Home Society & Culture Climate Inertia: The Psychology of Acting Too Late

Climate Inertia: The Psychology of Acting Too Late

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We have known of the damage being done to our planet by human activities for over 145 years. In 1896, the idea was presented by Svante Arrhenius that fossil fuels could raise the global temperature. It will come as no surprise that other scientists pooh-poohed the idea, on the same grounds that we hear today: humanity could not cause such massive change to such huge global systems.

Forty years later, in the 1930s, the evidence started emerging, but it, too, was dismissed as part of the natural cycle. One person, Guy Callendar had gathered enough evidence of global warming to encourage others to pay attention, decades later. Strangely, Callendar is reported to have expressed the view that global warming was beneficial, to ward off the next Ice Age. Charles Keeling, in the 1960s, produced enough evidence to start much wider investigations in to the increases in green-house gasses. 

Concerns about global warming first came to public attention in the 1970s. Why then, fifty years later, are we still not taking all the action that we need?

Is it that we didn’t really know the consequences of raping the planet? We knew. From the days of the earliest agrarian civilisations, we have known about the need for crop rotation and leaving fallow. We knew there was only so much can be taken from the planet before we cause harm.

Was it that we thought we could deal with it later; that we could kick the can down the road? Did we think that these things can be left to someone, anyone, certainly not us, to deal with? ‘We have a legal duty to maximise profit, and will be found wanting by shareholders if we don’t take, take, take. And if we don’t, we will be replaced by someone else who will. So, it might as well be us taking the rewards.’

Or, did we think, it won’t happen to us? ‘We are good people, and deserve the best. It is those others, those bad ones, those real polluters, who ought to address this problem.’

Were we in denial? ‘The world is a big place, my little factory chimney won’t make any difference. My 4X4 car to take the kids to school won’t matter.’

You may think the above points are expressed in a childish way. They reflect the psychology of acting too late.

Perhaps more sophisticated arguments, more realpolitik applies: ‘We can’t stop growth because if we do, our enemies will overtake us, and spend more money on arms than us, and end up with bigger sticks than us…’ Here we are, back to child-like reasoning again.

Is it childish to want to protect a country from its enemies? Only if doing so results in mutually assured destruction, not by nuclear weapons, but by global warming. 

Historically, international conference after conference has resulted in too little, too late, too often.

There is one way to unite a people and that is to have a common enemy. Now we have one; the common enemy is the climate damage that we have all caused. 

Planet earth may not be conscious, but the processes that are beyond our control are being changed by our actions and the consequences of what we are doing become harsher and harsher the longer we delay. 

Previously there was an accountability deficit; what we did had no apparent consequences. That has changed. The planet’s processes are now showing us that our lack of accountability was a delusion.

Over the last few decades some governments have engaged in virtue signalling; claiming green credentials while intensifying the pollution. There are more cars on the road now than ever before. We eat more meat than ever before. We take more flights than ever before. More houses, factories and offices are kept at higher temperatures now than ever before. In colder climates, rather that putting on warm clothing, people  will turn up their heating. Rather than buy local, seasonal produce, people will buy perfect looking product imported from many thousands of miles away, at huge carbon costs. 

Lack of scientific education

In most countries governments are devoid of people with a scientific education, and are filled with those who are very knowledgeable about the classics; about who stabbed who in the back, when, where, why and how. We may have acted too late because those in power lacked a scientific education. 

The electoral cycle. 

If a politician is to be elected in four or five years time, will they want to try to solve problems that are longer term, such as climate change? No. They will wait until the public are clamouring to have something done, and act not one moment before. Have politicians known about global warming and the evidence that scientists have presented to them over and over again? Yes, since the 1930s. And they have denied, dithered and delayed because, back then, when much less drastic action would have made a huge difference, there were no votes in climate protection. Some may think, that is realpolitik. It is not; it is reactive politics. Effective leadership is not jumping to the public whim, it is leading public awareness to create a better future. We may have acted too late because of the electoral cycle, and system.

Future solutionists

Another reason we have not acted are the future solutionists. Their thinking is: “Since we are just about to develop the technology to suck the green-house gasses out of the atmosphere, we don’t have to change anything.” Those who are familiar with “jam tomorrow” promises will recognise that this, too, is an excuse not to act. We may have acted too late because we kept hoping for jam tomorrow.

Closing the door after the horse has bolted. 

Humans do act, but usually when they they have no choice. For example, when Covid hit in 2019, all across the world we had the most brilliant scientists developing vaccines. A wide range of possible vaccines were produced and tested in record time. Humans can and do act when it is a matter of life and death. 

When will we really start to act? When a climate disaster happens that is so shocking, so traumatic, so irrefutably caused by climate change, we will, collectively act, and act quickly. We may even create the new technologies needed to address the problems of our own making. The problem with this approach is that future solutionists are depending on such a disaster happening before we will act. 

We can see what is coming, let’s not wait until vast numbers of people die before we act. Let’s not have a repetition of what it took for the UK to introduce The Clean Air Act in Cities in the 1956 – vast numbers of deaths, year after year until action was taken.


‘The problem is not us; its those developing countries; they are building coal fired power stations at a rate of five a week! They need to stop.’ Blaming other people, other countries, is not going to solve the problems. The West created and led the industrial revolution; we exported our products and techniques to the world, and now we are asking those countries not to do what we did. ‘We did it in ignorance,’ some might say, ‘they are doing it knowing the consequences.’

All over the world, ignorance of the law is no defence for breaking it. The same applies in nature; ignorance of the laws of nature is no protection against the consequences of breaking them.

If we want developing countries to cut their pollution, let’s help them. We are rich beyond all imagination compared to most developing countries. We can afford to help them develop in sustainable ways. In the West we have a very high standard of living, and generate vast quantities of CO2 per capita compared to developing countries: 16.5 tonnes per person in the US and 0.1 tonnes of CO2 per capita in Uganda.


‘I have to cut down this section of forest to clear land for crops.’ In the West we deforested vast swathes of land hundreds of years ago, for reasons of survival. We should not be surprised that people in poor countries are doing exactly that today.

If we enable those people to survive today, in ways that help, rather than harm the planet tomorrow, we can reverse the damage done. It is unreasonable to ask someone who has no other choice not to feed their family, not to cut down trees to clear land for crops. It is unreasonable to make such demands when we jump on a jet to fly 3,500 miles, to that developing country and each and every passenger on that jet generates 670kg of C02. 

What are the commonalities in the psychology of acting too late? Short-term, self-interest. Huge damage has already been done. Perhaps, if we better understand the psychology of acting too late, maybe, just maybe, we will be better equipped to act before we make it any worse. 

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.


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