Implementing behavioral change in the fight against climate change

By Leah Kinthaert

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Photo: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Person with globe in their hands.

Photo: Bill Oxford via Unsplash

Photo: Bill Oxford via Unsplash

Image of soccer ball about to be kicked.

Photo: Jason Charters via Unsplash

Photo: Jason Charters via Unsplash

Tourists coming off an airplane.

Photo: Christian Lambert via Unsplash

Photo: Christian Lambert via Unsplash

Farmer in a rice field.

Photo: Pat Whelan via Unsplash

Photo: Pat Whelan via Unsplash

As Stephen Dark aptly asserts in his insightful book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning, “climate change needs no introduction.” 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that humans are the primary cause. Non-scientists are also highly aware of the existence of climate change. In a Pew Research study of people in 23 countries, 67% of respondents say they see climate change as a “major threat”, while a UNDP survey of 50 countries finds that 64% of people “said that climate change was an emergency”. When it comes to concern about climate change, we find similar numbers in the study “Climate Change and the American Mind” which tells us 7 in 10 Americans think global warming is happening. Although people are indeed concerned about climate change, a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post says they are not likely to take action on it. Only 1 in 10 surveyed say they often discuss the topic with either family or friends, and around that same number (12%) have contacted a government official or “participated in a protest, rally or other event to express their views on climate change (9%).”

Some of this may ring true to you, the reader, it certainly does for me. While I am very concerned about environmental issues and try to do my part, I don’t tend to discuss the topic with others at all, and I can’t remember contacting a government official about the topic.

The reality is that: “Despite the importance and gravity of this phenomenon, little research has examined the willingness of individuals to change their behaviour to mitigate the problem of CC (climate change).”
"Beliefs, perceived risk, obstacles and intention to act. An explanatory model for mitigation and coping behaviours regarding climate change" PsyEcology, January 2021.

Speaking at the Academic Publishing in Europe Conference last year,  Dr. Joanna Depledge, CsAP Fellow, CEENRG Research Fellow and Former Editor of Climate Policy, agreed: “a key area of work is providing Ex-Post analyses and assessments of (climate change mitigation) policies that have been implemented. We really need to know what has worked, what hasn’t, and why. And surprisingly this is a relative gap in the literature and an area where I would like to see more targeted work by the community.” This research is sorely needed, because even though we’ve known about the dangers of climate change for some time, things just keep getting worse.

At Taylor & Francis we decided to act and talk about the topic of implementing behavioral change in climate change mitigation. Firstly, we surveyed the latest research on behavioral change and climate change published by Taylor & Francis; and secondly, we examined what our own internal teams are doing right now.

From football fans to farmers: is there a secret sauce for successful change?

"What’s in it for me?” and “Will my friends be impressed?” -  we see these attitudes recurring again and again in research involving groups as disparate as UK football fans and Malaysian farmers. In Richard Baldwin’s study “Football and climate change: strange bedfellows or a means of going beyond the usual suspects in encouraging pro-environmental behavioural change?”, published in “The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability”, the Ipswich Town Football Club rewarded their engaged fans with prizes and got them to associate their group fandom with environmentalism in their campaign “Save Your Energy for the Blues”. Supporting the environmental project supported the team (the Blues), and supporting the team as part of a group gave individuals a sense of identity and belonging. Richard Baldwin writes: “not all of the participants in the Campaign had a broadly positive attitude towards the environment and/or understanding of the environmental issues associated with climate change; however, what they did appear to have is the enthusiasm and motivation to engage with the issue as a result of their identification with the club.”

According to the findings of Baldwin’s study, success lies in not the altering of individual attitudes, but instead making people feel like they’re part of something. Baldwin writes: “focusing on the individual as the appropriate unit of change, much current policy fails to incorporate the contextual constraints that may limit an individual's ability to adopt behavioural change regardless of their willingness to do so. The case study analysis indicates how framing of appropriate responses to climate change in a largely positive light, with a range of individual, collective and environmental benefits, is shown to have resonated strongly with many participants in the campaign, including a significant number whose participation was not based on pro-environmental values”.

Baldwin provides some background: “successive UK Governments have established a range of top-down policy initiatives aimed at encouraging individuals and businesses to change their behaviour and to adopt less carbon-intensive practices.” These initiatives have not succeeded because “they failed to address the complex social networks and communities in which people exist and the influence that may have on behaviour”.

Xavier Font (Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism) and Ann Hindley take a close look at the attitudes of travelers in their paper: “Understanding tourists’ reactance to the threat of a loss of freedom to travel due to climate change: a new alternative approach to encouraging nuanced behavioural change”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Their research accurately mirrors the response in the study from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post at the beginning of this article, where surveys show that while people are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change, they generally remain passive; Font & Hindley write: “society in general does not perceive that the threat of climate change is likely to affect their hedonistic lifestyles. There is a general belief that if changes occur, these will affect other people.” Key here is the hedonistic element; the tourists’ lack of concern exists, Font & Hindley contend, because “climate change denial is linked to conservative views supporting the current economic system and Western free market thinking.” Even among those who shared pro-environmentalist beliefs, Font & Hindley found that people lacked concern, and in fact took actions that may ultimately harm the environment: “studies show that sustainability and climate change are not considered when planning holidays; tourists dismiss their own contribution to the overall impact as well as the difference their personal choices could make.” 

There’s an aspect here of “if everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?” Font and Hindley write: “there is little sense of personal responsibility with regard to climate change responses and the entrenched nature of contemporary air travel practice results in a resistance to change.” They continue, citing another study: “Although most air travelers believe that climate change is real and that it is a problem to which aviation contributes, only about one-third admit that emissions caused by flying are their personal responsibility.” Their research too found that people “construct discourses to apportion blame for the behaviour they wanted to engage in”, with the attitude that bad things are going to happen anyway, so why deprive myself of the travel I deserve?

Font & Hindley’s study finds that: “consumers will go to great lengths to deny a threat… such as climate change, because they perceive that threat as fundamentally challenging the dominant social paradigm of consumerism and Western lifestyle to which they belong.” They continue: “Awareness of environmental impacts may not be the vehicle to move from the denial of consequences to enlightened pro-environmental behaviour… and awareness-raising policies may be ineffective when a traditional segment of society sees environmentalism as a threat to the status quo.”

One group they did find that actually felt guilty (this group believed climate change was real) were those that were concerned about how they would look to their (climate change believing) peers. “As their knowledge of climate change and sustainable travel options increases, the perception of threat is arguably reduced, not because they consider the options unimportant, but because they are aware of the social unacceptability of prohibiting travel.” They conclude “policy instruments to promote pro-environmental behaviour should focus on the benefits of a broader group identity”.

“Promoting sustainable behaviour through offering alternative choices may be a better strategy than simply awareness-raising per se. Offering alternatives that provide equally fulfilling, but less impacting, holidays, or by positively framing the benefits of the more sustainable options in relation to the purchasing attributes sought by consumers… may prove more effective. These are conclusions reached, however, with a heavy heart, for surely they undermine the long-term need to create a social conscience that common sense would suggest is necessary to reach climate change solutions.” (Find the latest issue of Journal of Sustainable Tourism here.)

In the study: “Farmers’ perceptions, awareness, attitudes and adaption behaviour towards climate change”, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 400 Malaysian rice farmers were given a questionnaire to examine their perception and experiences as they relate to climate change. These farmers had a similar desire for community acceptance; the authors concluded that “if (farmers) find that they would be able to acquire economic and social benefits by making environmental improvement then this may lead to a greater change in their attitude.” 

The Routledge anthology Community Governance and Citizen-Driven Initiatives in Climate Change Mitigation edited by Jens Hoff and Quentin Gausset, examines case studies from the US, Northern Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Once again, importance of social groups is found to be key: “it is easier for policy makers to work with individuals through the media or by taxation, but there is a limit to how much can be achieved this way, and there is an urgent need to complement approaches that focus on individuals with projects that target social groups and collectivities more explicitly.” (For a free read of the first chapter of this book, click here.) 

Picture Frame.

Photo: Elena Joland via Unsplash

Boxing Day Floods

Photo: Chris Gallagher via Unsplash

Person reading a newspaper that is on fire.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Picture Frame.

Photo: Elena Joland via Unsplash

Boxing Day Floods

Photo: Chris Gallagher via Unsplash

Person reading a newspaper that is on fire.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

 It's all about the framing

Adam Mayer and E. Keith Smith used survey data from 50,000 people in 48 countries to try and learn how best to frame climate change in their paper: “Unstoppable climate change? The influence of fatalistic beliefs about climate change on behavioural change and willingness to pay cross-nationally” from the journal Climate Policy. Just as every other research paper I have read has found, their conclusion was that “the way that climate change is framed influences the likelihood of individual and collective action to address it.”

Mayer and Smith provide a framework for those doing climate change awareness work to follow: “Results imply that activists and climate scientists should be careful in how they frame climate change to the public. Framing climate change as a solvable problem may be just as important as warning about its dangers, yet it seems that much more effort has been poured into alerting the public of dangers, as opposed to generating a sense of collective.” Like Font and Hindley’s fatalistic tourists,  Mayer and Smith’s respondents were unlikely to take any sort of action against climate change, because, as their research found: “people are less likely to engage in climate friendly behaviours if they believe climate change is an unstoppable process, even if they view climate change as a very serious problem".

Complexity and "flexible truth"

Stephen Dark explains, in his Routledge book Contemplating Climate Change, that: "scientific knowledge rests on its capacity to inform policy, and the efficacy of policy design and implementation is contingent on institutionalising the link between scientific knowledge and practice.” He points out that the very complexity of climate change has largely got in the way of effective policy implementation. Adaptation to climate change, he writes, is a complex system that is “difficult to anticipate, sometimes transformative, and often abrupt”, and “policymaking institutions have failed to keep pace with the complexities of contemporary  interconnected issues, such as the multifaceted ways in which climate change  impacts on society, and are in need of reform.” (Get the first chapter of this book free here.) The complexities around the phenomenon of weather have certainly been fodder for the climate change debate, as climate change deniers often like to point out a particularly cold summer day, or cite frigid winter temperatures, as evidence against the existence of global warming.

Dark postulates: “Humans are predisposed to be illogical and irritant – as a consequence, in the main, of biases and emotions. This also makes them susceptible to framing.” He also explains that: “most people get their information about scientific phenomena from the media.” This is a concern, because it can spread misinformation - Dark cites an instance where a Republican strategist advised trading the words “global warming” for the less scary “climate change” in order to detract from the grave importance of the issue. Framing vividly came into play when propaganda about high energy prices hurting working families caused the reversal of pro-environmentalist policies in Ontario, Canada. In the paper “Carbon pricing and economic populism: the case of Ontario”, from the Climate Policy journal, author Leigh Raymond concludes: “Ontario’s experience constitutes a warning about the importance of designing and framing… policies”.

A population overwhelmed

Another concern raised by Dark’s book is that the media’s constant quest for sensationalism can frame information in a way that will literally scare people so much they become too overwhelmed to think about the topic. I can give a real-life example from my own experience to illustrate how this can happen. I have a particular aversion to seeing photos of animals that have been hurt or killed. Some of my acquaintances and organizations I follow have strong feelings about stopping animal cruelty and so they post images on Facebook. Seeing these I immediately scroll away from the images, making me much less likely to pay attention to the issue; the irony is that I feel strongly about protecting animals, wildlife and nature. In the studies I cited by Font & Hindley and Mayer & Smith, people were similarly hopeless and therefore did not take action, and in some cases, they contributed to the problem.

Not only is the public burdened with trying to navigate the treacherous waters of the media, Dark points out, but they are also supposed to “assume the roles of citizen, politician, scientist, and saviour of the planet”. It's an impossible task really, because as Dark adds, society has become so "transfixed on the need for specialisation, that it is no longer expected that the layperson comprehends a single field of it". This is how we find ourselves in the situation we’re in, where misinformation reins and “the truth is infinitely flexible” (Dark).

Combatting climate change: what's in it for me?

Dark asserts that: “Politicians base their decisions on the costs and benefits they will incur as a consequence  of  their  decisions.” We find that regular people do the same, like the tourists in  Font & Hindley’s study who felt bad, but still felt they deserved a trip, even if it was damaging to the environment. The winning strategy for behavior modification points at making environmentalism personally beneficial, like how the Ipswich Town Football Club rewarded engaged fans and got them to align fandom with environmentalism. Another interesting point of Richard Baldwin’s study on that campaign was that while some of the respondents expressed doubt and distrust towards the government in their answers, they readily accepted the football club as a “trusted messenger”. While Baldwin acknowledges that one study by no means provides “unequivocal proof” that this sort of thing is effective, he asserts that it’s “a contribution to the growing evidence base” and that “more research effort should be directed towards identifying the contexts and mechanisms by which to remove the barriers that individuals face in adopting pro-environmental behavioural changes in order to achieve positive environmental outcomes.”

Dark also brings up that distrust of the powers that be as yet another roadblock in making change around environment-damaging human behaviors. He points out that: “The publics’ worldview of many forms of institutional power is characterised by scepticism. Moreover, there is widespread disenchantment with figures of authority; their motives, actions, and the power they wield. There is a compulsion to not only question their decisions but also their authority to make them.”

Joakim Kulin and Ingemarr Johansson Sevä specifically examined how trust towards the government (or lack thereof) affects attitudes in their study: “Who do you trust? How trust in partial and impartial government institutions influences climate policy attitudes”. Published in Climate Policy, their research using data from 23 European countries found that “individuals who are concerned about climate change are more likely to hold positive attitudes towards climate policies in high-trust countries, particularly where trust in impartial institutions such as the legal system and the police is high.”

Scientists are struggling to tackle real-world problems too

An eye-opening (pending peer review) study from our very own Taylor & Francis team (which includes Earth & Environmental Science Portfolio Manager Andrew Kelly, Director of Policy Victoria Gardner, and Research & Analytics Manager Anna Gilbert) investigated Earth and Environmental Science researchers and their attitudes towards research impact.  In this, one of the very first studies of its kind, 90% of respondents indicated that it was important they contribute to tackling real-world problems with their work or that they intended to do so in the future.

However, when it came down to it, just 21% stated that ‘contribution to tackling real-world problems’ was one of the most-important forms of impact that they were looking for from their research. So unfortunately we find that scientific researchers’ attitudes about changing the world in some ways mirror the general population’s attitude and response towards climate change. The main issue for these researchers is that their success is measured primarily by citations and publication venue – not by how much their research can change the world. So citations and publication venue become their ultimate focus.

Andrew Kelly had this to say: “There is a knowledge gap in understanding and communicating the link between highly focused projects and live policy issues, so laudable ambitions are being lost. From improved cognisance of how research is incorporated into decision-making, to rewarding and recognizing policy impact, publishers, funders and institutions, must make strides to incentivize and support researcher aspirations to affect real-world change.”

Kelly, Gardner & Gilbert’s (pending peer review) paper, “The disconnect between researcher ambitions and reality in achieving impact in the Earth & Environmental Sciences – narrowing the gap” from F1000 Research, offers a series of recommendations for policy makers, funders, publishers and institutions, on how to collaborate and encourage authors to narrow that gap. The study also documents new initiatives Taylor & Francis’ Earth & Environmental Sciences is undertaking, as editors and society partners introduce policy-impact statements over the next few months, along with holding a cross-stakeholder discussion forum exploring other appropriate structural ways of clarifying policy relevance (such as to particular SDGs). This group will be publishing a series of cross-portfolio special issues on policy-relevant topics, beginning with the policy priorities expressed in the European Commission’s Horizon Europe Missions to be published on World Earth Day 2022.

Additionally, Kelly, Dr. Joanna Depledge, CsAP Fellow, CEENRG Research Fellow and Former Editor of Climate Policy, and Dr. Sanna Markkanen, Research Associate at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, presented at the 2021 Sense about Science Evidence Week, with a presentation to UK Parliament about increasing public support for policies that address climate change. You can find more information about that here.

Mission Possible

Kath Burton, Portfolio Development Specialist for the Humanities, Taylor & Francis, is also on a mission to narrow the gap between researchers and policy. Her work addresses changing the role of researchers to become more involved with their communities, to develop a more inclusive and values-led publishing ecosystem. Bridging this gap is key, as so many of the studies referenced in this article found that community participation in world changing endeavors are absolutely imperative to individual participation.

The humanities are just as crucial to climate change mitigation as traditional science, as Dr. Joanna Depledge explained at the Academic Publishing in Europe Conference earlier this year: “Climate policy research and publication is inherently interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary… involving economics, politics, behavioral science, law, psychology, ethics, you name it… As Climate Policy editor I always insisted that the analysis be widely accessible to readers from all theoretical backgrounds, and none.”

In 2020 Burton spearheaded Taylor & Francis’ commitment to publicly engaged research by joining up with the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) “to identify and discuss model practices for publishing on public and publicly engaged humanities work in higher education”. This work is documented in a paper Burton has contributed to, along with Daniel Fisher of the NHA, and eight other scholars from universities from around the world, called Public Humanities and Publication: A Working Paper.

One of the paper’s main points is the importance of engaged scholarship, changing the process from a traditional one-way transfer of knowledge from the world of academia to the public, to a collaborative experience, where “higher education faculty and students partner with community members in the creation of knowledge”. With similar calls to action to those we see in Kelly, Gardner, and Gilbert’s study, the authors advocate the need for “research and institutional structures that support engaged scholarship”.

In their summary, Burton and Fisher explain: “public humanities work… serves the public good in both its processes and outcomes, directing the resources of the humanities to address society’s most pressing challenges.” The paper outlines four specific areas where they see challenges to making this change in academic publishing, noting that “while publicly engaged scholarship has proliferated, there remains concern among scholars about how this work is measured and credited to them in the context of the three traditional expectations for faculty promotion and tenure in the humanities: research, teaching, and service.”

The hope is that by building bridges between academia and communities, and taking away the image (and oftentimes practice) of academics in their siloed “Ivory Towers”, publishers and others can support researchers by changing the academic currency so their success can be measured, recognized, rewarded, and funded, in new and innovative ways, and real change can happen. 

Smoke stacks with pollution coming out of industrial area.

Photo: Chris Leboutillier via Unsplash

Photo: Chris Leboutillier via Unsplash

Climate Emergency, photo of drought Namibia

Photo: Peter Burdon via Unsplash

Photo: Peter Burdon via Unsplash

Bicycle with sign: Share more, consume less.

Photo: Pop Zebra via Unsplash

Photo: Pop Zebra via Unsplash

Climate protest in Germany.

Photo: Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

Photo: Mika Baumeister via Unsplash.

Empathy is key

I close with a quote from the Climate Policy article “Political populism, responsiveness, and public support for climate mitigation”. In it, Robert Huber, Lukas Fesenfeld, and Thomas Bernauer hit the nail on the head with this advice based on their research findings: “less technical, top-down, and more empathetic communication of climate-related policy goals might help to increase acceptance and support for these policies”. Every article I’ve read points to the idea that understanding your audience and their needs, whether they’re scientists, farmers, tourists or football fans, is fundamental to tackling climate change. Understanding requires empathy from those who have power to shape the discourse. Humanist film critic Roger Ebert once said that “empathy is the most essential quality of civilization”; having a civilization left one hundred years from now will depend on that empathy.

Landfill in Bali