Why We Failed
(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)

First of all, guilt is bullshit.

You should feel no personal guilt that our species could go extinct just because you didn’t recycle that plastic bottle or buy that electric car. One subtext of the decree that you must “Do what you can to fight global warming” is that you should feel guilty for living in a world that you didn’t create.

The problem is not you; it’s us. You didn’t fail as an individual. Society failed, which could lead to our species failing because of our fundamental nature. Human society will have failed to create the cultural and political mechanisms necessary to avoid climate disruption and to exist sustainably on the planet.

The Climate Pandemic cover

In part, society failed because when natural scientists address the human dimensions of climate disruption, they mistakenly emphasize “the role of individuals in generating carbon emissions—who are thus held responsible for reducing them,” wrote sociologists Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle (see Why the Scientists Failed).

 “The stress on individual behavior and change thus leaves the institutions that structure everyday life and individual practices unexamined,” they pointed out.[1]

Climate de-nihilists have used the emphasis on individual behavior to deflect attention from the need for policy solutions, pointed out climatologist Michael Mann.

“This is a deflection campaign and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it,” he told The Guardian. “This approach is a softer form of denial and in many ways it is more pernicious,” he said.[2]

Corporations have promoted the theme of personal responsibility to shift blame for climate disruption away from them and onto individuals. Historians Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes found evidence of such a strategy when they analyzed ExxonMobil’s climate change communications. Their analysis revealed that “ExxonMobil advertisements worked to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers.” They concluded that:

Our research suggests warning signs that the fossil fuel industry is using the subtle micro-politics of language to downplay its role in the climate crisis and to continue to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.[3]

The misleading narrative of personal culpability has made it implicit that we’re complicit and has been allowed to dominate our thinking. We have been set up for a lifelong guilt trip toward extinction.

As discussed earlier, our critical institutions failed because of their inherent flaws. But they also failed because institutions are made up of people, and we the people failed as a species. The three-pound miracle of our brain that propelled us to become Earth’s dominant species also harbored the seeds of our potential extinction.

Here are some traits that led to our failure:

We are future-blind

Let’s say you are offered $250 in cash right now. But if you are willing to wait a year you can receive more money. How much would it take to wait? Subjects in an experiment presented such a scenario demanded about $337—an extraordinary interest rate![4]

This hyperbolic discounting is our tendency to prefer smaller rewards sooner over larger rewards later. Hyperbolic discounting is just one component of our psychological makeup that dooms us to failure to avoid climate disruption. We overvalue such immediate rewards and worry far more about immediate threats than those in the future, like climate disruption.

We don’t worry about global heating because “we see it as a threat to our futures—not our afternoons,” wrote Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in the Los Angeles Times. “Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger,” not long-term threats.[5] We also react intensely to threats that we deem immoral, wrote Gilbert:

[Global heating] doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil . . . Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. [Global warming] doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning.

Our brains also react intensely to threats that are intentional, wrote Gilbert (before the COVID-19 pandemic):

We worry more about an underwear bomber—annual death toll: zero—than about influenza: annual death toll in America 40,000 people. Why? Influenza’s a natural accident, underwear bombing is an intentional action . . . if climate change were some kind of nefarious plot visited upon us by bad men with worse mustaches, right now we would be fighting a war on warming.

Finally, as discussed earlier, global heating is too slow, wrote Gilbert: “Many environmentalists say global warming is happening too fast. No, it’s happening too slowly. It’s not happening nearly quickly enough to get our attention.”[6]

We are fact-averse

Our misperception of facts hinders our ability to face the facts about climate disruption. We experience solution aversion when we disbelieve facts about a problem when we don’t like its solution. Psychologists Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay detected solution aversion in a survey of Republicans and Democrats about climate disruption. They found that Republicans were skeptical in part because the solutions conflicted with their ideology.[7]

“In our research, we find that people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions,” said Campbell. “When the facts are against their opinions, they don't necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”[8]

In extreme cases, people may even resort to “alternative facts”—a term notoriously introduced by then-President Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. “Alternative facts,” of course, are just lies.

Partisans are perfectly willing to assert alternative facts, as evidenced by one fascinating experiment revealing such bias. The researchers showed subjects photos of the Trump and Obama presidential inaugural crowds. They asked half the people which image was from Trump’s inauguration and which was from Obama’s. They asked the other half which photo showed more people. In both cases, the Trump supporters were far more likely to answer the questions wrong—saying that the Trump inauguration photo showed more people, even though it obviously showed fewer.

“Clearly, some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually,” wrote the researchers.[9] The Trump supporters were exhibiting expressive responding, in which people knowingly give wrong answers to support their side.[10]

We select convenient facts

Confirmation bias is another way we nourish our preconceived notions. That is, we tend to seek information to confirm our preexisting beliefs, while discounting information that would require us to change our mind. For example, we tend to seek out media stories that bolster our views—whether they be on Fox News or in The New York Times.

In the case of climate disruption, confirmation bias might mean that we see hot spells as confirming global heating and cold spells as refuting it. Confirmation bias was at work when de-nihilist Senator James Inhofe notoriously brought a snowball into the senate in winter to bolster his view that global heating is a myth.[11] Of course, Inhofe was conflating short-term weather with long-term climate.

Such bias is widespread, noted a study led by Robert Kaufmann. The researchers found that people who live in record-hot areas are more likely to believe that the Earth is warming, while those who live in record-cold areas are less likely to believe.[12]

“When personal experience and expert opinion don’t align on a topic not critical to an individual’s well-being, they’re going to go with their gut rather than what the expert tells them,” Kaufmann told Scientific American.[13]

Our bias trumps our knowledge

We have a bias blind spot that makes us more readily recognize biases in others while remaining blind to our own. Only one adult out of 661 would admit to being more biased than the average person, found surveys by psychologists. This bias blind spot was regardless of people’s intelligence, decision-making capability, or self-esteem. Researchers also found that people with a high bias blind spot are most likely to ignore advice from peers or experts.[14] [15]

We can engage in motivated reasoning, in which partisans who are given facts counter to their beliefs become even more partisan. Communication researchers found this tendency in experiments in which they showed subjects fictional news stories about climate disruption’s health effects. They found that Republicans who read stories highlighting climate disruption’s health risks became more partisan than Republicans who did not.[16]

It is not ignorance of science that makes people more partisan, found psychologists led by Dan Kahan. When they surveyed 1,540 people on their degree of “science literacy” and their attitudes toward climate disruption, they found that people with the least science intelligence were less partisan than those with the most—whether they were believers or non-believers in climate disruption. Their findings contradicted the notion that people who lack science knowledge are the most partisan and rely on emotion for their positions.[17]

The partisan attitude makes sense, in that people want to fit in with their social group. Wrote Kahan: “A person who forms a position out of line with her cultural peers risks estrangement from the people on whom she depends for emotional and material support.”[18]

Our perceptions weaken our resolve

Our response to climate disruption is limited by our conceptual frames of reference—mental cubbyholes that enable us to keep the world in order. As George Marshall pointed out in his book Don’t Even Think About It, the language surrounding climate disruption “marks it, irredeemably, as an environmental issue,” which isolates it from issues such as employment, economy, crime, and defense. This isolation weakens our resolve to take action on climate disruption.[19]

The very words used to describe climate issues can affect our response. In an experiment with Democrat and Republican subjects, psychologist David Hardisty described a fee as either a carbon “tax” or a carbon “offset.” He told the subjects the fee would pay for alternative-energy and carbon-reduction technologies. Hardisty found that while Democrats were willing to pay either a “tax” or an “offset,” Republicans were only willing to pay an “offset.”[20]

Our thinking is even affected by how energetic or loud a message is. We naturally pay more attention to messages delivered in passionate “outdoor voices” than more subdued “indoor voices.” That’s why TV pitchmen and politicians are so over-the-top outspoken. Scientists, meanwhile, tend to use low-key “indoor voices” in their communications (see Why the Scientists Failed).

Our mental mechanisms limit action

We may exhibit the bystander effect, in which we bow to social pressure, paralyzing our inclination to act on climate disruption. “The more people we assume know about a problem, the more likely we are to ignore our own judgment and watch the behavior of others to identify an appropriate response,” wrote Marshall.

Also, we might feel that if we’ve performed one virtuous act, we are morally licensed to offset it with less virtuous acts. “Research has found repeatedly that people who buy energy-efficient lights and appliances tend to use them more. People who insulate their houses then turn up the thermostat,” wrote Marshall.

Our responses to climate disruption might also be limited by our tendency to believe that doing one thing means we’ve done our part, wrote psychologist Elke Weber.[21] So, this single-action bias might kick in when we buy an electric car, and we no longer feel a need to write our legislator, campaign for a carbon tax, or install solar panels.

Although worry can prompt action, we have a finite pool of worry, wrote Weber. We can only fret over a limited number of things at a time. So, our worry pool may well have been filled to overflowing by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval. Added worry about climate disruption could go down the drain of our worry pool.

Fearmongering fails

Fear will not motivate us to pay attention to climate disruption or to alter our behavior, noted researchers Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling. Publishing fear-provoking articles, “even if they succeed in getting attention . . . might still fail if it triggers denial or repression of a problem perceived as overwhelming.” Such repression would contribute to passivity, and “if dire predictions do not immediately materialize, [it may give listeners] official permission to turn attention away from recurring alarming news,” they wrote.[22]

Fear can even lead to anger: “Anger and violence toward the environment as a maladaptive response to fear, pain, or despair can often be spiteful or even have the flavor of revenge—all in the name of reasserting one’s power,” Moser and Dilling wrote.

The failure of fear to motivate was clearly revealed in sociologists’ experiments, in which they presented subjects with images depicting climate change.[23] The images included factory smokestacks, starving children, a biting mosquito, a field of sunflowers, and wind turbines. They asked subjects to sort the images into groups that reflected how important the images made climate disruption seem, and how the images made them feel about coping with climate disruption.

While the negative images made the subjects fearful, they also enhanced feelings that thwarted action. The researchers concluded that:

The very images that made participants have the greatest sense of climate change being important were also disempowering at a personal level [driving] feelings of helplessness, remoteness, and lack of control. Equally, the images making participants feel most able to do something about climate change did not hook their interest in the issue and were more likely to make people feel that climate change was unimportant.

Fearmongering can lead us to become psychically numbed—failing to generate any emotional response. Emotion drives people to action, and its lack raises a significant psychological barrier to action.

“You can only take in so much,” Moser told Grist. “If in one year we had a huge fire, floods in the Midwest, several hurricanes hitting the East Coast and the Gulf . . . I think it would be very difficult in that context to still feel as horrified about the last death as about the first death.”[24]

Taking action also means taking the time to pay attention to climate disruption. We don’t necessarily take that time, wrote Moser and Dilling. “Classic time management literature . . . tells us that humans spend most of their time on issues or demands perceived as urgent, such as responding to telephone calls or email. . . . Inattention to global warming can thus be seen as yet another example of this classic time management problem.”

Our many versions of aversion

Besides solution aversion, our ambiguity aversion thwarts action because of uncertainty. In the case of climate disruption, we fail to act because of uncertainty about future impacts. Wrote researchers led by Stephan Lewandowsky:

The “doing something about climate change” options appear laden with unknown probabilities . . . whereas the “business as usual”. . . option gives the appearance of being associated with a known outcome. . . . We prefer to take a gamble on what we “know” . . . rather than on what we do not know.[25]

Loss aversion biases us to be more sensitive to losses than gains—a tendency identified by economists Daniel Kahneman and colleagues.[26] [27] To illustrate loss aversion, Kahneman tells his classes that he will toss a coin, and if it comes up tails, they would lose $10. He then asks how much they would have to win to accept that gamble. Most people would demand more than $20.[28]

Climate disruption is a perfect trigger for loss aversion, Kahneman told George Marshall: It’s far in the future, and it means sacrificing now for uncertain future losses.[29]

We also fail to act on climate disruption because the lessons from climate disasters tend to fade rapidly. In one survey, political scientists found that the increased concern about climate disruption by people who had experienced heat waves, droughts, floods, or hurricanes largely disappeared after just a few months.[30]

Our responses to dread risk and unknown risk are perhaps the most powerful psychological barriers to climate action. Dread risk, as described by psychologists, is a threat that is potentially catastrophic, fatal, and offers no chance of control, like nuclear weapons. Unknown risk is invisible, unprecedented, and delayed in its effects—like chemical pollution. Dread risk tends to produce a sense of powerlessness, and unknown risk triggers anxiety. Nuclear radiation and climate disruption are doubly paralyzing in that they are dread as well as unknown.[31]

Weak drivers to action

Counterbalancing the strong tendencies that cause us to avoid action are weaker tendencies to act.

Generativity is one of these weaker, action-oriented tendencies. First described by psychologist Erik Erikson, it is our concern for fostering and guiding the next generation.[32] Parents might be expected to have a strong generativity-driven concern about climate disruption. However, George Marshall cited studies to the contrary in his book Don’t Even Think About It. Having a child means that parents have an optimism bias concerning climate disruption, he noted, in which they emphasize their personal reasons for having children and suppress knowledge of the precarious world those children are being brought into.[33]

Guilt is another possible action-motivator, although Marshall stated that guilt tends not to be a good motivator. For one thing, he wrote, climate disruption triggers “lukewarm narratives of guilt” that don’t lead us to accept personal responsibility. But more importantly, he noted, there is no way to alleviate that guilt.

“The climate change narrative contains no language of forgiveness,” he wrote. “It requires people to accept their entire guilt and responsibility with no option for a new beginning.”

In fact, guilt thwarts action, wrote Sarah Jaquette Ray in her book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: “Guilt is self-interested; alleviating the unpleasant feeling of guilt becomes more important than alleviating the suffering of others.” She wrote that it is ineffective for spurring action, “although it’s used as an affective strategy in most environmentalist messages.”[34]

Convenience rules

Our materialism and love of convenience also thwart our ability to re-engineer our lives to stop climate disruption. For example, Americans love large cars. Even though Americans can now buy fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars, we still flock to bigger cars, trucks, and SUVs.[35]

In the US at least, we love spacious houses. The size of the average American house has steadily increased over the last four decades, studies have found, even though the size of the average household is shrinking.[36]

And although we may be willing to support climate-friendly policies, we aren’t disposed to put up our own money. In one survey, only 57% of respondents said they were willing to pay even one dollar more on their electric bill to combat climate disruption.[37]

All this is not to single out Americans as energy villains. Globally, energy consumption per capita has risen steadily over the last century and continues to rise at an increasing rate.[38] [39] This increase has happened even in the face of new energy-saving technology. For example, even though LED lighting enables major savings on outdoor lighting costs, satellite data have revealed that such savings are undermined because globally, outdoor lighting has increased over recent years.[40]

The bottom line: Our basic psychology has caused our failure to be motivated to take the radical action to head off our own extinction.



[1] Dunlap, Riley E. and Robert J. Brulle., eds. Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2015.

[2] McKie, Robin. “Climate Change Deniers’ New Battle Front Attacked.” The Observer (November 9, 2019).

[3] Supran, Geoffrey, and Naomi Oreskes. “Rhetoric and Frame Analysis of ExxonMobil's Climate Change Communications.” OneEarth 4, no. 5 (May 21, 2021).

[4] Hardisty. David J. and Elke U. Weber. “Discounting Future Green: Money Versus the Environment.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 138 no. 3 (2009).

[5] Gilbert, Daniel. “If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming.” Los Angeles Times (July 2, 2006).

[6] Gilbert, Daniel. “Global Warming and Psychology.” Harvard Thinks Big (2010).

[7] Campbell, Troy H. and Aaron C, Kay. “Solution Aversion: On the Relation between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107 (November 2014).

[8] Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “Facts, Beliefs, and Identity: The Seeds of Science Skepticism.” Phys.org (January 22, 2017).

[9] Schaffner, Brian, and Samantha Luks. “This is What Trump Voters Said When Asked to Compare his Inauguration Crowd with Obama’s.” The Washington Post (January 27, 2017).

[10] Schaffner, Brian F. and Samantha Luks. “Misinformation or Expressive Responding? What an Inauguration Crowd Can Tell Us about the source of Political Misinformation in Surveys.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82, no. 1 (Spring 2018).

[11] CSPAN, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Snowball in the Senate (February 26, 2015).

[12] Kauffmann, Robert Michael L. Mann, Sucharita Gopal, Jackie A. Liederman, Peter D. Howe, Felix Pretis, Xiaojing Tang, and Michelle Gilmore. “Spatial Heterogeneity of Climate Change as an Experiential Basis for Skepticism.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol.114, no. 1 (January 3, 2017).

[13] Waldman, Scott. “Climate Change Skepticism Fueled by Gut Reaction to Local Weather.” Scientific American (December 20, 2016).

[14] Scopelliti, Irene, Carey K. Morewedge, Erin McCormick, H. Lauren Min, Sophie Lebrecht, asnd Karim S. Kassam. “Bias Blind Spot: Structure, Measurement, and Consequences.” Management Science 61, no. 10 (October 2015).

[15] Rea, Shilo. “Researchers Find Everyone Has a Bias Blind Spot,” Carnegie Mellon University (June 8, 2015).

[16] Hart, P. Sol, and Erik C. Nisbet. “Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies.” Communication Research 39, no. 6 (August 11, 2011).

[17] Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman, and Gregory Mandel. “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.” Nature Climate Change 2 (May 27, 2012).

[18] Kopf, Dan, “Data Shows That Using Science in an Argument Just Makes People More Partisan,” Quartz (December 23, 2016).

[19] Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury, 2014.

[20] Gertner, Jon. “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?The New York Times (April 16, 2009).

[21] Weber, Elke U., “Experience-Based and Description-Based Perceptions of Long-Term Risk: Why Global Warming Does Not Scare us (Yet).” Climatic Change 77 (2006).

[22] Moser, Susanne C. and Lisa Dilling. “Making Climate HOT.” Environment 46, no. 10 (December 2004).

[23] O’Neill, Saffron, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole. “’Fear Won’t Do It’ Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change through Visual and Iconic Representations.” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (March 2009).

[24] Osaka, Shannon. “Going numb: Why We’re Ignoring the Rising Death Toll from COVID-19.” Grist (December 11, 2020.)

[25] Lewandowsky, Stephan, Naomi Oreskes, James S.Risbey, Ben R.Newell, and Michael Smithson. “Seepage: Climate Change Denial and Its Effect on the Scientific Community,” Global Environmental Change 33 (July 2015).

[26] Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1991).

[27] Kahneman, Daniel, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard Thaler. “Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem.” Journal of Political Economy (1990).

[28] Goode, Erica. “A Conversation with Daniel Kahneman; On Profit, Loss and the Mysteries of the Mind.” The New York Times (November 5, 2002).

[29] Marshall, George. “Understanding Faulty Thinking to Tackle Climate Change.” New Scientist (August 13, 2014).

[30] Konisky, David, Llewelyn Hughes, and Charles H. Kaylor. “Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change Concern.” Climatic Change 134, no. 4 (February 2016).

[31] Slovic, Paul, and Elke Weber. “Perception of Risk Posed by Extreme Events.” Conference paper delivered at “Risk Management strategies in an Uncertain World” (April 12-13, 2002).

[32] Erikson Erik. Identity and the Life Cycle. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994.

[33] Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury, 2014.

[34] Ray, Sarah Jaquette. A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet. University of California Press, 2020.

[35] Voelk, Tom. “Rise of S.U.V.s: Leaving Cars in Their Dust, With No Signs of Slowing.” The New York Times (May 21, 2020).

[36] Housel, Morgan. “How the Average American Home Has Changed in the Last 40 Years.” The Motley Fool (September 13, 2013).

[37] University of Chicago Energy Policy Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. “Is the Public Willing to Pay to Help Fix Climate Change?” (November 2018).

[38] Tverberg, Gail. “World Energy Consumption since 1820 in Charts.” Our Finite World (March 12, 2012).

[39] International Energy Agency. Global Energy & CO2 Status Report, 2019.

[40] Kyba, Christopher C. M., Theres Kuester, Alejandro Sánchez De Miguel, Kimberly Baugh, Andreas Jechow, Franz Hölker, Jonathan Bennie, Christopher D. Elvidge, Kevin J. Gaston, and Luis Guanter. “Artificially Lit Surface of Earth at Night Increasing in Radiance and Extent.” Science Advances 3, no. 11 (November 22, 2017).