Environmental Psychology: Motivating behaviour change and coping with the fear of climate change

A new environmental psychology study released in December concludes that the most effective programs to encourage climate-friendly behaviour such as reducing energy consumption are those in which financial incentives (rebates, or cheaper prices) are paired with appeals to personal identity and values.  The authors of  Social Mobilization: How to Encourage Action on Climate Change  review  four decades of  psychological research and find  strong empirical support for employing a number of strategies : providing tailored information, soliciting commitment (e.g. pledges), recruiting leaders from within social networks, giving feedback,  and using a variety of other social influence strategies .  This report highlights several successful large-scale programs as models – mostly by utility companies in the United States .  The study was financed and published by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), University of Victoria.  A related, longer report by one of the authors, Reuven Sussman, was  published in October 2016 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.  Behavior change programs: Status and impact  is here  (registration required, free).

Another recent study of found that the moral values of compassion and fairness influenced an individual’s willingness to take personal action to mitigate the effects of climate change.  The authors, from Cornell University, showed that participants who were younger, more liberal, and reported greater belief in climate change, also showed increased willingness to act on climate change.  Ingroup loyalty and authority were not supported as important predictor variables. However, the authors state  :   “Our finding that willingness to take action on climate change was related to moral values embraced by both liberals and conservatives suggests that it is too simplistic to use political ideology alone to predict support for climate change action. ”  The full article, “Which Moral Foundations Predict Willingness to Make Lifestyle Changes to Avert Climate Change in the USA?”  appeared in  PLOSOne in October 2016, and was summarized by the Huffington Post in “ Why some people take action on climate change – and others don’t” (November).

Environmental psychology is also turning attention to the growing mental health issues caused by climate change.  The  first-ever International Conference on Building Personal and Psychosocial Resilience for Climate Change was held on November 3-4, 2016 in Washington D.C.  .  Climate Progress reports on the conference  in  “How to stay sane in the face of climate change” ,   and quotes psychiatrist Lise van Susteren: “before people let their fear turn to hopelessness …  it’s critical to tell them that there are actionable things they can do, in their everyday life …. — measuring your own carbon footprint, putting solar panels on your own home, or paying for carbon offsets to counteract your own travel — can help a person take their fear and transfer that energy into positive action.  And that in turn can help mitigate the mental trauma of the reality of climate change.”   Climate Progress also quotes consultant Bob Doppelt, who told the conference  “Psychological traumas of more frequent storms, floods, and fires associated with climate change, as well as toxic stresses — long term heat waves and droughts, food shortages, involuntary migration, loss of community and breakdown of culture — are eroding personal protective systems, amplifying preexisting mental health problems and creating new mental health issues.” Doppelt has recently published Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing .

How can I make a difference?

Some inspirational excerpts from Bill McKibben’s  recent blog, The Question I get asked the Most,  in which he argues that “What can I do to make a difference?” is the wrong question … ” Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry…. So when people ask me what can I do, I know say the same thing every time: The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual. Join together—that’s why we have movements like 350.org or Green for All, like BlackLivesMatter or Occupy. If there’s not a fight where you live, find people to support, from Standing Rock to the Pacific islands. Job one is to organize and jobs two and three.  And if you have some time left over after that, then by all means make sure your lightbulbs are all LEDs and your kale comes from close to home.”

And for  some practical examples:   the Good Anthropocene  website has posted 100 stories about “practical, community-based initiatives that enhance people’s health and well-being, while at the same time protecting their environment and benefiting the climate.”   These existing initiatives that are not widespread or well-known , which the site calls  ‘seeds’,  include:  Social change through “Social Ecology” in Montreal  and Idle no more: Indigenous activists call for peaceful revolution .  Good Anthropecene has been compiled by academics from  Montreal, Stockholm, and Stellenbosch, South Africa .

Workers Acting in Climate-Friendly Ways: A Study of Union members, Synthesis of Academic Literature, and a Case Study of Pilots

A post in  Portside on May 23  summarizes the research of Jeremy Brecher (of Labor Network for Sustainability) and Todd Vachon, which uses data from 2  national surveys in the U.S. to conclude that: “Union members, far from being only concerned with their immediate self-interest at the expense of a broader common interest in environmental protection, are often more concerned about the environment and more willing to act on that concern than either the public at large or non-union workers”.   A fuller report,   “Are Union Members More or Less Likely to Be Environmentalists? Some Evidence from Two National Surveys” was published as an article in Labor Studies Journal  in April (access restricted).  The article also provides examples from the historical record of labour and environmental issues, with the goal of contributing to the development of labour-community and blue-green coalitions to work for social change.

Another study  appeared in Nature Climate Change in June, regarding the determinants of translating climate change beliefs into actions .  “Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change”  analyzed  27 variables,  drawn from  25 polls and 171 academic studies from 56 nations  (including 7 from Canada).  The authors, from the University of Queensland in Australia, concluded that  variables such as education, sex, subjective knowledge, and experience of extreme weather events were not as important in predicting behaviours as the variables of  values, ideologies, worldviews and political orientation. Surprisingly, the study also concludes “ belief in climate change has a solid relationship with the extent to which people aspire to behave in climate-friendly ways, but a small-to-moderate relationship with the extent to which people `walk the talk’.”

Finally, a practical example:  As reported in the Washington Post  on June 22, and by the Company in a detailed case study , Virgin Atlantic Airways conducted a large-scale experiment  to try to influence its pilots to use less fuel and reduce GhG emissions.  This was a controlled study, overseen by economists from the University of Chicago and London School of Economics, in which  different  behavioural interventions were used, including providing monthly feedback, setting targets, and setting targets plus making corporate charitable donations when targets were met. All pilots reduced their fuel consumption, and  those that received targeted goals, or that received these goals plus charitable donations made, performed the best of all.  The academic report of the study appears in A New Approach to an Age-Old Problem: Solving Externalities by Incenting Workers Directly , a working paper of the National Bureau of Economics (NBER), published in June.

Motivating people to act on Climate Change

Joe Romm of Climate Progress recently compiled a good quick guide:  Here’s what Science has to say about Convincing People to do Something about Climate Change   .  Romm references a core academic article, “Improving Public Engagement with Climate Change: Five ‘Best Practice’ Insights from Psychological Science” (2015)   and there have been many others.  The Washington Post has been following the issue and summarizing other academic papers :   “The vicious cycle that makes people afraid to talk about climate change” (May 12) in the Washington Post summarizes “Climate of Silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion” in Journal of Environmental Psychology , which states that people avoid talking about climate change if they feel that others  are sceptical, for fear of being judged as “less competent”. This leads to a vicious cycle, where no one is talking about climate change, so no one wants to be the first to raise the issue.

Why even people who are very alarmed about climate change often take little action” in the Washington Post is based on “Social norms and efficacy beliefs drive the Alarmed segment’s public-sphere climate actions” , which appeared in Nature Climate Change in May .  This paper shows that people’s willingness to vote, donate, volunteer, contact government officials, and protest about climate change can be encouraged if “alarmed individuals” (those already concerned about climate change) act as public role models and communicate their views.  However, raising awareness without providing a path for action does not drive behaviour change amongst potential followers.

In practical terms, a recent paper published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation contrasts the arguments used to advocate for clean energy – ecological arguments, job creation, self-sufficiency and community empowerment-  in Germany vs. the United States.  Read Building Political Support for a Clean Energy Transition — How Arguments on Solar Power Affect Public Support in Germany and the US  here .

In Canada,  a book to be launched in Vancouver on May 25, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: the Toxic state of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up   examines the broader issue of misinformation campaigns, including climate change, and offers suggestions on how to improve communications and advocacy strategies.  Two encouraging recent examples of clear, factual public statements to counter fear-mongering by climate sceptics:  “Setting The Record Straight on Ontario’s Green Energy Plan” by Keith Brooks in the Huffington Post, which refutes “Coming soon: Ontario’s green energy fiasco, the sequel”, an OpEd in the Globe and Mail (April 29)   and “ What does the carbon levy really mean for me?”   published by the Pembina Institute (May 19), which sets the record straight on the benefits of Alberta’s new policy.

What’s the best way to Motivate Action about Climate Change?

News Media and Climate Politics: Civic Engagement and Political Efficacy in a Climate of Reluctant Cynicism was released by the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in September 2015. It reports the results of seven focus groups from Vancouver who were selected for high levels of awareness about climate change but relatively low levels of political engagement. The responses indicate that positive, optimistic attitudes result from news of success stories, especially concrete examples which illustrate the connection between individual and collective actions. Local information is more engaging; description is more powerful than prescription; and providing information about how to engage politically is just as important as motivating the desire to do so. In addition to the empirical results, this report provides valuable context about other climate change communications research, especially the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. For an easy-to-read summary of some of Yale’s insights, see the September interview of the Director, Anthony Leiserowitz, in Grist “What’s the Best way to communicate about Climate Change: This Expert offers some Answers”.