Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Psychological research and global climate change


Human behaviour is integral not only to causing global climate change but also to responding and adapting to it. Here, we argue that psychological research should inform efforts to address climate change, to avoid misunderstandings about human behaviour and motivations that can lead to ineffective or misguided policies. We review three key research areas: describing human perceptions of climate change; understanding and changing individual and household behaviour that drives climate change; and examining the human impacts of climate change and adaptation responses. Although much has been learned in these areas, we suggest important directions for further research.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: A schematic model of the role of psychological processes in climate change.
Figure 2: A simplified model of the way people perceive climate change.
Figure 3: Influences on climate-relevant behaviour.
Figure 4: Mechanisms of climate change impact on human well-being.


  1. 1

    National Research Council Global Environmental Change: Understanding the Human Dimensions (eds Stern, P. C., Young O. R. & Druckman, D.) (National Academies, 1992).

  2. 2

    National Research Council America's Climate Choices (National Academies, 2011).

  3. 3

    Dietz, T., Gardner, G., Gilligan, J. M., Stern, P. & Vandenbergh, M. Household actions can provide a behavioural wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 18452–18456 (2009).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Bolderdijk, J. W. & Steg, L. in Handbook of Research on Sustainable Consumption (eds Thogersen, J. & Reisch, L.) 328–342 (Edward Elgar, 2015).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Gardner, G. T. & Stern, P. C. Environmental Problems and Human Behaviour (Allyn & Bacon, 1996).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Swim, J. K., Geiger, A. N. & Zawadzki, S. J. Psychology and energy-use reduction policies. Policy Insights Behav. Brain Sci. 1, 180–188 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Hackmann, H., Moser, S. C. & St. Clair, A. L. The social heart of global environmental change. Nature Clim. Change 4, 653–655 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Sovacool, B. K. Energy studies need social science. Nature 511, 529–530 (2014).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Stern, P. C. Psychological dimensions of global environmental change. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 43, 269–302 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Swim, J. et al. Psychology's contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change. Am. Psychol. 66, 241–250 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Clayton, S. & Myers, G. Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Capstick, S., Whitmarsh, L., Poortinga, W., Pidgeon, N. & Upham, P. International trends in public perceptions of climate change over the past quarter century. WIREs Clim. Change 6, 35–61 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Kahan, D. et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Clim. Change 2, 732–735 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Gifford, R. The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. Am. Psychol. 66, 290–302 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Weber, E. U. & Stern, P. C. Public understanding of climate change in the United States. Am. Psychol. 66, 315–328 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Rudman, L. A., McLean, M. C. & Bunzl, M. When truth is personally inconvenient, attitudes change: The impact of extreme weather on implicit support for green politicians and explicit climate-change beliefs. Psychol. Sci. 24, 2290–2296 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C. & Pidgeon, N. F. Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experience. Nature Clim. Change 1, 46–49 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Whitmarsh, L. What's in a name? Commonalities and differences in public understanding of 'climate change' and 'global warming'. Public Underst. Sci. 18, 401–420 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Howe, P. D. & Leiserowitz, A. R. Who remembers a hot summer or a cold winter? The asymmetric effect of beliefs about global warming on perceptions of local seasonal climate conditions in the U. S. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 1488–1500 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Petty, R. E. & Cacioppo, J. T. The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion (Academic, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Fielding, K. S., Hornsey, M. J. & Swim, J. K. Developing a social psychology of climate change. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 44, 413–420 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Guber, D. L. A cooling climate for change? Party polarization and the politics of global warming. Am. Behav. Sci. 57, 93–115 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Poortinga, W., Spence, A., Whitmarsh, L., Capstick, S. & Pidgeon, N. Uncertain climate: An investigation into public skepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 1015–1024 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Costa, D. L. & Kahn, M. E. Do liberal home owners consume less energy? A test of the voluntary restraint hypothesis. Econ. Lett. 119, 210–212 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H. & Braman, D. Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. J. Risk Res. 14, 147–174 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    McCright, A., Xiao, C. & Dunlap, R. Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA, 1974–2012. Soc. Sci. Res. 48, 251–260 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Painter, J. & Ashe, T. Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007–10. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 044005 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Stern, P. C. & Raimi, K. T. Simple mental models for informing climate choices. Soc. Res. (in the press).

  29. 29

    Bolderdijk, J. W., Gorsira, M., Keizer, K. & Steg, L. Values determine the (in)effectiveness of informational interventions in promoting pro-environmental behaviour. PLoS ONE 8, e83911 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Jang, S. M. Framing responsibility in climate change discourse: Ethnocentric attribution bias, perceived casus, and policy attitudes. J. Environ. Psychol. 36, 27–36 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science 185, 1124–1131 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J. & Jenkins, J. C. Shifting public opinion on climate change: An empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Clim. Change 114, 169–188 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Deryugina, T. How do people update? The effects of local weather fluctuations on beliefs about global warming. Clim. Change 118, 397–416 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., Peters, E. & MacGregor, D. G. Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality. Risk Anal. 24, 311–322 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Lord, C. G., Ross, L. & Lepper, M. R. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 37, 2098–2109 (1979).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Corner, A. Whitmarsh, L. & Xenias, D. Uncertainty, skepticism and attitudes towards climate change: Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation. Clim. Change 114, 463–478 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Kempton, W. How the public views climate change. Environment 39, 12–21 (1997).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Bostrom, A., Böhm, G. & O'Connor, R. E. Tailoring climate change communication to audiences. WIREs Clim. Change 4, 447–455 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Böhm, G. & Pfister, H-R. Consequences, morality, and time in environmental risk evaluation. J. Risk Res. 8, 461–479 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Gattig, A. & Hendrickx, L. Judgmental discounting and environmental risk perception. J. Soc. Issues 63, 21–39 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Abrahamse, W. & Steg, L. How do socio-demographic and psychological factors relate to households' direct and indirect energy use and savings? J. Econ. Psychol. 30, 711–720 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Gatersleben, B., Steg, L. & Vlek, C. Measurement and determinants of environmentally significant consumer behaviour. Environ. Behav. 34, 335–362 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Abel, T., Guagnano, G. A. & Kalof, L. A value-belief-norm theory of support for social movements: The case of environmentalism. Hum. Ecol. Rev. 6, 81–97 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44

    Abrahamse, W. & Steg, L. Social influence approaches to encourage resource conservation: A meta-analysis. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 1773–1785 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45

    Van der Werff, E., Steg, L. & Keizer, K. The value of environmental self-identity: The relationship between biospheric values, environmental self-identity and environmental preferences, intentions and behaviour. J. Environ. Psychol. 34, 55–63 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46

    Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrer, Straus & Giroux, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47

    Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C. & Rothengatter, T. A review of intervention studies aimed at household energy conservation. J. Environ. Psychol. 25, 273–291 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48

    Fischer, C. Feedback on household electricity consumption: A tool for saving energy? Energ. Efficien. 1, 79–104 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49

    Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J. & Griskevicius, V. Normative social influence is underdetected. Pers. Soc. Psychol. B. 34, 913–923 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50

    Cohen, M. A. & Vandenbergh, M. P. The potential role of carbon labeling in a green economy. Energ. Econ. 34, S53–S63 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51

    Shewmake, S., Cohen, M. A., Stern, P. C. & Vandenbergh, M. P. in Handbook of Research on Sustainable Consumption (eds Reisch, L. & Thøgerson J.) 285–299 (Edward Elgar, 2015).

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52

    Bolderdijk, J. W., Steg, L., Geller, E. S., Lehman, P. K. & Postmes, T. Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning. Nature Clim. Change 3, 413–416 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  53. 53

    Hirst, E. & Brown, M. Closing the efficiency gap: Barriers to the efficient use of energy. Resour. Conserv. Recy. 3, 267–281 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54

    Mind the Gap: Quantifying Principal-Agent Problems in Energy Efficiency (International Energy Agency, 2007);

  55. 55

    Stern, P. C. Blind spots in policy analysis: What economics doesn't say about energy use. J. Policy Anal. Manag. 5, 200–227 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  56. 56

    Stern, P. C., Gardner, G. T., Vandenbergh, M. P., Dietz, T. & Gilligan, J. Design principles for carbon emissions reduction programs. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 4847–4848 (2010).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. 57

    Vandenbergh, M. P., Stern, P. C., Gardner, G. T., Dietz, T. & Gilligan, J. Implementing the behavioural wedge. Environ. Forum 28, 54–63 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58

    Carrico, A. & Riemer, M. Motivating energy conservation in the workplace: An evaluation of the use of group-level feedback and peer education. J. Environ. Psychol. 31, 1–13 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59

    Evans, L. et al. Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour. Nature Clim. Change 3, 122–125 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60

    Noppers, E., Keizer, K., Bolderdijk, J. W. & Steg, L. The adoption of sustainable innovations: Driven by symbolic and environmental motives. Glob. Environ. Change 25, 52–62 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61

    Devine-Wright, P., Wrapson, W., Henshaw, V. & Guy, S. Low carbon heating and older adults: Comfort, cosiness and glow. Build. Res. Inf. 42, 288–299 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62

    Dogan, E., Bolderdijk, J. W. & Steg, L. Making small numbers count: Environmental and financial feedback in promoting eco-driving behaviours. J. Consum. Policy 37, 413–422 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  63. 63

    Devine-Wright, P. Rethinking NIMBYism: The role of place attachment and place identity in explaining place protective action. J. Community Appl. Soc. 19, 426–441 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  64. 64

    Perlaviciute, G. & Steg, L. Contextual and psychological factors shaping evaluations and acceptability of energy alternatives: Integrated review and research agenda. Renew. Sust. Energ. Rev. 35, 361–381 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  65. 65

    Korpela, K. in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology (ed Clayton, S.) 148–163 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  66. 66

    Devine-Wright, P. & Howes, Y. Disruption to place attachment and the protection of restorative environments: A wind energy case study. J. Environ. Psychol. 30, 271–280 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  67. 67

    Devine-Wright, P. Explaining 'NIMBY' objections to a power line: The role of personal, place attachment and project-related factors. Environ. Behav. 45, 761–781 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  68. 68

    Steg, L., Dreijerink, L. & Abrahamse, W. Why are energy policies acceptable and effective? Environ. Behav. 38, 92–111 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  69. 69

    Eriksson, L., Garvill, J. & Nordlund, A. Acceptability of travel demand management measures: The importance of problem awareness, personal norm, freedom, and fairness. J. Environ. Psychol. 26, 15–26 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70

    Schuitema, G., Steg, L. & Rothengatter, J. A. Relationship between the acceptability, personal outcome expectations and the expected effects of transport pricing policies. J. Environ. Psychol. 30, 587–593 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  71. 71

    Dreyer, S. & Walker, I. Acceptance and support of the Australian carbon policy. Soc. Justice Res. 26, 323–362 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  72. 72

    Schuitema, G., Steg, L. & Van Kruining, M. When are transport policies fair and acceptable? The role of six fairness principles. Soc. Justice Res. 24, 66–84 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  73. 73

    Doherty, T. & Clayton, S. The psychological impacts of global climate change. Am. Psychol. 66, 265–276 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  74. 74

    Weissbecker, I. (ed) Climate Change and Human Well-Being: Global Challenges and Opportunities (Springer, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  75. 75

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  76. 76

    National Research Council Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis (eds Steinbruner, J. D., Stern, P. C. & Husbands, J. L.) (National Academies, 2013).

  77. 77

    Galea, S., Nandi, A. & Vlahov, D. The epidemiology of post-traumatic stress disorder after disasters. Epidemiol. Rev. 27, 78–91 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  78. 78

    Norris, F. H. et al. 60,000 disaster victims speak: Part I. An empirical review of the empirical literature, 1981–2001. Psychiatry 65, 207–239 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  79. 79

    Agnew, R. Dire forecast: A theoretical model of the impact of climate change on crime. Theor. Criminol. 16, 21–42 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  80. 80

    Hsiang, S., Burke, M. & Miguel, E. Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict. Science 341, 1235367 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  81. 81

    Warner, K. Global environmental change and migration: Governance challenges. Glob. Environ. Change 20, 402–413 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  82. 82

    Speller, G., Lyons, E. & Twigger-Ross, C. A community in transition: The relationship between spatial change and identity. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 4, 39–58 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  83. 83

    Agyeman, J., Devine-Wright, P. & Prange, J. 'Close to the edge, down by the river?' Joining up managed retreat and place attachment in a climate changed world. Environ. Plann. A 41, 509–513 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  84. 84

    Grothmann, T. & Patt, A. Adaptive capacity and human cognition: The process of individual adaptation to climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 15, 199–213 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  85. 85

    Bockarjova, M. & Steg, L. Can Protection Motivation Theory predict pro-environmental behaviour? Explaining the adoption of electric vehicles in the Netherlands. Glob. Environ. Change 28, 276–288 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  86. 86

    Esham, M. & Garforth, C. Agricultural adaptation to climate change: Insights from a farming community in Sri Lanka. Mitig. Adapt. Strat. Glob. Change 18, 535–549 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  87. 87

    Ostrom, E. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–22 (2009).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  88. 88

    Van Vugt, M. Averting the tragedy of the commons: Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 18, 169–173 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  89. 89

    Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A. & Schroeder, D. A. Prosocial behaviour: Multilevel perspectives. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 56, 365–392 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  90. 90

    Dash, N. & Gladwin, H. Evacuation decision making and behavioural responses: Individual and household. Natural Hazards Rev. 8, 69–77 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  91. 91

    Kunreuther, H. Mitigating disaster losses through insurance. J. Risk Uncertainty 12, 171–187 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  92. 92

    De Dominicis, S. et al. Vested interest and environmental risk communication: Improving willingness to cope with impending disasters. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 44, 364–374 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  93. 93

    Rogers, M., Curtis, A. & Mazur, N. The influence of cognitive processes on rural landholder responses to climate change. J. Environ. Manage. 111, 258–266 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  94. 94

    Marshall, N. A., Park, S. E., Adger, N. E., Brown, K. & Howden, S. M. Transformational capacity and the influence of place and identity. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 034032 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  95. 95

    De Young, R. Some behavioural aspects of energy descent: How a biophysical psychology might help people transition through the lean times ahead. Front. Psychol. 5, 1255 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  96. 96

    Schoot Uiterkamp, A. & Vlek, C. Practice and outcomes of multidisciplinary research for environmental sustainability. J. Soc. Issues 63, 175–197 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  97. 97

    Weaver, C. P. et al. From global change science to action with social sciences. Nature Clim. Change 4, 656–659 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  98. 98

    Clayton, S., Manning, C. M. & Hodge, C. Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change (American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, 2014);

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors thank J. Taylor of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa and C. Werner of the University of Utah for their contributions to the workshop from which this paper developed. We also acknowledge the support of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (NSF award DBI-1052875).

Author information




All authors contributed to the writing of this paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susan Clayton.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Clayton, S., Devine-Wright, P., Stern, P. et al. Psychological research and global climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 640–646 (2015).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing