What form of behaviour change does climate change call for?

March 5, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

“If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.”   (G Monbiot, Heat, 2007, xvii)

I recently gave a 15 minute presentation on the Social Brain Centre‘s emerging ideas relating to behaviour change in the context of Climate Change. The title was: “What kind of behaviour change do we need?” The details will soon be unpacked in a report, grounded in evidence from a national survey, but the idea in outline is as follows:

  • Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don’t manage to (‘climate ignorers‘)
  • Focus on practices that have strategic value (changing behaviour in a way that promotes attitudes or values that reinforce rather than undermine related behaviours)
  • Help people change certain social practices (often called ‘habits’) that are formative of their relationship to climate change.
  • Design this change in a a way that promotes social diffusion to shift social norms and shape political will at a local level.
  • Through a shift in civil society, local government and businesses, change political will at national and international levels.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours.

Now I know that pattern of change sounds a bit too good, platonic and partial to be true, but it’s a relatively coherent roadmap, and it helps to frame the role, relevance of nature of the behaviour change interventions that we want to work on. I’m really excited about this work programme, which feels very promising, and I am therefore very grateful to our funders for giving us a chance to give some practical definition to this theory of change.

And yet, when I gave the talk, I didn’t feel quite right afterwards, and sensed that I hadn’t connected with the audience as well as I might usually hope to. What was going on?

I gradually realised that the room was full of people who are working actively to reduce emissions in the UK. Everyone present had some form of connection with The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration and many, perhaps most, have some practical experience of attempts to implement The Green Deal.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours. I suspect most people in the room were focussed on the latter issue, while I spoke mostly to the former.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

The climate change challenge is compounded by the fact that people think about it in very different ways. Many see it fundamentally as a technical problem. On this view, Climate Scientists tell us about the extent of the risk to the stability and predictability of natural systems in probabilistic language, the political class, advised mostly by economists, make a collective judgement about how serious the problem is, and then they decide on what a credible and achievable solution looks like. In theory, businesses, civil servants, consumers and citizens then rally to that judgement.

On this framing of  ’climate change’ it’s a clear problem lending itself to a solution. The corollary is that behaviour change is principally about working to make efficient energy use easier and more rewarding, and then measuring the impact of those interventions against national targets. If you can get people to retrofit their homes in the right way, switch to green energy providers, and improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and their driving behaviours, then you are taking huge strides towards solving ‘the problem’. 

Climate Change: Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?

But many don’t see it as that kind of ‘problem’ and are sceptical that such ‘solutions’ could ever really work. At the risk of sounding (Bill) Clintonesque, there is a difference between Climate Change as a natural phenomenon and ‘Climate change’ as a social and political issue, and even when you accept the reality of the former, there is huge scope for dispute about the latter. Indeed, in a previous post I suggested there are at least 30 wedge issues on climate change.

Perhaps the most important wedge in these wedge issues is one we make in Transforming Behaviour Change (see part two, p17), namely the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. In this respect it is noteworthy that Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz suggests that most failures of leadership stem from the tendency to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Could this be happening to Climate Change?

While you can and should deal with some energy-related inefficiencies as technical problems, climate change as a whole is a more complex adaptive challenge requiring a wider set of responses. I will develop this point in our forthcoming report, but for now consider the following simple example that shows the huge difference between measuring impact through emissions(national, in aggregate) verses measuring it through carbon footprints(personal, international).

Although not generally consonant with our approach, a review article in The Economist gave a good example of a technical solution that fails to grapple with the underlying challenge. Simply stated, Government emissions targets do not reflect the carbon cost of imports, and this (in my view!) is at least partly because factoring in the carbon costs of imports calls into question the whole nature and purpose of the global economy. 

Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions.

By concentrating on their own carbon production, and how to reduce it, Europeans have ignored the impact of their continued demand for goods made using carbon- intensive processes. Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions. The regulatory approach, argues Mr Helm, has got the worst of all worlds. It is expensive, it has not cut emissions and its treaties are unworkable. No wonder the public is growing sceptical.”

As always with climate change, there is a lot going on in that paragraph, but the key point is that the ‘demand for goods made using carbon intensive processes’ is an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.

Dealing with that challenge requires forms of behaviour change that go way beyond our immediate relationship to energy in our homes. Indeed, viewing climate change as an adaptive challenge means engaging with attitudes and values relating to consumption more broadly, and even our perceived need for economic growth.

In other words, coming back to George Monbiot’s quote, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change, the form of behaviour change we work on has to go beyond improving energy efficiency, and at least raise the question of how we might successfully change our lifestyles.


  • Steven Johnson

    Jonathan—great analysis, as ever. I think another way
    to look at this is to ask whether we should concentrate on longer-term (arguably more sustainable) approaches to behaviour change based on shifts in individual, community and societal values, or focus on shorter-term (more pragmatic) approaches based on designing contexts to trigger desired behaviours,
    often independently of values? I feel it’s clear that we need to do both.

    The relationship between values and behaviour is more complex
    that we could imagine. Not just in terms of the intention-action gap (behaviour doesn’t always follow values/intentions—we don’t do what we say we will), but also in terms of causal direction: sometimes values do drive behaviour, but sometimes behaviour drives values.

    Yes, a sustainable future needs to be built on a fundamental shift in values, especially in relation to consumerism and the predominance of extrinsic motivation. However, the ‘technical problem’ of systems and context design must be embraced as an approach that not only drives shorter-term quick wins, but which accelerates and contributes to our response to the adaptive challenge, rather that one that is antithetical to, or distinct
    from, it. In short, answering the technical problem is part of our response to the adaptive challenge.

    Looking forward to the full report.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Steven. I agree with all of that!

  • http://twitter.com/RetailClimate Retail Climate

    Interesting article Jonathan, thanks. Looking forward to reading the report.

    I’m working on a research project, funded by JISC, to help British retailers respond to climate change. I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may help.

    Firstly, based on what you term climate ‘ignorers’, to quote you:

    Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don’t manage to

    I too started with this logic, but our qualitative data is suggesting something different. Several retailers we have been engaging who do not believe climate change is happening/not urgent clearly stated they were open to finding out more because we framed climate change as a business opportunity. Interesting, some of those who do believe climate change is urgent and in theory want to do something about it but in reality don’t and therefore are less open because they lack a sense of efficacy…. in other words,the ‘somehow don’t manage to’ is because they feel powerless – this needs to be tackled by our communications, but equally don’t ignore the sceptics because further research may uncover a stronger motivation that will override their initial scepticism.

    In terms of Stephen’s comment below, I agree that behaviours can change values (and attitudes). Therefore, I’m hoping that even sceptics, if we can get them to trial behaviours, may then change their current views because they realise they and their customer bases will benefit as a result of the change.

    In terms of Benjamin’s comment, I’m not convinced a lifestyle frame is necessarily individualist. All people, whatever their culture, have an innate desire to commune and relate to others – I think we could test a frame that goes along the lines that tackling climate change is a way to enhance lifestyles, not change them.

    In terms of your article’s reference to embodied carbon in products, I’m really hoping our project focusing on retailers will help to decarbonise our products and their supply chains, and help them to engage their customers with climate change at point of sale.

    There’s a lot of research out there – pity there’s no central database that could collate all this learning ….

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks ‘Retail Climate’ (wish I had a name!). I agree with most of that and would be interested in talking further with you.
      To put it a little crudely, I feel there are at least two main challenges with this issue- the first is to get some idea of what is going on through careful research, and the second is not to take so long being sure you know what is going on before you act…It’s really hard to get the right balance. In this case, understanding climate ignoring (or disavowal, to use the more accurate technical term) is a huge challenge that we need to take time to understand, but not oo much time….

  • Jonathanrowson

    Thanks Benjamin. As I say below, it’s better to view technical problem/adaptive challenge as a distinction rather than a dichotomy- we do need both, but one is so much ‘easier’ in so many ways that there is a danger we end up just doing the technical stuff.
    Also, while much of our language contains an implicit individualist folk psychology, ‘lifestyle’ may or may not be a good case in point- so much of ‘lifestyle’ is about social and cultural norms, perpetuated through marketing.

    Thanks for the reference to Stockton- will keep an eye out.

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