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From Words To Action

Much more is needed than just correct information if we want people to pull together to mitigate climate change.


Much more is needed than just correct information if we want people to pull together to mitigate climate change.

Vast amounts of time and column inches have been used in the climate debate over the question of whether or not climate change is a manmade phenomenon. Al Gore, the former Vice President of the United States, is dedicated to fighting climate change sceptics, and has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. His work evidently has its value, but many behavioural scientists also feel that there is a risk involved.

Gore seems to be assuming that when you manage to make people believe that their actions contribute to climate change they will automatically start acting against it. Hence, as long as you convince people that the information is correct, they will stop unnecessary driving, start cycling to work, build zero-energy houses, switch from planes to trains, and from rice to potatoes.

It seems a reasonable enough assumption, but for scientists who have studied the conditions whereby people change their behaviour, it is far from correct. Mere recognition of the problem rarely leads to action, although it may well affect survey results. Bombarding people with information about an overwhelming climate crisis can lead to fear and paralysis. And fear alone is not enough of a motivator for action.

Nor are behavioural scientists convinced that the right kind of action can be induced by the mere dissemination of information. It would also be a mistake to conclude that we should stop talking about climate change altogether, because an unpleasant topic leads to conflicts of opinion; that we should only talk about clean energy, green economy and other topics that everyone can support and which do not lead to nasty conflicts.

If we stop talking about climate change, we seem to give tacit permission to continue as usual, without criticism that seeks to change current behavioural patterns for the better, and fast.

Lifestyles Are Crucial

Our consumption of energy and natural resources – a factor that can have a crucial impact on the future of humanity – is dictated by our habits.

We cannot shirk our responsibility by saying that our own actions do not matter because industry is a greater culprit or because factories in China will continue to heavily pollute in any case. Regardless of their location, factories produce goods for those of us who live in consumer societies, so as to enable us to live in the lifestyle we choose.

Faith in technological solutions is not enough, either. Although technology can be used to do things with less energy, we are buying and using more and more goods and devices at an increasing pace. The growing quantity and turnover of goods threaten to offset the benefits from the improved energy efficiency of individual products. In addition, the price of technical solutions makes many otherwise fine things impossible in practice.

Behavioural scientists who have studied energy consumption have nevertheless estimated that, compared with technical solutions, low-cost psychological and social instruments can be used to effect behavioural changes that can lead to savings of 10–35 per cent in our energy consumption. And this can be achieved without any technological innovations or new machines, and without lowering the standard of living.

In a study conducted by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC), it appeared that the differences in the consumption of natural resources by households in Finland can be as large as tenfold. Lifestyle is the crucial factor.

But how can the behaviour and lifestyles of people be changed? What have scientists to say about this?

One common thread in their answers is that there is no single correct way of effecting even slight changes in behaviour. Achieving behavioural changes calls for an understanding of a myriad of obstacles and incentives. Obstacles to change must be removed from everyday life, and such societal conditions created that facilitate the transition to an ecologically sustainable and psychologically satisfactory way of life.

Focus on Action

According to psychologists, people’s identity is generally built around their actions or the actions of other like-minded persons. This is often the basis on which people respond to opinion surveys. People tend to alter their identity primarily when they start to do new things and acquire new reference groups. Journalist David Roberts (from the American environmental online magazine Grist) has studied the possibilities for altering behaviour. He has developed the following type of example:

Imagine a car owner living in a city who, in response to a survey, refutes the idea that human action has any influence on climate change. Now imagine that cycling is made such a pleasant alternative for him (a functioning network of cycling routes, green wave at streetlights, availability of inexpensive high-quality bicycles, maintenance services) that he starts cycling to work instead of driving whenever the weather permits.

Furthermore, imagine that his neighbours install solar panels on their houses and create peer pressure for our protagonist to do likewise. And that his employer makes a showy switch to green electricity.

Soon our protagonist will start to tell a different story about himself. That story is a new identity – ‘I am a cycling promoter of renewable energy’ – which in all likelihood will also incorporate concern for climate change.

The example shows how beliefs and attitudes are not necessarily the number one way to change behaviour. Action comes first. But even more importantly, one set of actions opposing climate change will smoothly lead to other similar actions. Users of solar energy are more likely to switch to wind energy than fossil fuel users, a person who cycles to work will also cycle more frequently to the grocer’s than someone who drives to work.

Even minor behavioural changes can be addictive and have an impact on habits. Not perhaps right away, but over time. Permanent behavioural change is easier to effect if the new habit brings rewards, such as being in a better physical condition from cycling, or the admiration of one’s colleagues.

Some North American scientists who have studied the psychological foundation of behavioural change include Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist who has written best-sellers on persuasion; Doug McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist; Carrie Armel, a researcher from the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford; and BJ Fogg, Director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The ideas of the Stanford researchers have been disseminated in Finland in particular by psychologist Jussi Valtonen. There is one thing that all these researchers agree on: we are affected by the actions of others much more than we realise.

Adults seem to change their mind easier if you get them to change their habits first. It does not matter how the change is achieved, whether by bribing, peer pressure, example, or regulatory means. Most people change their thinking and their identity – often unconsciously – to conform to their actions.Teachers know that children learn best through practical applications rather than just reading books. The same applies to adults, say behaviouralists – we learn and we change through action.

Revising Systems to Promote Change

Social scientists take a more cautious view than psychologists on public efforts to influence behaviour and lifestyle. Social manipulation and propaganda are both terms that have an unpleasant ring to them. On the other hand, lifestyle changes brought about by social movements or empowerment are generally considered a good thing.

Social scientists have been saying for a long time that telling people to act in an ecological way is not going to work if the society simultaneously steers their actions in resource-wasting directions. The best-known champion of this view is probably the British sociologist Anthony Giddens. In Finland, the same observation has been made by Eva Heiskanen, Research Professor at the National Consumer Research Centre. She has pointed out that consumer behaviour is not something that occurs independently of the social context. Solutions to lifestyle issues that are individual-centred or based on psychology are not enough.

According to sociologists, it is practically useless to tell people to cycle to work if there are no proper cycle lanes or traffic regulations in place to protect cyclists, or if employers offer motoring employees a free parking space, yet not similar benefits to cyclists. It is also short-sighted to give consumers conflicting messages: Decrease emissions, cut consumption – Prevent recession, increase consumption.

The principal public message of most Finnish authorities is that we must increase energy production considerably in the name of economic growth and cheap electricity. This idea clashes with energy efficiency. The fundamental message of Factor Four (1997), a report to the Club of Rome  which has become a minor classic of this field, is that an economy twice as large as the present one is perfectly possible with half the current energy consumption.

Mass behavioural change is not easy to achieve if it runs against the grain on the systemic level. However, the system is often changed by those bold enough to be the first to change their behaviour and lifestyle. It is vital that these pioneers are supported. The public sector should support even Utopian-seeming projects such as eco communities, cycling associations, builders of plus-energy houses, and research teams looking into alternatives to economic growth.

Choices Can Be Steered

Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist, and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who currently works in the Obama administration, introduced the term ‘choice architecture’ in their book Nudge from 2008. The term refers to the way in which choices are presented: how healthy and unhealthy – or climate-friendly and non-friendly – foods are presented on the lunch line, which ones are presented attractively and are easy to take. Or which are presented as the basic choice.

If the default setting of a new household appliance is the energy-saving option, it will be hugely more common for people to use that option than if the default setting were full power.

The majority of people settle for the default option. A good choice architecture ensures that the default setting is always the most energy-efficient and environmentally most beneficial option. The results speak for themselves: many power companies have offered their customers the option to switch to more sustainable energy, yet only a relatively small number of consumers have done so, because the switch requires action to be taken and forms to be filled. But when a German energy company did the opposite and changed all contracts automatically, giving their customers only the choice of switching to less green energy companies, more than nine out of ten customers accepted the change.

Although advanced energy-saving technology is available in many applications, developers still often ignore the users, behavioural scientists claim.

It is not enough to emphasize the importance of maintenance and service, the technology itself must be robust and easy to use – it is only this kind of user-oriented technology that will nudge consumers down an energy-efficient route. Otherwise, the potential for saving energy might not be actualized. This is unfortunately already the case with many air-conditioning devices and heat pumps.

According to behavioural scientists, hidden energy consumption should be made visible by installing better meters, for example, or by giving more detailed information about consumption in the billing. Energy-efficient practices also need to be made more visible. When people see others acting in energy-efficient ways, doubts cannot be sustained about them being freeloaders. Example is the best way to teach.

Legislation, Prices and Motivation

Safety-belt enforcement and the smoking ban have shown that legislation can be an efficient way of altering behaviour. After some grumbling, the majority first obeys, then becomes accustomed to and ultimately supports the changes. Admittedly, people are also very clever in circumventing regulations, as shown by drivers who use mannequins as dummy passengers to use carpool lanes in the USA.

Environmental activists have for years been telling us that taxation can be used to raise the price of energy-inefficient and environmentally damaging products as compared with more sustainable alternatives, thereby increasing the demand for ecological goods. In Finland, for instance, tax cuts are available for energy renovation and car tax is higher for cars with higher emissions. Many countries are also looking into the possibility of applying price mechanisms to costly energy investments so that, for example, the cost of energy renovation or installing solar panels would not need to be paid at once, with some of the price being offset by the future energy savings.

Price incentives only go so far, however. Additional taxes that raise energy prices also increase inequality, unless the taxation of low-income groups is reduced in other ways or support systems are developed. Moreover, economic benefit is not the only or, indeed, the foremost motivational factor, because price is just one of the myriad of things that affect behaviour.

Cycling is cheaper than driving, rowing is cheaper than riding a water scooter, yet some people choose the expensive fossil fuel alternative. Even if new programmable thermostats for radiators were cheap, physically disabled senior citizens might not be able to go to the hardware store to buy them, or fit them to their radiators – correct pricing is often insufficient.

Although attitudes towards reducing climate emissions have become more positive, studies reveal a conflict between attitudes and actual behaviour. People are aware of the threats and they are also prepared to fight them, but they lack the means and feel that they cannot really make an impact. Inversely, however, this reveals an important possibility for getting people to invest in energy efficiency and fight climate change: empowering and helping them find ways to make a difference. For example, courses tailored for different groups of professionals can inspire them to see what they can do to combat climate change in their own work. The key thing here is to take their ideas and thoughts seriously and to give them the regard they deserve.

To summarize the views of experts on how to change lifestyles: it is not enough to offer information, what needs to be done is to remove obstacles, to offer more incentives, and to alter established ways of doing things. Proper action on one issue should be transferred to other behaviours and other lifestyle areas. Exemplary practices need to be developed and promoted. Invisible energy consumption must be made visible. We have to ensure that energy efficiency is the default option.

Systems and organizational operations must also be revised so that they genuinely support people’s actions to save energy and cut emissions. Price mechanisms and regulation should also be used. And always remember the perspective of the ordinary user. The writer Vesa-Matti Lahti is Senior Lead of the Energy Programme at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund.