New Jersey Now “Gets” Climate Change. What We Are Still Missing: Why We’re Not Talking About What We’re Not Talking About: Part 4

By Matt Polsky

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Image by Claire Bryden[1]

Introduction and Importance

Why are we not talking about the things we don’t usually talk about that need to be involving climate change? Why is it so hard to talk about or hear certain things like a carbon tax, a zero carbon emissions goal, or the many other steps we can or may have to take to address this immense problem, or it’s taking decades which we no longer have?

Mindset barriers or traps are a big part of the reason. They overlap to various degrees with many other concepts, such as world view, mental models, obsolete paradigms, cognitive biases, cognitive sticking points, blind spots or blinders, myths, ideology, stories, narratives, unquestioned assumptions, dogma, mantras, emotionalism, faith, group think, and certitudes. Some of these can have a positive or neutral side, or are necessary in some way.

We also can include unquestioned beliefs about business-as-usual practices—and not just in business, or “that’s just the way it is” shrugs. In certain contexts we can add references to someone’s “mentality,” “psychology,” “temperament,” or “the way the person is wired.” There are also language, framing, and communications issues.

These are barriers to awareness and critical thinking which keep us from seeing what we must see and process in order to address the problem, ways of seeing the world that are preventing us from being open to a fuller range of possibilities. To the degree that is, say, knowledge, we are not restricting it to facts and figures only. We include intuition, feelings, and other ways of knowing—if they can potentially help us and are available.

So there are a lot and diverse group of them. One count of just cognitive biases listed twelve of them, such as confirmation bias and status-quo bias (Dvorsky 2013), but there may be many more of just these.

In the climate change field, we are used to discussions of barriers, which usually means economic, political, or technological ones. Without necessarily explicitly always putting it that way, these are all external. That is, they come from the outside. But according to a Ph.D. progress report, mindset barriers are those “we do to ourselves; not those for which we are able to blame someone else (Polsky 2018A).” While there may be social pressure to think or act in a climate change-worsening way (and often there is), this is not the Koch Brothers forcing counter-productive public policy on us. That’s a whole separate thing. Whereas we at least theoretically have the free will to make our own decisions. We are fooling ourselves.

If we’re not able to see what needs to be seen, we’re much less likely to have the important conversations and consider the ideas, including those out-of-the-box and creative ones, that may be necessary to better address climate change.

In a recent article, columnist David Brooks, wrote: “People with single all-explaining ideologies have a tendency to let their philosophic blinders distort how they view empirical reality (Brooks 2018).”

In an Appendix of the Green Economy Proposal mentioned in the first Recommendation in Part 1 of this Series, mindset barriers “make implementing or even conceiving of very large scale changes more difficult.” “To get very far on any serious level of a green economy for New Jersey will require challenging these mindsets.”

This can affect what is discussed, lobbied over, gets into the press and is read or not. If we can challenge the mindsets blocking it, perhaps we can have these discussions; or when specific creative ideas come up, they will be more readily considered prime for mainstream attention, evaluation, and, of course, critically important, possible implementation.

Definitions: What’s Mindset Barriers Are Not, What They’re Like, and What They Are

What They’re Not
Mindset barriers are not identical to human error, though they may come out looking that way. Errors can happen for many reasons, including those made by decisions based on good data and analysis. But if the person making the error won’t admit to or correct it once made aware of it because they are not open to, say, questioning their own implicit bias, or their excess self-certainty closes down pathways to refutation, those are mindset barriers.

We’re also not talking about deliberate lies or untruthful statements, per se, as most of the above are not necessarily conscious, or statements are seen as truthful by the maker of them. But the perceived societal acceptance of, say, even modest spin may qualify as a “just business-as-usual” mindset, which is a part of the underlying problem—and keeps us from better understandings, discussions, strategies, and progress.

It’s also important to acknowledge that not all issues require a search for nuance. Not everything has a gray area. There are issues with absolutes, such as pure good or pure evil, and, certainly, there are times to act and not over-think. But it can be a mindset barrier that keeps one from fairly considering whether an issue actually is in one or more of these categories, or is just assumed to have, say, “moral clarity (Guan 2019).”

What They Are Somewhat Like
See the early “Introduction” section for concepts that are somewhat similar to mindset barriers, such as dogma, group think, and cognitive bias.

What They Are
The Green Economy Proposal, which aimed to take the idea of a non-polluting economy nearly economy-wide and had forty three recommendations by which to do so, described mindset barriers as “underlying and (sometimes) quiet attitudinal obstacles to a green economy.” Two dictionary definitions of mindsets are:

• “A fixed mental attitude and disposition that pre-determines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations (”
• “A person’s way of thinking (Cambridge).”

Rimanoczy, as she developed a case for a positive view of a mindset (that we’ll be exploring in a later Part), defined it as “…a lens through which to look at information received daily. That lens will give you a different perspective, how to analyze information, draw conclusions and how to create solutions for challenges.” She calls a mindset “very personal (RimanoczyA),” and comparing it to behavior, “what we see,”…“the foundation of our behavior is out of sight. It’s found by our values, beliefs, and assumptions, and is not necessarily conscious (RimanoczyB).”

We’ll be looking at mindsets in a negative way, as a big part of the problem keeping us from potential solutions, although some mindsets can be positive. Turning some of Rimanoczy and Fairfield’s thinking about positive mindsets inside out gives us more understanding of the negative side discussed here.

They also provide some suggestions to change mindsets, although it is not clear their suggestions can work at the level of societal change. Cambridge notes that mindsets are “extraordinary hard to change (Cambridge).” However, while it may be a coincidence or just ironic, or may show some surprising potential that in the above-article by Brooks, while making a case for “A New [Political] Center,” he discussed the de-ideologization (to coin a phrase) of a libertarian spurred by… climate change. He writes about Jerry Taylor, the head of the Niskanen Center, a think tank: “The first cracks were over the issue of global warming…There is nothing in [the Libertarian] creed that should bias a person one way or another over whether a global warming is a serious problem or not…Yet Taylor found many libertarians, fired by ideological zeal, had slid into the position of minimizing climate change because they didn’t like some of the big government remedies that were being proposed to address it. Once he saw this tendency on climate change, he saw it everywhere and on all sides.”

Examples of Mindset Barriers and the Other Categories
Explicit or Implicit in the Earlier Articles in this Series

Some examples of mindset barriers have already been given. In Part 1, we discussed one that has actually been partially overcome: “We can either do [carbon] mitigation or resiliency…now we hear more of ‘both.” Another was the focus of the discussion leading up to Recommendation 3: “There is no purpose or recognition of the need to talk to conservatives or Trump voters about addressing climate change. They’re not part of the picture; or worse, are seen as unchangeable ‘deniers.’ Even though we’re saying we need huge carbon emission reductions, somehow we’ll work around the need for behavioral changes from them to reduce their carbon emissions.” A number of ways also were given to try to talk to Trump voters about coming over to this side of the climate change challenge.

There were also:

• Discussions of conferences, particularly those focused on students, that give the impression that a limited range of strategies, such as advocacy and activism on certain issues, are sufficient to address this immense problem
• Refusal to show humility by conceding “we don’t fully know how to solve the problem”
• Not emphasizing the need for constant learning
• The ambition of government initiatives can be constrained by conventional political logic of what is currently politically acceptable for government to do.

To be clear, all of these impressions or messages are wrong.

Part 2 also implicitly included some mindset barriers:

• Organizational cultures at the most relevant state government agencies to addressing climate change do not require explicit attention to barriers they may inadvertently be imposing
• The belief that admirable concepts such as efficiency and innovation are straightforward, and don’t have potential downsides to be acknowledged and addressed
• Only minor improvements in the level of bicycling are feasible
• Carbon sequestration is not necessary and would necessarily distract from carbon reduction efforts.

Again—these are wrong.

Part 3 also identified some mindset barriers:

• We’re going to be able to achieve transformation without a vigorous, competent, visionary, creative, reflective, and responsive state government
• Current business-as-usual government stakeholder processes are sufficient
• Calls at the end of forums for “more education” adequately convey the necessary urgency of providing it
• Current use of social communications subfields like social marketing, behavioral economics, and climate communications are sufficient
• There is no reason to go beyond current common use of market “costs” and “prices,” other than briefly mentioning in our Economics 101 classes that they vastly understate the economic and other damage from externalities, which is a huge part of the creation of the problem
• There is little or nothing to learn from European and other foreign experiences addressing climate change.

All of these limit us.

Inverting the Insights of Writers About a Positive Mindset

It can be useful if we look inversely at what has been written about a positive mindset to show more about how negatives ones can be problematic. [2] For instance:

• Rimanoczy, looking at the very word, questions the very idea that a mindset is “just in the mind”
• “Either/or logic (Rimanoczy in Cooke 2018).”

Fairfield cites many negative mindset qualities that others mention, starting with Doppelt:

• “One’s primary focus [is] me
• Seeing the systems you are part of…experience our thoughts and feelings as separating us from other species or strangers who seem different…
• … instinctively focus on single causes and one-way causation rather than feedback loops and non-linear change. We ignore time delays of outcomes. Symptoms draw our attention, not root causes, as do immediate effects rather than long-term patterns (Doppelt 2012)”…and ”optimizing only certain parts will inevitably lead to suboptimal or even destructive outcomes for the entire system (Ackuff 2007 in Doppelt 2012).” “Our desire for quick fixes negates our ability to take accountability for more than merely fragmentary responses with complex systems like climate change…”
• “Earlier impulses toward survival of one’s own family, tribe, and clan have outlived their usefulness…but the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality endures”
• (Not) “acknowledging your trustee obligations and taking responsibility for the continuation of all life”
• “Holding back” on “exerting our free will,” giving into “confirmation bias,” and …“considering ideas as established facts, not just our own inferences with which we construct our own understandings (Doppelt 2012).”

Fairfield also references Rimanoczy, who references Adams (2008):

• A “short time orientation
• A local scope of attention (Adams 2008 in Rimanoczy 2013).” [3]

Fairfield asks: “Why is there so little action to reverse [our declining] course (Fairfield 2018)?” He then cites Rimanoczy’s “several factors of resistance to [positive] change,” which include:

• “Control—humans have claimed their superiority to the animal world for centuries, and this carries over to controlling the earth.” She uses the term from Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: ‘species arrogance”
• “Comfort–….much of the quest for comfort in modern society has been purchased at the expense of exploiting natural resources beyond any sustainable level (Rimanoczy 2013)”
• (Referencing Markus and Kitayama) “Independence—… the general tendency of Americans toward a more individualistic construal of self militates against easily acquiring such a mindset concerned with general welfare… (Markus and Kitayama 1991 In Rimanoczy 2013)”
• “Competition—the drive to compete…runs deep. ‘Survival of the fittest’ reveals linear thinking and leaves little room for notions of collaboration for the common good. Hard-core market values and competition crowds out compassion and care for others and the world
• Speed–…the norm of speed offers the illusion of high productivity, even though it can leave little room for multi-faceted consideration and profound reflection”
• “When TV news reports daily on vicious political back-biting, mayhem and crime, it builds an accretion of expectations of self-centered, fear-drenched life in the world.”

Rimanoczy also blames, perhaps surprisingly, too much emphasis on “the classical scientific approach of left brain analysis of sustainability,” and its “quashing” of “deep insights through strong intuition”… “by the premium put on positivistic proof (Rimanoczy 2013).”

Mindset Barriers From the Green Economy Proposal

An Appendix within the above Proposal discussed fourteen mindset traps involving the green economy, most of which are reproduced below, some in condensed form, as they apply directly or indirectly to climate change, too.

• “The focus by some on the issue, as they see it, of ‘over-regulation,’ ‘onerous regulators/enforcers,’ lost equity due to regulation creates such anger that it makes it hard to even engage a discussion of a green economy” [4]
• “The apparent and certainly welcome-sounding agreement on just about all sides of debates that ‘we can have both economic vitality and environmental protection,’ with perhaps one or two examples given, can hide that we’re not necessarily all talking about the same thing. If we’re inadvertently talking past each other, we’re not going to do our best in actually achieving ‘both.’ Further, we may not know how to do that, or what the best of ‘both’ even looks like
• There is little knowledge (among all sectors) that there is such a thing as a sustainable business field; that it has journals, conferences, and graduate programs; that there has been an expansion of the range of sustainable business actions, including those which are unexpected, innovative, and bold; and that the field has the potential to help address stubborn environmental and social problems
• There is surprising lack of shared knowledge in New Jersey about the urgency of the overall global environmental crisis. For instance, Lester Brown’s work on global environmental trends rarely comes up. The biodiversity crisis rarely comes up. This has changed fairly recently for climate change, but for decades interest was very modest
• There also is, perhaps, a surprising lack of shared knowledge that protecting ecosystems is requisite for economic development (although it has been argued that the reverse is true, as well)
• It has been expressed that New Jersey is already a leader when it comes to businesses practicing sustainability, though there is limited evidence of that
• There is a strong belief that small businesses cannot be expected to do very much that is sustainable, as they are preoccupied with survival, have to tend to conventional operational matters, and/or don’t have the capital to invest in environmental actions. But this isn’t fully accurate, at least not all the time… For more imaginative views of the possibilities for small businesses, view this video: ‘A Passion for Sustainability’ (Stacey, 2008)”
• As discussed in another Appendix of the Proposal, “a summary of an article, ‘A Look at Sustainable Development in New Jersey’ (Polsky, 2014) [there is] a widely shared and bi-partisan attitude: that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Certain things everyone is familiar with will never change: businesses and environmentalists will always fight, as will Democrats and Republicans; degrees of regulatory aggressiveness just go through cycles of ‘toughness’ and ‘flexibility,’ and that’s just natural; there aren’t any new ideas, and journalists won’t look to cover them… the public might say they support environmental protection, but don’t want to be inconvenienced in any ways, or pay more taxes or fees to get there
• There is a lack of apparent familiarity with systems thinking, at either modest or deep levels, and how it can relate to topics under discussion
• There is a strong preference in policy circles for values like practicality, political feasibility, legality, what is seen as ‘the real world;’ instead of vision, creativity, ideas seen as ‘academic,’ explicit mention of ‘values,’ or asking ‘What is really possible…if?’ or ‘What is really needed here?’ Other sectors (business, environmental groups, academic, local government) have their own preferences. This makes it difficult to be open to the possibilities for productive hybrids made up of combinations of those favored and those not, such as ‘practical idealism’ (Polsky and Lipoti 2016), which could help in the pursuit of creative ideas’ which may be important for addressing climate change.” (Polsky and Lipoti also “explored widely accepted ‘opposites’ and found that [in some cases] they actually are not, and ‘can be complementary…” if “mental barriers [are] overcome.” These included rationality and emotionalism, complexity and simplicity, data and non-quantifiables.)

The following, perhaps not quite a mindset but, rather, an expectation—or a lack of one, similar to what was discussed in Part 3 (and still excerpting from the above-Proposal):

• “Senior managers in government do not seem to think they owe staffers an explanation of the status of reports completed and sent to them, or why their [the staffers’] recommendations are not being considered or have been rejected. Further, staffers seem to not even expect a response. This is not an atmosphere conducive for innovation. In addition, such reports may or may not be posted on the agency’s website, or done so without special notice. So there also is little expectation the public might benefit from knowing about and, if they choose, seeing the new ideas, even if these are not under consideration. Perhaps an occasional ‘What’s Coming Across Our Desks’ blog entry on agencies’ websites would be a partial solution, and even better if it encourages informal public comment. However, as the public might assume the completion of such reports means the agency must be serious about incorporating their recommendations, it would have to be made clear when that is not the case. Perhaps the public, if it knows about, reads and gets excited about the contents, could persuade government to change its mind on its importance.”

“While also not necessarily rising to the level of a mindset, there are a number of language and framing issues, and sometimes commonly held understandings associated with communications which can be obstacles.

These are:

• ‘Successful’ sustainable businesses are sometimes seen that way just because of [the sustainability] feature, and ‘failed’ ones also for the same reason, when that may or may not be the main reason for those outcomes
• It is commonly asserted that ‘business is against XYZ regulation or policy,’ when that isn’t necessarily true; for example for New Jersey Sustainable Business Council members. Business should not be assumed to be monolithic (which is also true for the other players)
• Any environmental claim by a business is automatically seen as ‘greenwash’ in some circles, assumed to be illegitimate or fraudulent, which, among other things, does not provide much incentive for trying something new in an environmental area needing improvement and innovation
• While sustainable business and corporate social responsibility are called ‘Voluntary’ in this Proposal and Appendix, this term and its opposite: ‘Mandatory’ are not fully exhaustive of the possibilities. A basically voluntary system could still work better at times if complemented with carefully considered regulations. Conversely, while ‘Voluntary’ and ‘Deregulation’ are not the same thing, under four tightly conscribed circumstances, some degree of the latter are imaginable.” [5]

Beyond what was in the Green Economy Proposal, here are more examples of mindset barriers or similar concepts:

• There is a, perhaps, more insidious, nuanced form of denial that Gooding-Call calls “as harmful as any level of denial-based inaction.” These are from “people who, theoretically, are on the right side.” They “may absorb climate change information without processing it,” and “…believers shake their heads and sigh about climate change before proceeding onward with business as usual,” such as “moderate liberals [who] nod vacantly and ignore pleas to change… (Gooding-Call 2018)” This helps explain why even during politically “good” environmental periods we don’t take the necessary steps. While it may be seen as important, it just isn’t that urgent. It isn’t considered a mainstream topic or as relevant as the scandal or emergency of the day
• A number of fields say that it is always better to aim for simple communications, avoid nuances (it is a bumper-sticker world, after all), and academic, overly scientific, or policy-wonky concepts. And never use doom-and-gloom-laden messages, even though society and the universe are complex systems, with non-linearity’s and tipping points, and an overwhelming presumption of “simple is best” risks missing the very point we’re in a crisis (And who wants to hear that?)
• Assumptions that widely quoted personal “Theories of Change”—such as “Be the Change” or “Throw a pebble in the ocean and trust the current created“–are fully tested and adequate for the needed transformational changes ahead
• Appearing confident, all-knowing, and determined are important qualities of leadership. Seeming personable is an important quality to getting to a leadership position
• Appearing 100% confident of your position, implying the opposition is zero percent right–on all issues, all the time– is essential to the public communicator. Conceding mistakes should be very rare and is always a political liability
• As others have noted, the remaining uncertainty about the evidence for human-caused climate change is considered sufficient by some for avoiding action, despite the weight of evidence, the risks and consequences, even though the thresholds for weighing action when there are uncertainties are much less for issues they support for ideological reasons, like the actual threat of nuclear actions by Saddam Hussein as justification for the second Iraqi War
• Similarly, in some circles, it is acceptable to argue for holding off on actions to address climate change if you can point to a larger alleged culprit
• It is considered perfectly fine to give one’s usually negative view on “taxes” without being expected or asked also to consider the benefits provided by them, to confirm whether someone complaining about them is even aware that there are benefits, and is prepared to live without them. This contributes to a cultural norm that taxes are a bad thing, which makes it more difficult to pass a carbon tax
• Lack of active listening, particularly by those who professionally advocate and practice it, but not when they are “off-the-clock”
• Proponents of science, including academics, who forget some of its key tenets, such as being open to being proven wrong, and who don’t ensure that they keep separate what they think is true from what they want to believe is true
• While sustainability does come up from time to time at climate change conferences, usually it’s as an adjective prefix to, say, farming or another field like architecture, which may or may not reflect any fundamental re-thinking of that field, as implied by the inclusion of that prefix. Or it may come up when referencing an initiative like Sustainable Jersey. But for the most part, deep ideas and tenets from sustainability are often missing or not well integrated into the thinking about addressing climate change. The same is true of terms sometimes nominated to succeed “sustainability” like “regeneration.” It’s as if climate change could be addressed without conscious and serious attention to sustainability. Those coming at the climate change issue from the sustainability side would be unlikely to make that mistake, especially these days
• The sustainable business field mantra that “We only manage what we measure” for assessing performance is not accompanied by acknowledgement that it’s worth worrying about its potential downsides such as measuring the wrong things, missing the point, or unanticipated negative consequences from the often-accompanying over-focus on numbers. This can include the creation of incentives for manipulation (Polsky 2015A ) [6]
• The certitude that even corporate social responsibility-practicing businesses should not get involved in advocating pro-sustainability policy positions because it’s not their role as businesses, and/or in these highly partisan times, you can only create enemies on one side or the other. This is despite the emergence of companies and surprising actions driven explicitly by “Purpose,” or giving evidence of it (Polsky 2015B ). [7] Recent examples include: Patagonia announced it is “in business to save our home planet” and, according to founder, Yvon Chouinard, will be “speaking up more loudly and often (Beer 2018).” The chief executive of PayPal, Dan Schulman, said that companies “have a moral obligation to be a force for good,” and “I don’t think there’s any way to fully stand away from the culture wars around us. You have to take a stand (Gelles 2018).” The founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, “invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars in, which has a goal of getting all eligible Americans to vote (Brenner 2018).”


There are many specific mindset barriers and examples within the other categories mentioned, such as cognitive biases and world view–things we do to ourselves, which makes it more difficult to talk about the scope of actions potentially available to seriously address climate change. These are separate from the obstacles created by policies espoused by powerful political opponents of addressing climate change. If we can’t talk about potentially useful ideas, then we’re unlikely to implement them.

There certainly are other, perhaps many, of these internal types of barriers.

In a future Part we will see how mindsets can be a good thing, as well as a few views on how psychology and social science approaches can be useful, a continuation of this Series’ theme: What is Not (or rarely) Coming Up at Climate Change Conferences.

Recommendations for Policies and Actions

Recommendation 26: It is difficult at this point to think of specific recommendations to overcome the mindset barrier problem. For now, try to be aware of relevant mindset barriers, cognitive biases, and the other categories blocking the holding of important discussions and consideration of potentially useful ideas and options. Look for ways to identify and challenge them, both in society and within oneself.

Academics, in particular, should aim to lead society in addressing this challenge. They should model for students critical thinking and openness to ideas. This includes reflecting on their own possible mindset barriers and explaining if they become aware of any, and how that helps them look at ideas they had previously missed.

There is clearly a need to do much more to change negative mindsets. [8] A future Part’s look at the more positive vision of a “Sustainability Mindset” offers tools and approaches developed by those in that area for use at the individual, classroom, and organizational levels. Perhaps some of these also will be relevant from which to draw recommendations at the level of societal change sought here.


The author would like to thank Jonathan Cloud and Sandy Polsky for multiple editing suggestions on an earlier draft.

End Notes

[1] If Ms. Bryden were to ask for ideas for a second, partially whimsical epistemological iteration of her graphic, I might suggest additional colors or slices for: Things we don’t want to know, Things we really don’t want to know, Things we partly know, Things for which we think our political opponents have the other part but we don’t want to concede it, Things we know but don’t want to admit, Things we don’t know but know we can get from our spouse, children—if willing to pay the price, or Google if we asked, Things smack in front of us that we can’t see, Dots for which we don’t know show a pattern—or are just dots, Things which we know are “Facts,” but it turns out have been shown to be outdated, Things which are ambiguous and for which we’re not sure whether we know. I couldn’t say how much of her “Knowledge Pie” these might take up.

[2] We’ll show the positive complements of some of these in a future Part.

[3] Three more mindset barriers should be clearer once their positive complements are provided in a future Part that Fairfield cites directly from Rimanoczy: A “reactive focus on response,” an “accountability and blame problem or error consideration,” and a “life orientation [of] doing and having (Rimanoczy 2013).”

[4] Another Appendix in the above-Proposal offered ideas to address the “over-regulation” issue, such as “taking advantage of [the work of] Porter and van der Linde (1995), including ‘focusing on outcomes, not (requiring specific) technologies,’ regulations should be ‘strict rather than lax,’ ‘employ… phase-in periods.”

[5] See the Proposal for further explanation, such as “If a green economy succeeds beyond any expectation. For example, if widespread use of green design makes regulations, in certain circumstances, simply unnecessary as ‘pollution is designed out.”

[6] This article will link to a whole series by the author on “Pitfalls of Sustainable Business Metrics,” with many more such examples.

[7] This article will link to another Series with many examples.

[8] Readers with ideas on this are invited to contact the author, who is undergoing a literature review for his Ph.D. dissertation, in part searching the academic, peer-reviewed literature on this question. Relatedly, this topic may raise a number of unanticipated issues and questions, some of which do not have ready answers. Readers may send these, too, to

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