Climate Week is over. What do we do now?

Climate Week is over. What do we do now?

Whiteboard image from Climate Week 2014 by Kate Evans via CIFOR

Jolting us back to earth from the exhilarating high of Climate Week was the release of a sobering report that atmospheric CO2 has reached record levels. From 2012 to 2013, atmospheric CO2 increased more than any other time since 1984.

Despite the marches, business coalitions, divestment pressure and political shifting, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb on average 2.5 percent per year for the last decade. Inspiration? Got it. Awareness? Check. Meaningful deep reductions in CO2 emissions? Not so much.

Why have we not been able to turn our good intentions into greenhouse gas reductions? Yes, some companies are taking climate seriously, seeing the opportunity of mitigating greenhouse gases, and indeed are making progress. But far more action is needed. How do we build on the growing concern among the public and the business community to achieve real, significant and lasting reductions in CO2 emissionsand fast?

There are many barriers to action. Chief among them, however, is that changing behavior is hard. As Amory Lovins and others have shown, we have the technology to achieve massive CO2 reductions, but that's only one piece. Ben and Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim recently shared with me, “Technology gives us the ability to make changes. It does not give us the will. Will comes from an emotional connection.”

So how do we create a deep emotional connection to climate change, deep enough to motivate broad change and action?

Climate change is particularly challenging because it feels distant, remote and huge, which can lead to a sense of powerlessness. It’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing. Compounding the challenge, climate action has all too often been framed as loss, sacrifice and cost. And of course in the United States, climate change has become one of the most politically polarizing issues of our time.

So where do we go from here? How do we motivate an increasingly aware and concerned public to act? These 5 key elements from the social sciences can be used to encourage behavior change with employees, stakeholders, friends, family or anyone else:

1. Create an emotional connection

Much of the communications around climate have focused on the science and impacts. For many of us, the science is compelling and strikes an emotional chord. But because human behavior is a complex interaction of social, psychological and environmental factors, logic and facts are not enough. If facts were all we needed, there would likely be few smokers and we’d all eat healthy food and exercise every day since the science could not be more conclusive. It’s important to appeal to the emotional, not just the rational mind. As Kotter and Cohen explain in The Heart of Change, change happens not when you make people think differently, but when you make people feel differently.

Inspire, don’t just talk scary science. Negative emotions such as fear can be motivating and do have their place, especially when an action requires an immediate decision such as whether or not to flee an oncoming hurricane; but fear can also overwhelm and disempower.

Solitaire Townsend of sustainability communications firm Futerra wisely notes, “Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream, not a nightmare.” Hope is a powerful, compelling emotion which is why so many political campaigns use it.

We are starting to see many groups talk less about the climate threat and more about the climate opportunity using solution storiesexamples of what is working such as the rapid increase in renewables; amazing efficiency successes; economic opportunity through climate innovation; and cities being transformed by reducing carbon intensity, simultaneously improving the quality of life for the residents. People can get excited about being a part of something that is hopeful. For millennia stories have helped us create meaning and tap into emotion.

2. Make it popular

Research has shown that we filter information through our cultural lens. We use information to validate our existing world views. “Cultural cognition” is the conforming of beliefs to those that predominate in one’s group. If climate information is inconsistent with the beliefs of those with whom I share close ties, I am more likely to reject the information. It’s no wonder that the well-funded climate deniers meticulously documented in Naomi Oreskes' “Merchants of Doubt” were able to get such a foothold. We are hard wired to find ways to reinforce our existing world views and reject information that is in conflict with it.

If we are inclined to believe and accept information consistent with our peer group’s values and perceptions, then how does one make headway with someone whose peer group is disinclined or neutral to accepting climate change? Put another way, how do we talk to people whose views are different from our own?

The first step is to frame the dialogue so that it is reflective of the values and interests of the audience. If you’re talking with an evangelical Christian, frame climate as caring for god’s creation; a business person can relate to financial opportunity and risk; national security might resonate with a military hawk. Frames help people decipher meaning through their own beliefs.

Second, use key opinion leaders from their group to deliver the message. Research has shown that one of the largest drivers for the adoption of new behaviors is the behavior of peers. A great example of leveraging this concept occurred in June when Risky Business launched its report on the economic risks of climate change in the United States. They wisely led with three well-regarded co-chairs: a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent. That gave three diverse audiences credible opinion leaders whose messages they might be open to hearing.

Once a respected member of a peer group acknowledges climate change it creates a safer space for others to follow. When this happens, highlight examples so that others can see the growing popularity of the viewpoint.

3. Make it relevant

Because climate change feels to so many as a distant threat, it’s important to accurately localize the impacts to make it feel real. Whenever possible, connect what is happening locally to the changing climate. While individual climate events can rarely be directly correlated to climate change, a connection can be made showing the climate trend and the predicted future impacts. Use caution not to oversell the link between the weather and climate, or it could backfire, such as when a cold winter is erroneously interpreted as proof that climate change is not happening.

Related to localizing climate change is the need to demonstrate how an individual’s actions can make a difference. By doing so it helps people connect with the issue in a concrete way. It’s important to appreciate how the little actions add up to big change.

4. Make it easy

To make a behavior change easier, remove physical and emotional barriers. Barriers might include time, cost, complexity and perceived physical or emotional risk. Create an environment where it is easy to perform the desired behavior and harder to perform the harmful behavior. This is the fundamental logic behind a carbon tax replacing an income tax, adding cost to carbon pollution and removing the tax on what we want to encourage more of, income and wealth generation. By removing barriers and making a behavior feel easy, the hurdle to making the change is lowered

5. Nurture the change

Once a step toward change is taken it is vital to recognize and reward the change. How often have we seen positive change in our organizations only to see months later a slip back to doing things the same way it was done previously? Remember, change is hard. Be vigilant and nurture and support the change. Continue to give incentives, rewards and recognition. Report back and let people know how they are making a difference.

Ed Maibach of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communications summarizes climate behavior change succinctly: "To change behavior, make it easy, fun and popular."

Sounds simple enough. Let’s do it.

Top image by Kate Evans for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) via Flickr