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Five Tactics to Use Behavioral Science to Combat Climate Change


Environmental and climate scientists are clearly not providing enough evidence to make people adopt climate-smart ways of living. Would then behavioral science help? Here are five ways to make use of it.

We all know how to live an eco-conscious life. Switching to renewable energy has to happen faster, eating less meat should be our top priority along with recycling more and flying  with airplanes less. We all know it. But then, why is adoption of these simple measures so slow and often simply not happening? Is there not enough evidence already? Why are people choosing convenience over environment although they very well understand they should act differently in order to mitigate the damage? And how can we tackle this human behavior?

It has now become obvious that we have to look beyond environmental and climate sciences.  It seems that no evidence coming from these fields is going to make a difference any more. We need to address people’s habits and behaviors directly.

In this sense, it is logical that the best place to look for answers would be the papers and findings on behavioral science. This is the science of understanding people and how they respond to certain processes. The aim here would be to find the best ways to move from simple awareness to action and eventually stimulate change in behavior.

Here are some suggestions that could work.

1. Adjust the default settings

We know from experience that a simple re-definition of the default option could already have quite an impact. Currently, every airline company gives you an option to chose carbon offset. How about we make the good settings, the default setting? Scientists say that if we ask people to deselect the carbon offset, rather than select it, many would not even think twice. It worked for organ donation, why not try it here too?

2. Present the choices differently.

This comes down to modifying the way we present the available choices. The aim would be to favor sustainable behavior. We see this being implemented every day. Just a simple look at the supermarket shelves and you already know that the choice was made for you. There is even a term for it- “choice architecture”.

For example, have you noticed that all sweets and candy, targeting kids, are placed way lower than the level of the eye-sight of parents. In the same way, when you walk into a shoe shop, the best sellers are always right in front of you.

Similar practice is also adopted on the level of pricing. Everyone knows that the mid-range wine will sell the most. However, if you increase the price of the mid-priced wine, and bring it a lot closer to that of the high-end product, the more expensive would immediately become the preferred choice.

Can we then adjust pricing strategies in a way that people opt for sustainable?

3. Just scrape “unsustainable” from the list of options

I really do not understand why the “unsustainable” option is even there. Do people really wish to consciously damage the environment? Do they go to the shop and think- today, I would like to buy the product that is wrapped in three layers of plastic. Then I will go home and I dump it all in the general garbage, because I know it will end up in the ocean.

How about we just do not wrap everything in three layers of plastics, the shops do not sell plastic bags, and residents are not given the option to “not recycle”.

A nice example of such measures being implemented comes from Kenya. There, the government introduced a complete ban on plastic bags over night. People had no choice but to switch to alternatives. It took some complains, but within a few days, everyone was carrying their reusable bag to the shop and forgot about what was there before. I would like to highlight here- it took days, not years.

4. Make “sustainable” easy and “unsustainable” difficult.

We, as human beings, tend to over-complicate things. I think it comes from our internal urge to strive for perfection, but this sometimes introduces too many additional steps in a process, which then defeat the purpose.

However, in this case, it can work in our favor. It is slightly related to the #1 above. For example, let’s make all meat lovers having to work hard in order to get their meat fix. When booking airplane tickets, they should specifically go online and select the meat option at the time of booking. If they do not do it, then they get the vegetarian option.

The last few times I was travelling, the hassle that I had to go through in order to select the vegetarian option on the airplane, was incredible. I wonder if it was just that one airline, or all just make it very complicated. In the end, I thought I picked vegetarian, then it appeared to be vegan (which I was still very happy with). I probably wouldn’t spend all this energy, but then I really dislike food waste, so I went along. The bottom line here is, let’s give the meat-lovers 20 extra steps to follow if they want the beef option. I bet at least half of them would not bother.

5. Touch the personal side

It is now clear that sending a general message to the entire population does not work. People take comfort in thinking that “the others will do it”. Their social responsibility would somehow be covered by the masses, and they can just slip unnoticed.

Now, if we make the message personal, and we target specific groups of individuals, in a specific way, which relates to their lifestyle and believes, behavioral scientist say, our success would be much greater.

Our first strategy should be to stimulate public campaigns, on all levels, and not shy away from them. These should also not be limited only to environmental groups. Politicians, businesses, everyone has to be involved. We need to deploy different types of information distribution strategies, and tailor the messages to the different individual groups, and not the average.

If you are interested to read some more on this, the UN Environment program published a full report on how insights in behavioral patterns can be used to combat climate change. Here is a link to the publication entitled Consuming differently, consuming sustainability: behavioural insights for policymaking.

In general, I do believe that people understand what sustainability is, they know what the impact of climate change is, and they know what the right thing to do is. Unfortunately, as pointed out by the UN Environment climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg, somehow all these concepts are just abstract. Hagelberg, emphasizes that behavior change approaches should now become the critical next step.

Image (c) US Air Force Staff Sgt Samuel Morse

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  1. #2 is wrong, prices should first be much closer to what they cost to produce, and I mean the true cost, including the often externalized cost to the environment and to human health. This alone would probably go a long way in reducing the production of beef meat.

    #4 is also wrong: You shouldn’t be traveling by air so often that you encountered this problem!
    More seriously, if behavioral sciences taught us anything, it is that too many obstacles like suggested will just make people totally opposed to any environmental improvement measures. And food on a plane is not having a millionth of an impact on the environment, airplanes are already choosing white meat such as chicken more often than beef.

    There are many more behavioral tactics, like using some labeling on food that would make people choose to be on the “good” green side, reducing the many cooking shows about red meat or barbecuing, or showcasing real creative, tasty and appetizing vegetarian or vegetalian dishes and recipes, starting educating the kids and adults, and of course many more that are not related to food, but add sustainability and ethics to power, transportation, furniture, building, detergents, cosmetics, medicine, politics, and so on.


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