How to spur action on climate change
Behaviorists weigh in on how to motivate change. A green-themed soap opera, perhaps?
Not-so-great news about the planet arrived apace in October. The US government released its Arctic Report Card for 2008. The compilation of observations by 46 scientists from 10 nations concluded that arctic temperatures were 9 degrees F. higher this fall than normal. (Last year was the warmest ever recorded in the Arctic.) Shrubs are colonizing what was once permafrost. Snow geese are expanding their range northward. Receding sea ice – this year’s loss was second only to last year’s record melt – may be hurting animals like walruses and polar bears that rely on it.Skip to next paragraph
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Many see the news as evidence of an ongoing environmental disaster. But while “green” has become an all-too-common prefix, meaningful action is scarce. Has the environmental movement failed to win hearts and minds?
Now behavioral scientists are joining environmentalists to address the problem of climate change and human attitudes toward it. Maybe it’s time, they say, to refocus the global-warming debate on solutions rather than causes, to design more “opt out” conservation programs, and maybe to promote a soap opera or two with a green theme.
“We have a pretty serious challenge ahead of us,” says Linda Schuck, conference chair and an adviser in the office of the president of the University of California in Oakland. “We need to use all the tools that we have available.”
Experts tend to point to several examples of the kind of effort needed to tackle the climate challenge: the mobilization of an entire society during World War II; the long and sustained effort represented by the cold war; the simultaneous bottom-up and top-down efforts of the civil rights movement; and the decades-long antismoking campaign. Some also point to the adoption and spread of recycling programs in recent decades.
The good news: Humanity can, and has, altered its behavior en masse before. The not-so-good news: The current climate challenge is unprecedented.
“Humanity has never experienced a situation in which the entire world is placed at risk because of human activities,” says Bob Doppelt, director of the Climate Leadership Initiative at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and author of “The Power of Sustainable Thinking.” “Humans are basically in charge of the climate, and we’re not doing a very good job.” Meeting the challenge calls for changing the way we think, he says. To do this, policymakers need to understand how people change their minds, and determine where people’s thought is along the continuum that leads to meaningful action.
Invested in the status quo, people begin their journey by not caring to change – or not wanting to, Mr. Doppelt says. As the necessity for change sinks in, they begin deliberating. During this second phase, helping people understand the cost-benefit ratio is critical, he says. If benefits don’t outweigh costs by 2 to 1, people generally don’t commit to change. (People aren’t convinced of this ratio now, he says.) In this phase, information goes a long way.