How to spur action on climate change

Behaviorists weigh in on how to motivate change. A green-themed soap opera, perhaps?

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Cyclists ride along Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Mass.

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.

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.

Later this month, the second annual Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference will convene in Sac­ra­­mento, Calif.

“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.

Once they’re done deliberating, people design a plan to change behavior and then implement it. Here’s where relapse becomes worrisome. Whereas incentives didn’t make much difference at earlier stages, they can now greatly reinforce the new behavior.

Resistance can also be avoided by framing the issue differently, says Ted Nordhaus, managing partner at American Environics in Oakland, Calif., a firm that brings psychological and cognitive science to bear on social-change strategies.

For example, stressing the idea that human activity is behind global warming can be counterproductive, he says. It can provoke retrenchment and backlash.

“When [Al] Gore says this is a moral issue, what people hear is that ‘my lifestyle is immoral,’ ” Mr. Nordhaus says. “People don’t respond well to people telling them that their life is immoral.”
Simply treating global warming as an on-the-ground fact while avoiding discussion of causation can skirt this pitfall, he says. Once people accept climate change as a reality, that’s the time to talk about addressing possible causes, like human activity, he says.

“We need to stop telling people that they’re immoral – stop trying to win an argument we don’t need to win about whether it’s caused by human activity – and move on to solutions,” says Nordhaus.
Others stress the importance of design in changing human behavior.

For example, great differences in participation exist between “opt in” and “opt out” programs. If driver’s licenses automatically include the driver in organ-donation programs (one must “opt out” to not participate), 80 to 90 percent will participate. If the driver must “opt in,” only 20 percent choose to. The same holds true with retirement-savings programs and “green” energy programs offered by utilities. If participation is the default choice, many more people will participate.

“If we want to realize the energy­ efficiency gains that are possible, it will take acknowledging that the problem is a design failure, not a people failure, and fixing this,” writes K. Carrie Armel, an energy-efficiency research associate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in a presentation.

Simple feedback measures help, says Dr. Armel. When consumers can visualize their electricity use, they tend to use less. Having a meter centrally located inside one’s house can reduce energy consumption by 10 to 14 percent.

The Energy Monitor in the hybrid Toyota Prius – a simple representation of the car as battery, engine, electric motor, and tires – also improves efficiency. Able to visualize energy use, drivers routinely achieve 60 miles per gallon, she says.

In Mexico, soap operas that touch on family planning are credited with redu­cing the country’s population growth rate by one-third between 1977 and 1986. Twenty-five countries now use television dramas to tackle social problems like HIV and domestic abuse. Why not energy use and climate change?

“If you’re trying to have people learn things, it’s much easier to get them to change behavior when they can observe somebody they have some positive feelings for change,” says University of California’s Schuck.

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