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?
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