinguishes seven psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior, each divided into different sub-types. Recent study surveys have shown that limited cognition is one of the common drags on climate action. For the human mind, it is hard to grasp the slowly unfolding impacts of climate change. Furthermore, system justification – the tendency to forefend the status quo, the conflicting goals and aspirations of people’s personal lives and the climate, and the dampening influence of less environmentally minded others are major barriers.
That there are psychological barriers that impede people to join in the effort to halt the process of climate change is no big news. Earlier studies demonstrated that environmental knowledge, perceived seriousness of climate change and status seeking are among the psychological factors that influence environmental behavior.
However, this study argues that it is not only important to analyze and categorize these different barriers, but also to determine which barriers are present for which specific group of people. Empirical studies of different populations – such as the elderly, students and busy households – have shown that some barriers are more powerful for different segments. To target climate policy instruments to a population in the most effective way, policy makers should be informed of which barriers impede which kind of people. To know how to mitigate climate change is to know where the dragons, mules and honeybees can be found.
Photo: Flickr, inacentaurdump
Gifford, R. (2013). Dragons, mules, and honeybees: Barriers, carriers, and unwitting enablers of climate change action Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists DOI: 10.1177/0096340213493258
Abdul-Muhmin, A.G. (2007). Explaining consumers’ willingness to be environmentally friendly International Journal of Consumer Studies DOI: 10.1111/j.1470-6431.2006.00528.x
Vlek, C. (2000). Essential Psychology for Environmental Policy Making International Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1080/002075900399457