Battling Climate Change by Changing Behavior

From smoking cessation to wearing seat belts, behavior change theories and experiences point to three key conditions needed for people, organizations or society to change -- having a sense of tension, efficacy and benefits. Bob Doppelt, my colleague at the Climate Leadership Initiative, and I have been working to incorporate these three elements into global warming outreach and public engagement campaigns.

Tension -- Global warming needs to become more relevant and more immediate to people's lives. Tension can be experienced as negative or positive and is created when there is an obvious disconnect between people’s values and what is at risk from global warming. For example, disturbances, such as extreme weather incidents, do create some interest and awareness but the connection must be made to larger shifts in climate patterns, rather than limiting the association to individual storm incidents. A better idea is to focus on how global warming impacts what people care about most (i.e. health, security, wellbeing of children, etc.)

bikesEfficacy -- People may care deeply about global warming, but if they can’t see what can be done to address it either by society or through their own actions, they are likely to disengage. There needs to be a greater emphasis on solutions that are available now and the steps being successfully taken by government, business and individuals. Solutions need to be grounded in the present as most Americans do not see global warming as a near-term priority.  While a clean energy future might sound promising, it perpetuates the sense that technologies have yet to be invented that will help us address our climate, energy and economic challenges.

Benefits – Most people need to see twice as many benefits than downsides to taking action. Outreach efforts need to illustrate how addressing global warming will bring tangible improvements to people’s lives. Concepts such as green jobs need to be made more specific and tangible.

Other Recommendations/ Considerations

commuter busFill basic information gaps. Don’t assume audiences understand what global warming is about. Use clear common sense terms. For example, remind people that global warming is caused by burning fossils fuels, such as gas for our cars or coal for our electricity.

Keep using energy and economic frames but fill out a vision of prosperity that illustrates how addressing global warming will bring benefits via the creation of a clean, carbon-free energy economy.

Clearly illustrate the links between global warming, energy and the economy but get more specific about what the opportunities are if steps are taken and what the benefits will be to change. Connecting global warming to energy and economic issues is not just about saving or making money. There are deeper values about prosperity, financial security, and being in a global leadership position that can be tapped.

walking Focus on investments and incentives. Many Americans support the idea of harnessing the power of financial incentives and government playing a role to level the playing field so that companies can have a healthy competition over the development of clean energy sources.

Determine how best to disarm misinformation campaigns. While it is important to avoid spending too much time being on the defensive, there is evidence that climate skeptics are having a significant impact and that misinformation campaigns need to be discredited. One way to do this is to focus on the financing and motivations behind skeptics’ efforts. Another response is to avoid arguments about scientific certainty and instead, focus on the need for transparency, accountability, and leadership in addressing our energy, economic and climate challenges.

Light switchConsider how to leverage national security concerns. Emphasize the need for clean, efficient, carbon-free sustainable energy sources that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Broaden the concept of what we mean by national security by demonstrating the wisdom of preparing for climate impacts so that communities can better withstand extreme weather incidents and other climate shifts.

Consider pre-political engagement. To reach younger Americans, consider a long-term strategy that starts with pre-political activities and moves people to higher levels of participation (political and behavior change) over time. Make it clear what people can do that will make a significant difference, aggregate individual actions, and provide feedback on what is being achieved through public engagement.

Cara Pike is the director of the Social Capital Project at the University of Oregon's Climate Leadership Initiative.

Top image courtesy of Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors. Inset images CC licensed by Flickr users Let Ideas Compete, I See Modern Britain, openDemocracy and stuartpilbrow.