Friday, 30 October 2009

October 2009 - Money money money

First published on the Climate Safety blog, on 27/09/09

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) asked what it would take for action on climate change to be ‘mainstreamed’ . The IPPR conducted research with ‘Now’ people – perceived as leaders of public opinion and a supposed barometer for the acceptability of behavioural norms. A key conclusion was that for these trend-setters to change their behaviour, there would have to be something in it for them. That something, according to the IPPR, was the promise of financial gain for their adventures in sustainability.

On the Climate Safety blog, Tim Holmes has already questioned some of the methodological assumptions of the study, and the predictable media response to it . But there is a further problem with the logic of the report that raises a serious communication challenge for environmental campaigners: Using money as a motivator of sustainable behaviour simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First things first – no-one is denying that financial considerations are not an enormous influence on behaviour. They clearly are – every time you decide to get up extra-early to get a cheaper train, you are making a decision based on how much it costs you. The findings of the IPPR report back this up. Their participants expressed a desire to save money, and felt that the prospect of saving money would make them more likely to engage in sustainable behaviour.

So – people do things because of financial reasons, and would be more likely to be green if it saved them money. Why not give the people what they want? Tell the world that saving energy will save them money!

There’s only one slight problem with this insight – sustainable behaviour doesn’t always come cheap. Certainly, there are times when saving energy also saves money (in general using less means spending less). But there are plenty of green behaviours that cannot easily be packaged as financially attractive. Taking the train to the Costa Del Sol is not cheaper than flying there – the low-carbon choice is not always the low-cost option. In the future we might hope that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is accurately reflected in the prices of the world’s commodities, but for now being green isn’t necessarily the cheapest game in town. It’s a tough sell during a recession, which is what the IPPR study found. But what’s the alternative – to lie?

Of course, you might imagine that once people have started ‘going green’ (tempted into some sustainable behaviours by the prospect of saving money), a momentum will be created that will propel them into other green actions – even if they’re not so cost effective. However, as Tom Crompton at the WWF has documented in detail, this assumption is something of a myth . Some key social-psychological theories and empirical evidence simply do not support the idea that people will spontaneously progress from ‘simple and painless’ behaviour changes to less simple (and perhaps more financially painful) steps in the future. If anything, the reinforcement of the link between saving money and sustainable behaviours is likely to act as a barrier to further changes in the future – when the money saving stops, so does the behaviour.

And as if it wasn’t bad enough that the link between saving money and saving the environment was tenuous, evidence from studies conducted by Ken Sheldon in the US suggests that people with materialistic values (that is, people who value money, possessions, and power) are the least likely to engage in environmental behaviour . In an experiment where people could divide up environmental resources in whichever way they chose, highly materialistic people exhibited more environmentally destructive behaviour. Unfortunately, emphasising the link between money and sustainable behaviour fails on every level.

So – what’s the alternative? The solution advocated by Tom Crompton, Joe Brewer and other contributors to the Identity Campaigning website is to promote so-called ‘intrinsic’ motivations for engaging in environmental behaviour (such as the interconnectedness of humans and nature) – because this will lead to longer lasting and more embedded behavioural changes . This approach is appealing, as it is difficult to dispute that if more people led lives that were based on respecting the environment and valuing nature, pro-environmental behaviour would be more prevalent.

However, while this vision of value-based sustainability is a desirable goal, attempting to translate it into reality is a challenge. Governments and NGOs are wary of being seen to dictate values to the electorate (never mind that the values of consumption-based growth are promoted every second of every day – they’re so embedded in the fabric of society they’re invisible). And on a practical level, its awkward and unfamiliar for most people (campaigners or otherwise) to link mundane behaviours like driving a car to abstract concepts like ‘valuing nature’ or ‘intrinsic motivations’.

There is a compromise which acknowledges that money matters in people’s decision-making, but doesn’t constantly crank-up the link between saving money and sustainable behaviour. The fact is that people will work out for themselves whether something is in their financial interest – they don’t need campaigners to do it for them. Far better is to use money more subtly – by removing financial barriers to behaviour change (such as governments offering subsidised loft or cavity wall insulation).

The message here is not that installing insulation will save you money (although it will), or that the reason for caring about climate change is that it will be good for your wallet. It is that green intentions will be reciprocated by the government. Here the lower cost encourages participation, but doesn’t reduce sustainable behaviour to a cost-benefit analysis that in the long run is doomed to fail. The idea of reciprocation also fits in well with the sort of values that are linked with pro-environmental behaviour – people who care about fairness also tend to care about the environment.

We cant ignore the fact that money motivates behaviour, but we can approach it in a more sophisticated way. We know that people are constrained by financial concerns, but that promoting the link between saving money and saving the environment is problematic in the long run. Could the idea of reciprocation permit both of these issues to be addressed?

Monday, 26 October 2009

October 2009 - Psychology & Climate Change

>>>>first published on the Guardian website, 26/09/09
From 10:10 to the government's Act On CO2 campaign, it is now widely accepted that tackling climate change will require tackling behaviour change too. But until now, a key piece has been missing from the puzzle – psychology. The study of human behaviour has been conspicuous by its absence from the climate change debate.

The assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have provided the scientific evidence of human impact on the climate, and a glimpse of what the future may hold if we don't act fast. But while the consensus may be growing on the need for changes in behaviour, we're no closer to understanding how we're going to do it. Attempting an unprecedented shift in human behaviour without the input of psychologists is like setting sail for a faraway land without the aid of nautical maps.

Psychological research shows that most people in the UK don't feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract and difficult to visualise. This means that doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic language are unlikely to work – although fear can motivate behaviour change, it only works when people feel personally vulnerable. Clearly, exaggerating the threat of climate change is not an option. So how can climate change be made more relevant to people's lives?

In the dusty journals and leather-bound books of university libraries lie decades of psychological research on human behaviour. Why are habits so difficult to change? Do people make decisions based on rational criteria, or impulse and intuition? Why do people tend to unnecessarily fear some risks, yet inadvisably discount others? These are all questions that will become increasingly pertinent as the transition to a low-carbon future progresses.

Fortunately, climate change is starting to be acknowledged by social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published an extensive review of psychology's contribution to tackling climate change. And on 27 October, the British Psychological Society will hold its inaugural meeting on the psychology of climate change. From the language used to describe climate change, to the ways in which habits are made and broken, the signs are that psychology holds the key to driving the shift to sustainability.

An American study played people recordings of actors delivering speeches about climate change. The version that people responded to the best talked about "air pollution" rather than "climate change" – because pollution is something visible that they could relate to, with strong connotations of dirtiness and poor health. Climate change is about much more than just dirty air, but finding ways of making climate change more visible is critical. People simply don't worry about things they can't see (or even imagine).

One approach that has been used to increase the amount that people use public transport breaks down habits into simple "if… then" plans. To change a habitual behaviour, a person has to identify a goal (drive less, for example), a behaviour they want to perform in pursuit of that goal (get the bus to work on Fridays) and a situation that will trigger the behaviour (having enough time to catch the bus). In this example, if it's Thursday evening, then the alarm needs to be set for a different time, and if it's Friday morning, then have a quick shower instead of a long bath. Thinking about behaviour in these terms is unfamiliar – but even the most well-intentioned goals are doomed to fail without a strategy for achieving them.

Of course, some people are wary of committing themselves to changes in their personal behaviour. They argue that political agreements and technological advances will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than anything an individual could achieve. But while it is comforting to draw sharp distinctions between politics, technology and individuals, the reality is that human behaviour underpins it all. Political parties will not pass legislation that is patently unpopular among the electorate. Technology can provide low-carbon alternatives like electric buses. But a zero-emissions bus will have zero passengers unless people decide to use it.

Household insulation has been rightly prioritised by policymakers as a key area where individual-level changes can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. But as Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon from Cardiff University argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Environment, changes in household insulation depend on some key behavioural assumptions. In particular, the overheating of residential buildings has to become socially unacceptable, and people will have to be motivated to make changes to their home heating routines. Spence and Pidgeon suggest that periods of transition, where routines are already in flux, provide useful opportunities to develop new, more sustainable habits. In the context of home insulation, some building work already scheduled for the house might provide not only the practical opportunity for some low-carbon upgrades, but also the perfect psychological context for making some long-intended changes to habits and routines.

If the thought of psychologically informed lifestyle change campaigns sounds a bit too Big Brother for your liking, then consider the alternative: millions of pounds spent on technology that is never taken up, and a market-based system of economic coercion that penalises the poor while the rich keep polluting. Without an understanding of what drives people's environmental behaviour, the dream of a low-carbon society will remain forever out of reach.