What motivates different people, Republicans and Democrats, for instance, about whether to be concerned and take action on climate change?
That’s what experts said at a 31 July discussion about the potential for individual behavioral change regarding climate change and other environmental issues.
“Maybe the biggest contrast between people in different parts of the political spectrum is the question of whether the solutions are primarily about sacrifice or taking advantage of opportunity,” said Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, which sponsored the forum in Washington, D.C. He and others at the forum said that it is important to understand the targeted audience and that different messages could motivate different people.
Negative framing of climate change “can be effective in terms of making people aware of the risk, but it’s not necessarily effective in terms of motivating change,” said Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, a fellow at the institute who is an environmental psychologist focusing on decision aspects of personal behavior.
Casting how to deal with issues such as climate change in a positive light could be a good strategy for reaching people who have a strong sense of the status quo and “system justification,” said Wong-Parodi, who is also an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science. That strategy could include talking about the economic benefits of taking actions that could lead to results such as a green economy, job creation, and energy independence.
“The big take home message is that you need to investigate and know your audience and to have messages that are targeted and perhaps sequenced according to thinking through who are likely to be the early adapters,” Wong-Parodi said. “Most people actually think climate change is happening, and in fact, a growing number of Republicans and conservatives also think that climate change is happening. I think the difference we see [between different people] is with respect to what the responses should be, as well as with respect to what is potentially causing it.”
Wong-Parodi said that a big issue in dealing with climate change and its impacts is that many people think that the problems are not affecting them now but are occurring somewhere else to somebody else, far in the future. She said that there are four dimensions to this “psychological distance,” including temporal, spatial, and social aspects and the certainty of the impact. Reducing the distance on these four dimensions “can make issues more salient for people and make them feel perhaps even more motivated to take action,” she said.
“What’s really important is we need to also offer them solutions that are behaviorally realistic and consistent with the resources that they have,” Wong-Parodi added.
For instance, Wong-Parodi said, what good is it to tell renters that they need to raise their homes on pilings to protect against rising water? “You need to provide information to people for things and steps they can take that are actually actionable.”
A Way Forward?
Climate change “is the most difficult challenge in the history of humanity, bar none,” said Brett Jenks, president and CEO of Rare, an Arlington, Va.–based organization that uses insights from behavioral science to motivate people and communities to adopt behaviors that benefit people and nature.
“People tend to get stuck in the United States right now over one variable, and that is whether climate change is human caused or not,” Jenks added. “Pushing hard on that is not a good idea” and “is futile at this point.”
There are a growing number of Republicans who know that climate change is happening and “would benefit from a very soft off-ramp—intellectually, socially, culturally—that would enable them to move forward with the herd to begin to address this challenge,” Jenks said, noting that people are “herd-like” and tribal and often don’t want to be left behind socially or morally.
Jenks said that there are a few behaviors that individuals can take to make a personal difference about climate change, including reducing food waste, adopting a plant-rich diet, purchasing green energy, buying carbon offsets, and telling everybody what you are doing.
Jenks’s sentiments were echoed by Margaret Walls, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.–based research institution that employs economic research and policy engagement to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions. “When we’re talking about climate, the climate problem, and mitigation and the changes we need people to make, we need everybody to be doing things,” she said.
Walls, an environmental economist whose current research focuses on issues including resilience and adaptation to extreme events, added that solving the climate problem probably will require some sort of carbon pricing approach but that would not be sufficient in itself.
Jenks said that the behaviors he noted are a source of opportunity because none of them are politicized right now. If 10% of Americans adopted these behaviors, “we could potentially move the meter enough to get us back on track to hitting our target, the U.S. target under the Paris Agreement” on climate change, he said.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer