Terror Management Theory and mortality awareness: A missing link in climate response studies?

Sarah E. Wolfe, Amit Tubi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Adaptation and mitigation efforts are hampered by multiple obstacles and thus lag behind climate changes' speed and scope. Some of the most powerful obstacles to climate action are the social-psychological factors that influence human thought, preferences, and behaviors. These factors, including those articulated by environmental psychology generally, and Terror Management Theory (TMT) specifically, are neglected within climate response research. TMT underlies an extensive and well-established literature; researchers have shown that efforts to repress one's mortality awareness, triggered when people are explicitly or implicitly reminded of their unavoidable death, influences individuals' attitudes and behavior. These psychological defenses, including denial, distraction and worldview defense, sometimes produce counter-intuitive and potentially counter-productive outcomes. Meanwhile, the growing global awareness and media coverage of climate change, and much scholarly research, has skewed toward negative “disaster and death” narratives. Exposure to such stimuli, highlighting climate change's potentially life-threatening effects, may exacerbate counter-productive responses. In this thought experiment, we propose that mortality awareness could be a critical variable that helps explain climate action at the individual and societal levels. We survey TMT insights, focusing on the relationship between mortality reminders and human responses. We then identify how climate change may lead to increased mortality awareness and consider the psychological defenses triggered by this awareness. We argue that mortality defenses may both limit and advance climate action. Finally, we set out an agenda for TMT-climate response research and discuss the potential to advance several inquiry lines, including climate change communication, collective action and the capacity for transformational responses. This article is categorized under: Perceptions, Behavior, and Communication of Climate Change > Behavior Change and Responses.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere566
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • Terror Management Theory
  • adaptation
  • climate change
  • mitigation
  • mortality awareness


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