Event summary by Emily Passmore
Tackling the climate emergency will require large-scale change, on an institutional and individual level. Changing individual mindsets and social norms is therefore a huge part of the path towards a greener future – but how can this be achieved? Both Elke Weber and Kevin Green have done extensive work on this issue, and OCS was delighted to host a discussion bringing them together to discuss their insights.
Professor Elke Weber is a Professor of Psychology and Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. Her work focuses on climate behavioural psychology, studying our responses to uncertainty and motivation to act when the consequences of those actions are far in the future.
Kevin Green is Vice-President of the Centre for Behaviour and the Environment at Rare, an organisation applying behavioural psychology to real world issues. Their projects have ranged from working with farming communities on sustainable agricultural practices, to helping communities restore coastal fisheries.
Social norms and individual behaviour
Professor Weber began by introducing the homo sapien decision-making process: while rational decisions are possible, experience is the main factor. Therefore, social norms, habits, and the actions of others have a huge impact on climate behaviour.
This manifests through a status quo bias. Usually, preserving business as usual protects us from risk; however, for the climate crisis and Covid-19, business as usual is the riskiest response. This risk can be used to scare people into action; the combination of the dreaded and the unknown determines how scared we are of a risky issue.
However, there is a finite pool of worry – scaring people about one thing diminishes their worries about something else. Worries about Covid-19 have crowded out worries about climate change, whilst crowding in worries about the economy, given the potential economic impact of the pandemic.
Changing social norms can also get people to act. We can either strengthen desirable norms or weaken undesirable norms to change public support for a given policy. Covid-19 shows that dread can quickly get people to change their behaviour in drastic ways. The consequences of not acting make the costs of action, for example the economic impacts, a secondary concern. It also illustrates the importance of early action when the consequences of action are delayed – therefore, expert intervention is needed to make sure the current crisis does not completely overshadow climate change. However, on the bright side, the pandemic could engender greater trust in science-driven policy and government intervention.
Translating into action
Mr Green began by refuting the argument that climate change cannot be solved through small actions; a small change in behaviour taken up by many people can have a large cumulative impact. However, this change must be well-designed to capitalise on people’s limited attention and prevent spill-overs where other bad actions can be justified.
One way to do this is by making fighting climate change feel like a problem we can solve – always focusing on the big picture makes it feel distant and untouchable. We should also account for confirmation bias by meeting people where they are, rather than trying to actively change their minds; adopting greener behaviour is not a politically polarised issue, unlike climate change itself.
Empirical research can also allow us to design effective behavioural changes. Firstly, we should encourage people to anticipate their future pride in their actions, not their shame about inaction. We should also point out the future trajectory of green action where possible. Furthermore, people will be more likely to follow the herd than act alone.
Will the Covid-19 response make it easier to change the status quo in the future?
What is the role of political leadership in encouraging behavioural change?
What is the role of economic incentives to change behaviour?
How can we make people care about those most affected by climate change when they are the furthest away, in both time and space?
What are the best metrics to communicate the effects of climate changes?
What is the link between health and green behaviour?
What are the key tipping points for behavioural change?
By Laura Watson
No one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group.
Before this global pandemic, we were seeing weekly climate protests, led by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement; now with mass gatherings of any kind banned, what has happened to the momentum for change?
What was happening before the pandemic?
6 million people took part in the September 2019 global climate strikes. In February 2020, students occupied Saint Johns’ college, Oxford for 5 days to call on the college to divest from fossil fuels. Momentum behind protests calling for action on climate change was showing no sign of slowing. For instance, there had been plans for mass climate protests from the 22nd-24th April, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But of course, these were cancelled, and moved online
What impact has the pandemic had?
The current global pandemic has put a stop to mass gatherings, with some governments taking steps to ban protest entirely. In Algeria, 2019 saw mass street protests against the former regime, resulting in a change in government. The protests continued into 2020, demanding a total restructuring of the Algerian political system. But now, under the pretext of stopping coronavirus, the new president has banned protest for more than a year. This pattern is true to a lesser extent across the world in countries in a state of lockdown, with mass gatherings banned and strict social distancing rules in place; indeed 111 countries currently have measures in place preventing assembly of any kind.
Despite these restrictions, young people are not giving up on climate protest. Fridays for the Future has called for digital strikes during the lockdown period. Online webinars organised by Fridays for the Future have allowed millions to attend online, even those who had not previously been able previously to protest in the streets. People have participated in this digital movement from gardens, balconies and bedrooms, through social media. Fridays for the Future Germany staged a large digital demonstration with 230,000 livestream viewers and 40,000 tweets for the planned Earth Day climate demonstration.
This shift shows the change in behaviour ushered in by the current crisis, as the climate movement adapts to the new circumstances. There are those who emphasise that digital activism is not as effective as street protest. Nevertheless, for the time being, physical protest is no longer an option, so this digital approach is the best alternative. Despite the potential downsides of online protest, it gives rise to an opportunity to rethink how people protest and engage in collective activism.
Where does this leave us?
The digital approach to activism suggests that young people at least will not forget what has happened; there is a potential for actions on an even larger scale once it is safe for all to do so, as the online movement has been able to reach new people who were previously unable or unwilling to participate in traditional street protests.
In terms of action on climate change, some positives may yet emerge at the end of the pandemic. For example, more than 60 British organisations (including Iceland Foods, The Body Shop, the RSPB, and the National Trust) have called for a green approach to economic recovery following the predicted recession. There have also been suggestions in the UK that restarting the economy should focus on low-carbon work programmes. Perhaps there is hope that recovery from the virus can enable a move towards solving climate change.
By Laura Watson
While we all stay home, there are still some positives to be found, including the news of several recent advancements in cleaner energy which could smooth the way for the energy transition. This is especially important as the energy sector accounts for around 35% of carbon dioxide emissions.
A new way to store hydrogen
Researchers have found a new way to store hydrogen. Gas powered vehicles currently need high pressure to operate, but this is expensive and can be unsafe because hydrogen is highly flammable. While the high-pressure compression involved in older methods limits the amount of hydrogen which can be stored; the new storage method involves an ultra-porous metal-organic framework with a very high surface area. This framework can store hydrogen at lower pressures, making hydrogen storage and thus use as a fuel safer, cheaper and more widespread.
Bigger and more powerful wind turbines
Wind turbines are one example of renewable energy which everyone knows about; but these have the attendant problem that many wind turbines are needed to produce the same amount of electricity that a coal fired power plant could produce. But with some recent technological advancements, this statement may not be true for much longer. The Halide-X 12 MW offshore wind turbine is the world’s first 12 MW offshore turbine, and is both the most powerful and the most efficient offshore wind turbine yet produced. According to typical wind conditions, one Halide- X 12 MW wind turbine could power 16,000 European households. This turbine is currently being tested in the UK and could soon provide a supplement to the UK national grid.
Ways to reduce the impact of cement manufacture
Cement and brick manufacture is a highly energy intensive process, requiring large amounts of raw material extraction (such as limestone) and heat. In combination, these processes are estimated to account for around 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, if there is a way to reduce either of these impacts, it will be a positive step forward in the energy transition.
Engineers in the USA have invented a self-replicating brick that pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by harnessing the photosynthetic power of Synechococcus, a bacteria found in plankton. The bricks are made by mixing sand and gelatine with bacteria in areas with high levels of sunlight. This mixture is then soaked in warm, nutrient rich salt water, and the photosynthesis reaction produces calcium carbonate, as well as glucose and oxygen. The calcium carbonate formed from this reaction can then be used to make cement, without the energy intensive and extractive processes usually deployed. While this material is in its early stages of testing, it does provide hope that we can make the building industry more sustainable.
Another recently proposed way to reduce the carbon impact of cement production is through the use of electrochemical synthesis of cement. This involves the use of neutral water electrolysis to produce calcium carbonate without high carbon emissions. Instead, the process would produce carbon dioxide in such a way that it can be readily separated and sequestered, thus not being emitted into the atmosphere. Other gases produced can also be used to generate energy, meaning that the process would have very little waste. The whole process could also be powered by renewable energy, thereby reinforcing this step in the direction of a zero carbon future.
So what could the future look like?
Mentioned above are only 3 of the many areas in which clean energy technology is advancing every day. With all these advancements in renewable and clean energy technology, the energy transition to a zero carbon world is looking more and more possible.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.