What are the psychological barriers that prevent us from taking climate action?

Ikigai Project
8 min readDec 16, 2021


Just Do It 👟

This sentence was made famous by Nike to express the motivation to do what is needed to succeed. If you want to excel in sports, then you need to train harder. Just do it, and you’ll be better! Although this sounds pretty simple, in reality even though people have the best intentions, they don’t always “just do it”.

Even though many people have the best intentions, research shows that 80% of the people fail to fulfill those intentions, there is this huge gap between intention and action. Katharina Paoli, CEO at Nudgd

This gap between intention and action applies in our everyday lives, like in sports, when you need to train harder but you don’t have the motivation. It is the same for adopting more eco-friendly behaviors, you know you should do it, but for some reasons you just don’t.

👉🏼 Research revealed that there are physical and psychological barriers that create a gap between intention and action. The physical barriers are quite simple to understand, for instance, I take my own car to go to work even though I know it is not eco-friendly because I live far away and there is no public transport to get there. The psychological barriers are more difficult to apprehend before making a decision. Throughout the Ikigaï Project, we are meeting with many experts who studied those psychological barriers and offer tools to overcome them.

If what we know conflicts with what we do then dissonance sets in 🤯

❌ Dissonance problem arises when what we actually do every day conflicts with what we know we should do. For instance, I know that our fossil energy use contributes to global warming, yet it conflicts with what I do: drive, fly, eat beef, or heat with fossil fuels. The same happens if my attitude conflicts with those of people important to me. In both cases, the lack of convenient behaviors and social support weaken climate attitudes over time.

Per Espen Stoknes, the author of the book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, highlighted 5 major Psychological Barriers to Climate Action, and dissonance is one of those barriers.

It makes us feel a little bit like hypocrites because I know it’s important, I shouldn’t do this, but yet we do it and we do it all the time, every day: eat meat, drive a car, go by plane

For some, the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance makes them turn to denial, while others avoid the issue or feel powerless to make a difference, and this leads to a rise of eco-anxiety.

✅ One of the solutions to tackle this barrier can be nudges. 🎙 During our trip, we met with Katharina who created Nudgd, a company that provides digital solutions and advisory within behavioral designs that nudge people to sustainable choices.

As Katharina explained, people already know they shouldn’t drive to work, so you don’t need to tell them they should not have taken the car, they don’t need to learn. But they are stuck in mental old habits and it is hard to break them. Nudge is about breaking those habits by influencing your behavior, it is about finding a way to get people to action.

We are not trying to nudge someone towards something they don’t want to do, we are trying to nudge people towards what they actually believe in but for some reason our brains make us stumble so we don’t act on it

Faced with such a big challenge, people feel powerless and prefer to look the other way 👀

❌ There is a lot of evidence that shows that it’s helpful to have a moderate amount of worry and concern about climate change, because you need the motivation to do something. But if you become completely overloaded with anxiety it can be paralyzing and people stop reading and listening about climate change, they feel “it’s too big a problem”. Denial is a self-defense mechanism to protect us from the inconvenient truth. When we negate, ignore, or avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change, we find refuge from climate anxiety.

So it is essential to say that climate change is a serious issue, but you need to pair that risk information with how to tackle it, build a sense of self-efficacy amongst people.

✅ We need to change the narrative of climate change. By reducing the amount of “doom and gloom” news we digest, we can focus on opportunities and practical solutions that exist, and this can inspire us to take action.

Instead of telling people that it is wrong to travel by plane, tell them how great it is to travel by night train, you need to encourage solutions and boost individuals who are finding it hard to change things. Ingmar, CEO at We Don’t Have Time

🎙 For more info, go see our interview with Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist specializing in perceptions and behavior in relation to climate change.

✅ It is also important to build a sense of self-efficacy amongst people and remind them that they can have a positive impact at their own scale, individual action does matter.

If individual actions don’t matter then why are you voting? Why every 4 years you go and vote? Because individual actions matter. Marlena Batist, Head of Marketing at Deedster

People don’t always feel connected to climate change 🧐

❌ Climate change can have an impact on anyone’s daily life in countless ways. But not all climate impacts are created equal, or distributed equally. Some regions and communities are much more affected than others. The climate issue remains remote for the majority of us, in a number of ways. We can’t see climate change. Even though we see on media that more and more spots on earth are now experiencing a sea-level rise, more severe floods, droughts, fires, and other climate disruptions, it is hard to connect with climate change when you don’t see it every day. It still feels distant from everyday concerns, which makes it much easier to continue living your life as usual and stay in denial. During our stop in Estonia, we met with Liisa Puusepp who has been working as an advisor for the Estonian Ministry of Environment. She told us that the government did a survey to assess climate awareness among Estonians, the study revealed that 50% of Estonians don’t see climate change as a direct threat to them.

We need to help people connect with climate change. A great way to do that is to put a human face to climate change and make people experience by themselves the reality of climate change. Here are 3 solutions that enable you to travel around the world and immerse yourself in the reality of our changing world. 🎥

🎙 Robert Fox created BiosphereVR, a project using virtual reality to take you on a ’virtual field-trip’ to an array of distant places around the world where climate change is already showing its negative impact.

🎙 Rahul Karavadra works for Lyfta, an award-winning, digital platform where teachers and students can easily access immersive and interactive 360-degree story worlds.

🎙 Cleary co-founded Global Oneness Project, a free multimedia platform for educators and students. Through their immersive award-winning films, photo essays, and essays, they explore the deeper issues facing humanity.

Another way to get people interested in climate change is by making this big challenge more self-centered. That’s what Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist specialized in perceptions and behavior in relation to climate change, explained to us during our interview🎙.

In order to get people interested in climate change, you have to understand their values, what they care about and talk to them about that. For instance, when I found out that chocolate supplies are gonna be badly disrupted by climate change, I felt terrible.

Social pressure, both problem and solution 👥

❌ Taking action for the planet can sometimes set you apart from the community you live in (friends, family, etc.), which can be difficult to live with because of social pressure. This is the case when you decide to become a vegetarian in a family that eats meat regularly, or refuses to fly on a holiday with friends. In a study made by 3 researchers in psychology and environment, this barrier relates to “Interpersonal Relations”. This social pressure can prevent people from adopting eco-friendly behavior.

But what if social pressure could become key to fostering eco-friendly behavior? 👉🏼 Behavioral contagion is a powerful force. We are shaped by our social networks in a multitude of ways. Peer pressure is notorious for promoting harmful behaviors, but it can also have socially and environmentally beneficial effects. If these behaviors become the norm, then you reach a tipping point with enormous impact. Of course, a critical mass is needed to reach this tipping point. Let’s put peer pressure to work then!

✅ During our trip we met with Ingmar, the founder of We Don’t Have Time 🎙. It is the world’s largest social network for climate action and it leverages the power of social media to hold leaders and companies accountable for climate change. Users can give reviews to influence society and reach leaders to discuss solutions.

We need to give credit to the ones who are doing something, and give discredit to the ones who are not doing anything, that’s how the platform works.

Habits are a big barrier to behavior change 🤨

❌ In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman describes the process of ‘thinking fast and slow’ otherwise known as System 1 and System 2 thinking. Our brains work in two modes:

  1. System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach” (which route to take when you go to work). Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.
  2. System 2 is “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates (there are roadworks, I have to take another route to work).

As much as you may want to behave in an eco-friendly way (system 2), your day-to-day actions are influenced by your system 1, such as instinctively buying products that are bad for the environment. In order to truly integrate eco-friendly behavior, you need to change your habits.

Make it simple

🎙 Mathias is the CEO of Doconomy, a Swedish startup that fosters everyday climate action through the carbon footprint calculation of people’s transactions.

Imagine the people who are in the middle of a supermarket with two screaming children, it’s Friday, it’s raining outside. If you ask them to think about their carbon footprint they probably won’t care at all, so we need to provide those people with opportunities to understand this in a very easy way and also enable them to act. Mathias, CEO at Doconomy.

Make it fun

🎙 Marlena works for Deedster, a Swedish startup enabling the shift to sustainable living by making climate action fun through engaging technology. The first step to do that is to calculate the carbon footprint of your action, then you get “deeds” which are tips and suggestions on how to reduce your carbon footprint and introduce greener habits.

Use the power of community

🎙 Sven works for Ducky, a Norwegian startup that combines established behavioral science, fun and technology to mobilize individuals and organizations to take direct action. Ducky created a platform to encourage and motivate people to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon emissions footprint.



Ikigai Project

The Ikigaï Project is 5-month travel to find universal ways to learn about climate change and foster climate action for all!