Why Climate Change Needs… Behaviour Change

Common Thread
Nov 7, 2019 · 5 min read

If we learned of a slow-moving alien attack to poison our air, raise the earth’s temperature, increase the frequency and ferocity of natural disasters, erode our coastlines and increase sea levels, how would we react?

What about man-made climate change that will make life on earth similarly precarious, unhealthy and unsafe in 25 years?… 10 years?

The end result is the same. But somehow, one seems to be a call to action, and the other can encourage complacency, calculation and a ‘maybe tomorrow’ feeling. In the face of catastrophe, individual actions can seem insignificant.

By Michael Coleman, Co-Director of Common Thread: Putting people at the centre of public health.

The challenge for Behavioural Science: Climate change can feel overwhelming, distant and inevitable. Photo by William Bossen on Unsplash

In public health, the impact of climate change on disease and the health of the most vulnerable is undeniable. Maybe if we saw climate change as an existential attack by this common and intergalactic enemy, we would be more likely to feel the urgency and join forces to act for change.

Michael Coleman, Co-Director of Common Thread, talked to Kevin Green last year about how we behave in the face of global warming. Kevin leads The Center for Behavior & the Environment at Rare and believes we can’t find a solution to the challenge of our lifetime without behavioural science.

Common Thread: Many people are overwhelmed by climate change because of the inaction of others — how could behavioural science address this?

Kevin: Behavioural science strategies could help cut carbon emissions. [As individuals], we have limited attention and ignore complex problems. We favour immediate, relatable, tangible things and can’t imagine the distant, less tangible.

This is a real challenge for tackling global warming.

“The future is going to be terrible,”

“It’s all our fault” and “We have to make sacrifices”

— are all messages that we are hardwired to ignore.”

And, as we are such deeply social and emotional animals, we are more likely to respond to social and emotional cues than purely rational ones.

Common Thread: So how could we apply those cues to changing attitudes?

Kevin: We can strategically deploy emotional appeals, social incentives and ‘choice architecture’.

We have to paint a picture that individuals’ behaviour added up and scaled across a movement can actually make a really big difference.

Common Thread: Tell us more about Rare’s ‘behavioural solutions’.

Kevin: We identified the top solutions to reducing [carbon] emissions between 2020 and 2050, which largely depend on individual and household behaviour change.

We estimate that 30 of those 80 or so solutions are ‘behavioural solutions’ — for example, household water saving, reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, silvopasture [introducing trees into a forage production system], and mass transit.

Common Thread: Why is changing our behaviour in the face of global warming such a challenge?

“The kitchen sink we’ve thrown at climate change so far is a great example of missing the mark.”

Kevin: The conventional model for understanding how the human mind works looks a bit like Spock from Star Trek — he’s a rational, self-interested, utility-maximising decision-maker who can add up the costs and benefits of every single choice with a hyper-rational decision.

Star Trek’s Spock — a hyper-rational decision maker.

But we’ve found that human behaviour deviates from that model in three ways:

First. Emotions are often more powerful than reason and play a big part in our decision making.

Second. People are inherently social animals. We care about what others think about us and often model our behaviour after our peers. As social animals we prefer to cooperate.

Third. The content and timing of our decision making often matters as much as the choices as we have to make.

The bottom line is that the architecture of the environment of our decision making has a really big impact on the choices we make. So we flipped those principles when applying them to conservational and environmental challenges.

Essentially transitioning to a positive, optimistic message about what life can be like in a world where we address this crisis is a big shift that has to be made.

Common Thread: Is climate change a public health issue?

Kevin: To my mind climate change is as much a public health crisis or challenge as it is an environmental sustainability challenge.

It is probably the most significant challenge faced by modern society — maybe by our species ever. Our science is more advanced than at any point in human history yet somehow it seems we’re going backwards — consumption, emissions, continue to rise globally.

The political environment is not particularly amenable to addressing climate change in a big way right now, at least not in the US. So it seems like we’re going backwards in spite of the fact we know, with broad scientific consensus, where this is coming from, what’s causing climate change and how to fix it.

Common Thread: So if we know what’s broken, why can’t we fix it?
We’re designing the wrong solutions. We’re solving for rational decision makers not for real people. So we expect people to see the facts and solve the problem but climate change in a unique challenge in modern society.

I’m hesitant to be critical of efforts as we’re all trying our best, but generally there are a lot of examples of essentially doomsday scenarios forcing us into ‘Oh Shit’ moments through a dangerous cocktail of messages.

Climate change is an incredibly complex problem to solve which requires thinking through entire systems of change, so it’s ill-suited to our hard-wiring.


You’ll find Kevin’s full interview along with other experts we’ve interviewed at Common Thread for our newsletter, The Stitch, available on our SoundCloud channel.

Want to know more?

A report by The Center for Behavior & the Environment published in Autumn 2018 identified 30 individual behaviours that have the potential to reduce about a third of the projected cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 to 2050. You can read it here.


This interview was brought to you by Common Thread

— a global public health, behavioural and communications organisation which puts people at the centre of public health. See: gocommonthread.com

Common Thread

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We work in Social and Behaviour Change for Public Health. Find us at: gocommonthread.com

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