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To Make Climate Change Progress, Do We Need to Focus Less on Climate Change?

By Sharon Chen
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After surveying over six thousand people in 24 different countries, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, found that emphasizing co-benefits of taking climate change action is more likely to inspire people to act than merely emphasizing climate change alone.

Co-benefits are defined as the extra, and sometimes unintended, benefits derived from taking a particular course of action. For example, in order to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, a city implements a bike-sharing program and creates a network of bike paths. Co-benefits derived from this course of action are increased opportunities for exercise and recreation, and healthier residents: quality of life has been improved beyond reducing pollution.

The study authors found that “addressing co-benefits can motivate action independently of views about climate change importance, even for those unconvinced climate change is real.” By better understanding what motivates people to act on climate change, even if they don’t believe they are acting on climate change, we can more effectively frame communications, education, and policy.

Emphasizing co-benefits motivates people to take action on climate change

John Abraham | The Guardian | October 1, 2015

A new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change provides encouragement that people can be motivated to act on climate change. The title of the paper is, “Co-benefits of Addressing Climate Change can Motivate Action Around the World.” Lead author Dr. Paul Bain and his colleagues wanted to know if emphasizing co-benefits when talking about climate change would motivate people to take action. They found that in many cases, the answer is yes.

First of all, what are co-benefits? Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett provided some good examples in this cartoon.

Let’s say that you design a city so that there are green spaces and parks in a hope that you will reduce pollution. You might find out that the green spaces and parks cool the city, provide places of recreation and exercise, and generally improve the quality of life beyond merely pollution. These would be called co-benefits; they are extra benefits you get from your action.

The authors of this new study surveyed more than 6,000 people in 24 different countries to find out whether emphasizing co-benefits would make people more likely to act on climate. They classified co-benefits into four categories: development, benevolence, dysfunction, and competence.

Economic development is an example of a potential development co-benefit. For instance, installing wind turbines would lower greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs (jobs are a co-benefit). Benevolence relates to the how caring and moral people are in society and competence relates to whether people are skilled and/or capable. Dysfunction deals with negative effects such as pollution and disease. For instance, decreased disease and airborne pollution are a co-benefits.

The authors then asked how these co-benefits would influence peoples’ motivation to act on climate. People can act in a variety of ways, through citizenship (public action or voting for instance); they can act through personal choices (using energy more wisely, purchasing clean energy for example); or by donating to non-polluting causes and organizations.

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