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We Must Alter Our Psychology if We Are to Cultivate a Sustainable Future

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It’s ‘now or never’ stated the newest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), referring to the urgent need for governments, businesses and citizens to accelerate efforts to become a low-carbon society.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine threatens to increase fossil fuel production and use at the very time we must dramatically reduce it. While we are making headway towards achieving needed reductions in carbon emissions, we are not yet making nearly enough progress.

We need robust climate action, from here on, to keep planetary temperatures from exceeding the catastrophic –16°C warming level. Fossil fuel industry-funded opposition to decarbonisation policies remains a key obstacle to action, but one that we can overcome. Human behaviour is thus both an obstacle and a high-leverage key to prevailing. We must alter our psychology if we are to cultivate a sustainable future.

Essential climate mindsets: urgency and agency

We need both urgency and agency in our minds and actions. Believing we cannot make a significant difference (low agency) is a common explanation, rationalisation and excuse for meagre action.

Urgently, concerted political actions will jump-start a climate future with fewer obstacles to progress and increase citizens’ and concerned politicians’ agency. The next challenge is this: How to sustain robust climate action for the long haul ahead.

Here are some research-based suggestions:


A nudge is an influence tactic that motivates or prompts behaviour without relying on coercion or incentives. Probably the best-known and most powerful nudges are options that automatically enrol employees in retirement savings plans. These set up effortless future contributions, greatly increasing long-term plan participation.

Perhaps many entities will offer options that send us automatically down a long-term climate-friendly path. But mostly we will need to nudge ourselves with reminders to pay attention, persist, re-energise and re-evaluate how we allocate our time and efforts. Each of us can follow self-set rules for what to keep doing, what not to do and how to adjust goals and tactics over time.

These ‘rules’ can serve as guidelines and reminders: self-nudges and nudges for others to follow over time.

Be ambidextrous: explore and exploit

In business and other sectors, ambidextrous organisations effectively pursue two long-term imperatives: exploiting (capitalising on) what they already do well plus exploring new opportunities and knowledge.

Loosely stated, exploitation provides focus and efficiencies while exploration adds breadth and scope. Developing a diverse behavioural repertoire, as scientists say, is key to adaptation and evolution. We need to apply known solutions and try a wider variety of climate-friendly actions.

Find intrinsic motivation

Policy interventions offering extrinsic rewards (for instance, incentives to reduce energy use) can prompt people to change in the short run. Long-term, though, we must find motivation by behaving in ways that are inherently satisfying and gratifying.

Each of us can customise our intrinsic motivators because the opportunities for helpful climate action are vast: preventing bad things, promoting good things, locally or beyond, mitigating carbon emissions and adapting to oncoming changes. Variety alone – exploring possibilities, trying new things and activating a diverse repertoire – is intrinsically rewarding.

If you complete or tire of one climate project, you can find others that will re-energize you through the satisfactions of stewardship, caring for other people and species, or enhancing justice. The intrinsic rewards of creating a purer environment and seeing communities and natural systems recover, thrive and flourish will be profound. Keep self-nudging, stay active, find new intrinsic motivators, and rotate, merge and replenish them.

Leverage both progress and setbacks

How people react to successes, failures and plateaus is hard to predict and up to the individual. All can motivate a person to either persist or give up, depending on how they self-manage. Regarding climate change, seek and maintain a balanced understanding of developments at personal, local and global levels. If you are in a negative, discouraging information silo you can break out of it; when despairing, seek good evidence-based news. If you are plateauing after recent progress, enjoy it. But to make the hiatus a temporary one, think about the remaining challenges and choose something specific to address next.

Beware of moral license and other reasons to slacken

Climate actions compete with other pursuits for attention, time and money. Any righteous actions we take, and any progress we make, can justify subsequent slacking via moral licensing. We do a good thing and then permit ourselves to relax and turn our attention to other things. Our best futures keep slip-sliding away as we take three steps forward and two (or more) steps back.

Excuses and rationalisations tempt us, including those pushed by propaganda. For example, carbon capture and sequestration technologies might help eventually but offer another excuse to wait for other people to solve our problems.

Excuses come also from the complicated process of assigning blame and responsibilities. Responsibility for past negligence and destructive action is one thing, and accountability matters. But it’s feeling some responsibility for the future that drives helpful climate action.

Final thoughts

Companies, industries, public and other sectors and citizens can share responsibilities and collaborate to forge our best futures. Future-responsible people can find countless motivations and ways to help.

We need quantum leaps in urgency and agency. We really can strengthen our climate futures. This requires escalating these vital pursuits and sustaining them over time.


An earlier version of this article was published on Newsweek. This article was republished with permission from one of the authors. 

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University. He is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.

Thomas S. Bateman is professor emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.

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