How to Get People to Adopt More Climate-Friendly Behaviors

Dear sustainability advocate: I know you are tired.

You spend your life looking climate apocalypse in the eye and knowing that human behavior needs to change to avert catastrophe. But are humans changing their behavior? Not fast enough.

And why not? You’ve started carpooling and weatherized your house and it wasn’t so hard. So why don’t your neighbors get it? Why aren’t they doing anything?

Pictures of polar bears on melting ice floes may tug at the heartstrings but they won't change people's climate-damaging ways, according to behavioral scientists.

These questions have unleashed a new field of climate change-related behavioral science. I write now from its epicenter: the Garrison Institute symposium on Climate, Cities and Behavior in New York’s Hudson Valley. The idea is to figure out what mental processes are at work when people decide to change something in their own lives for the greater good – specifically, for the environment. After all, cities can set emissions reductions targets all they want but they need people to actually reduce their emissions to meet their goals. And no one can force your neighbors to turn off their air conditioners. They’ll have to make that decision themselves.

Here are some strategies, from the behavioral scientists to you:

Attitudes follow behavior, not the other way around.

Here’s what we wish would happen: Joe Schmo stumbles upon a brilliantly researched and written article in, oh I don’t know, Streetsblog, for example, that convinces him that climate change is real and dangerous and that he needs to do something. So he ditches his car and starts riding a bike to work. That’s an unlikely scenario, sadly. Maybe it’s because people get defensive when their lifestyle is criticized before they’re ready to give it up. Anyway, the more likely scenario is that Joe Schmo already rides a bike, maybe for exercise, maybe because he lives in a compact city that doesn’t require a car. When someone comes around trying to gather support for green cities, he gets on board – he already feels like he’s got skin in that game.

People aren’t scared enough yet by climate change.

We’re wired to feel real fear and urgency around threats that are present right now. Though the effects of climate change are being felt already all around us, from extreme weather to damaged crops, it still lacks the urgency needed to catalyze immediate and dramatic action.

When people do get scared, they get overwhelmed.

Once they do comprehend the magnitude of the crisis, people often feel the problem is too big and they’re too powerless, and anything they do will be a drop in the ocean, so why bother? Advocates have been able to turn this around by focusing on local climate initiatives with achievable goals that will impact public health and the environment at the local level — and will give those feeling powerless a sense that they have, indeed, made a difference.

People only want to make a change if they stand to lose something.

You can tell people they’d save $774 a month by taking transit instead of driving and they’ll be unmoved. But if you tell people they’re losing $774 a month by driving instead of taking transit, they’ll pay attention. Home energy auditors won’t just tell you that your home could be more efficient, they’ll tell you the leaks in your walls are like having a basketball-shaped hole in the side of your house where cold air comes in (and money goes out).

People cling to the status quo.

You know this already. They complain about changes to their street infrastructure when cities put in bike lanes and other safety measures that might slow traffic down or repurpose parking spaces. Elke Weber of Columbia Business School said there was initially huge public opposition to indoor smoking bans in New York and elsewhere, but people quickly grew to appreciate the bans once they were in place – and were the new “status quo.” There’s also something known as “query theory,” which says that people tend to generate more arguments in favor of the first option put before them – the way the top name on the ballot gets an unfair advantage – and the status quo is always the first thing.

People go along with the default option.

This dovetails with the love of the status quo, of course, but it goes beyond that. Weber said that when people registering for a drivers license have to check a box saying that yes, they want to be an organ donor, about 70 percent opt in. But if the default is that you’re an organ donor unless you check a box saying you opt out, the organ donor rate rises to 93 percent. So if the standard apartment comes with its own parking space, with the price included, it makes it easy for people to have a car. But if someone needs to pay separately for the space and he feels the cost, he’s more likely to decide having a car is a hassle.

Pick your venue carefully.

Studies show that people vote differently if the polling place is a public school or a church. The two venues activate very different values. In Las Vegas, where casinos are sometimes used as polling places, voters are surrounded by images and symbols of risk, self-interest, and materialism, and those are the values they’ll more likely vote for. Behavior also changes depending on whether people are making decisions in a group or alone. In a group, they’re reminded that their actions have an impact on others, and they’re reassured that they’re not the only ones deciding to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good. They’d feel like a sucker if they were the only one – but if the whole group is doing it, they feel like part of a team.

People love tracking their efficiency performance on the dashboard of their Priuses. Photo: ##http://www.nvcc.edu/home/cbentley/geoblog/labels/prius.html##Nova Geoblog##

Be careful with buzzwords.

Studies found that people reacted much more favorably to the idea of carbon offsets than carbon taxes. While about 60 percent of people agreed to pay for a carbon offset when buying a plane ticket, the number dropped precipitously, especially among Republicans, when asked to contribute a voluntary tax. And perhaps if the offset fee were included in the price and consumers had to opt out of paying it, payment rates would go up.

Give people goals.

People love competing, even with themselves. Weber calls them “mental accounts” – personal carbon footprint calculators or smart metering technology that gives you a smiley face when it’s a good time to do the laundry. Fuel efficiency displays on hybrid cars make drivers positively obsessed with maximizing their efficiency – it almost becomes a video game (which they play, unfortunately, while they’re driving, creating its own set of hazards). Many urban sustainability directors spoke at the Garrison program about their own efforts to reduce their cities’ carbon footprints by encouraging more efficient behavior among the businesses and residents of their cities, and many of them spoke to the effectiveness of certification programs that help people set and achieve goals. They also said that it becomes a game, with people reaching to get those last ten points to get their certification.

Peer pressure is your friend.

If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you? Of course not. But if they’re all zipping around town on their bikes and you’re dragging your beast of a car around with you, you might start re-thinking your choices. Even more persuasive, perhaps, is if the people you wish were your friends are zipping around on bikes. Weber said that when people know that the majority of their peers feel a certain way, they’re heavily swayed in that direction.

I’d add to that my own belief that the best way to get people to make a change is to show them that by making that change, they’ll be part of a community they want to be a part of – whether an actual group or an identity. If they think the community of the car-free is all losers who never got their drivers license, they won’t want to join that community. If they think the car-free are hip, independent urbanites with active lifestyles, they’ll be more likely to consider it – but that’s not an identity that works for everyone either. Maybe you think riding to work in spandex and an aggressive stance on your racing bike is awesome, but lots of people aren’t going to feel comfortable until they see other people in work clothes riding around in upright cruisers with a basket on the front.

People like to be told what to do.

They hate rules, laws and regulations trying to control their behavior – that’s the fastest way to get on a libertarian’s bad side – but they like having people they respect make clear what’s expected of them. It’s more effective than showing them data to convince them of the rationality of your position or trying to scare them into acting to avert climate disaster. It’s the “What Would Jesus Do” method, says Weber – or what would the Green Party do, if that’s a more apt model – or what would Angelina do? It needs to be concrete and be modeled by someone they respect.

These aren’t tricks for social engineering – they’re not much more than marketing tools. Effective political movement leaders and Madison Avenue have known these things for decades. They’re useful tools for sustainability advocates and transportation reformers to deploy too, in being more effective communicators with people. And to make the changes we need to make for the sake of our cities and our planet, we’ll need to be a lot more effective and change a lot more minds – and behaviors.

  • Paul in Vancouver, WA USA

    I would add that continually framing all of these good behaviors as “saving the climate” has long passed the point of diminishing returns. The people who are likely to be persuaded to change their behavior by climate arguments have largely been converted (although effort needs to be kept up to the younger generations). On the other hand, there is a very significant group of people who will instantly dismiss anything if it is framed in terms of “climate change,” “global warming” or “saving the planet.”

    I think we should spend much more time focusing on the positives of energy saving and livability from other perspectives. We used to use the phrase “Think Globally, act Locally” but I think we need to realize that most people think LOCALLY. The world is too big and complicated for most of us to think we can have any impact on solving the worlds problems. I think people will respond best to how energy independence and alternative energy and transportation options can make their local community a better place to live.

    We need to face the facts: Fear of global warming as the primary marketing strategy of every environmentally related initiative and is self-limiting in its appeal.

    We need a marketing strategy that is based on positives of how life can be better.

    Truth is, I personally am not a subscriber to the theory of anthropomorphic global warming. I don’t bicycle or support mass transit because of global warming. I don’t hate oil companies and paying for gasoline and taxes because of carbon emissions. I think bicycling is a better transportation option. I think bicycles and mass transit give me more freedom. Freedom from car payments and insurance and repair bills and owning a 2 car garage. etc..

    I

  • An interesting article by Jeremy Grantham, head of a financial investment firm.

    Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7853

    While making the point of the mathematical impossibility of prolonged compound growth, he points out why Americans (and Australians) are particularly resistance to comprehending the limits we face in terms of resource consumption and comprehending the dangers of climate change: our innate optimism. As a country, we don’t like bad news and we don’t like people who tell bad news.

    Optimism works well in a time of expanding resources (which has been nearly all of America’s history.) When land, minerals and energy sources are abundant, gobbling up ever more of them in all sorts of schemes works great. The sky’s the limit for any venture you can think of and if you ruin/pollute one area, you just move on to the next. However, when resources become more obviously finite, when prudent husbandry of water/land/atmosphere becomes necessary, being more pessimistic/realistic (even conservative in the old fashioned definition of the term) is imperative.

    Optimism has many positive traits. Judicious optimism creates drive and motivation. Without optimism that a problem is solvable, one can give up without even trying. But lazy optimism creates people who assume climate change can’t be as bad as scientists are predicting, that there’s no point being inconvenienced, that somehow things will be fine. Lazy optimism listens to the single scientist disputing climate change paid by oil companies rather than the 99 not paid by them. Lazy optimism doesn’t worry about resource depletion because “they” will figure out substitutes for oil or titanium or whatever and things will be fine. Lazy optimism assumes that there’s no need for discomfort or effort today because tomorrow will take care of itself. A future pound of cure rather than a current ounce of prevention is just fine, especially if that ounce requires any sacrifice right now at all.

    The problem is, once the world heats up enough for the methane in the arctic tundra to melt, that pound of cure is going to turn into trillions of tons of cure. I’m sure human beings will take heroic action at that point, although there won’t be much we can really do. After all, we’re great in a crisis.

  • True Freedom

    Given that not everyone is convinced about global warming, I think the two best approaches are:
    a) peer pressure
    b) focus on local issues

    Here in LA, things *should* be much easier. Pollution and traffic congestion are great local concerns to emphasize when touting cleaner autos (like EV or fuel cell) and alternate modes of transit.

    Volatility of gas prices and dependence on foreign oil (and all associate ugliness…war).

    Water concerns can help with low water, sustainable gardening, composting, etc

    Limited space and gigantic landfills and associated ugliness can help with reducing our waste stream, composting, etc..

    So, focus on local issues so people can feel tangible results to their efforts.

  • True Freedom

    Given that not everyone is convinced about global warming, I think the two best approaches are:
    a) peer pressure
    b) focus on local issues

    Here in LA, things *should* be much easier. Pollution and traffic congestion are great local concerns to emphasize when touting cleaner autos (like EV or fuel cell) and alternate modes of transit.

    Volatility of gas prices and dependence on foreign oil (and all associate ugliness…war).

    Water concerns can help with low water, sustainable gardening, composting, etc

    Limited space and gigantic landfills and associated ugliness can help with reducing our waste stream, composting, etc..

    So, focus on local issues so people can feel tangible results to their efforts.

  • True Freedom

    Given that not everyone is convinced about global warming, I think the two best approaches are:
    a) peer pressure
    b) focus on local issues

    Here in LA, things *should* be much easier. Pollution and traffic congestion are great local concerns to emphasize when touting cleaner autos (like EV or fuel cell) and alternate modes of transit.

    Volatility of gas prices and dependence on foreign oil (and all associate ugliness…war).

    Water concerns can help with low water, sustainable gardening, composting, etc

    Limited space and gigantic landfills and associated ugliness can help with reducing our waste stream, composting, etc..

    So, focus on local issues so people can feel tangible results to their efforts.

  • Erikmar

    To focus on lifestyle changes and the demand side of the equation for carbon emission reduction is insufficient. The numbers are simple. To get down to where the IPCC says we need to be, US residents need a per capita emissions reduction of more than 90% by 2050 (assuming everyone on the planet has an equal right to carbon emissions. If we feel that we should get more than someone in, say, Kenya, then the numbers change.) Buildings and their associated activities are the single largest source of carbon emissions, yet even if every new building from now forward were to be carbon neutral, the overwhelming majority of existing buildings would not be. A similar argument can be made for the transportation sector.
    Rather, we should focus on the supply side of the equation. In a way, it doesn’t matter how much energy a building consumes so long as that energy source comes from renewables. Ditto for transportation.
    That brings us to the attitude question. In order for the supply side to be significantly shifted toward renewables, the economic calculus has to be changed, and to do that, there has to be a powerful and activist public sector acting in the long term public interest, even when not immediately profitable, instead of only a private sector interested in short term returns on investment. This, then explains why virtually 100% of the incoming republican congressional freshman class deny the existence of global warming – the consequences of acceptance of that reality would undermine their ideological worldview. It’s easier to simply deny the facts rather than change an identity-defining mindset.
    For the general public, this is also undoubtedly a factor, but more powerful, I suspect, is the relentless media campaign, pretty much unique to the US, in casting doubt on what is, but now, an overwhelming scientific consensus. This is hardly the only area of opinion where we’re standing “in splendid isolation”, but it’s maybe the one with the worst consequences, not only for us, but for everyone else as well.

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