Understanding (and reducing) inaction on climate change

Published July 2020 by Professor Matthew Hornsey

Hornsey, Matthew J. and Fielding, Kelly S. (2020), “Understanding (and Reducing) Inaction on Climate Change”, Social Issues and Policy Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 3-35. DOI: 10.1111/sipr.12058.

Despite well-publicised consensus among climate scientists, many people remain sceptical that climate change is occurring, or alternatively, that climate change is caused by humans. Changing the behaviour of climate sceptics presents complex challenges when trying to address the threat of climate change. This research describes and synthesizes research on the reasons for public scepticism about climate change and translates these reasons into concrete and doable recommendations that policy makers and communicators can put into practice.

“The demographic variable that best predicts climate scepticism is whether people are politically affiliated with the left or right side of politics.”


  • Conservative political affiliation, a tendency towards conspiracy theories, and vested interests in fossil fuel industries contribute to scepticism toward climate change.
  • By changing the manner in which information about climate change is presented, policy-makers and communicators can make sceptics more accepting of climate change. Specific recommendations include:-
    • Re-framing messages to appeal to conservative political values, and articulate how these values are consistent with supporting action on climate change.
    • Emphasizing consensus among climate scientists. 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are contributing to climate change. This message is powerful enough to cut across ideological lines.
    • Demonstrate how misinformation is used by naysayers to guide people away from acting on climate change.

What’s new

  • Taking a pragmatic approach to communicating about climate change is needed. A pragmatic approach suggests that persuasion efforts should start from the audience and work backwards, operating within the moral comfort zones of the people that you are trying to persuade.
  • Political conservatives lean towards scepticism because of the assumption that addressing climate change increases government regulation over the free market. However, when presented with free-market friendly options for mitigating climate change, conservatives are given a reason not to fear the solution to climate change and then no longer feel the same need to reject the science.
  • The key insight? Populations are at saturation with information on climate change. Repeating the same message is becoming less effective, particularly for climate sceptics. Messages must be aligned with the underlying ideologies of sceptics to increase the effectiveness of the message in changing attitudes and behaviours.

Bottom line

Adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing inaction on climate change is ineffective. Policy-makers and communication strategists must create tailored messages that speak to a diverse range of audiences.

Contact Professor Matthew Hornsey to learn more about the research.

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