The state – and fate – of our planet is such a weighted issue that it can be hard to know where to begin. Instead of approaching climate change issues from a scientific or economic perspective, experts believe that psychology may be one of the most useful tools we have when it comes to climate action. Below are five guidelines for framing climate action; these recommendations also align with our latest research report, which can be downloaded at ecoAmerica.org.
1. Appeal to moral sense: Research shows that we behave less selfishly when issues are framed ethically, rather than economically. Additionally, by emphasizing what we gain – rather than what we will lose – from taking climate action is much more engaging.
2. Reinforce social norms: When behavior is phrased as the default (“my neighbors save a lot of water”), people are more likely to behave in that way.
3. Trustworthy feedback: When we communicate with fellow users of a shared resource, we tend to trust each other and cooperate more. Feedback about how much we’ve used of a resource (hearing about how much water your household has used each month) also encourages us to use it less, or more wisely.
4. Incentives: Sanctions and punishment don’t work as well as positive reinforcement and incentives do – especially if we decide on what the incentives are, and appoint our own leaders to monitor and enforce them.
5. Shared identity: A shared group identity can increase cooperation. If you strongly identify with your community, neighborhood, family, or class, you are much more likely to voluntarily do what it takes to ensure a healthy future for this group.
Rachel New | The Conversation | February 26, 2016
The Paris agreement on climate change calls for a global responsibility to cooperate. As we are often reminded, we urgently and drastically need to limit our use of one shared resource – fossil fuels – and its effect on another – the climate. But how realistic is this goal, both for national leaders and for us? Well, psychology may hold some answers.
Psychologists and economists have long explored the conflict between short-term individual and long-term collective interests when dealing with shared resources. Think of the commons dilemma: the scenario in which a field for grazing cattle works well when everyone cooperates by sticking to one cow each, but which leads to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” if more selfish drives take over.
It is useful to think about overuse of fossil fuels and its effect on the climate as a similar dilemma. If we were to think of this from a purely economic perspective, we would likely act selfishly. But psychological research should make us more optimistic about cooperation.
Appeal to moral sense
Are you more likely to overuse a shared resource when it is framed as an ethical concern or a business transaction? Research shows people behave less selfishly when it’s framed ethically, or if we emphasise what people will gain rather than lose by reducing their use of fossil fuels. Using the phrase “global warming” rather than “climate change” also engages us emotionally and makes us more supportive of the issue. We also need a balance of good and bad news if we are not going to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge and feel like running away. So wording when communicating to the public as well as in international agreements can make a difference, and we shouldn’t be afraid to appeal to people’s moral sense of what the right thing to do might be.