Financial incentives such as rebates or cheaper prices are often not enough to encourage consumers in Western societies to adopt climate-friendly behaviour. Such efforts have to be matched up with appeals to personal identity and values if they are to be effective.
This is the conclusion of an in-depth survey of some four decades of environmental psychological research investigating why people do, or do not, work to conserve energy, retrofit their homes or opt for cleaner transport, amongst other actions. The analysis was released this past week by US, Canadian and New Zealand investigators and funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
While most people in developed countries are now aware of climate change and many are worried about the threat, such knowledge and concern do not always translate into action. Companies and governments that have tried to change behaviour have met with mixed success.
Environmental psychologists have put forward four broad categories of explanation for ecologically-oriented behaviour or a lack thereof: self-interest (rational choice), altruism, a mix of self-interest and altruism, and psychological or structural barriers such as a lack of knowledge, perceived risk, cognitive bias and social pressure.
The researchers wanted to find out which explanations matched up with the evidence both from the scientific literature and from real-world efforts by utility companies and others to promote climate-friendly behaviour.
While there was no “one size fits all” solution, overall they found that the most effective programmes were those that combined pricing strategies with psychology based ones. Particularly effective are those that provide tailored information, solicit pledges, recruit community leaders and offer direct, personalised feedback.
In particular, they found that convincing people to take a personal interest or satisfaction from ‘doing their part’ for the planet, meant they were more likely to maintain the behaviour, even after an incentive (e.g., saving money) was removed.
Information campaigns, which are based upon an assumption that people do not know about a particular problem, or do not know what to do about it, are amongst the most widely used approaches. But this report says while they do raise awareness, information on its own is often not sufficient to inspire change.
Lead researcher Reuven Sussman said that a better approach is to tailor information, incentives and messages to specific people or groups. Climate sceptics for example tend to actively support the political and economic status quo, so they are more likely to be persuaded by messages that buttress this worldview such as those making use of patriotic imagery.
When people make pledges, such as to save energy or recycle, they are more likely to follow through with such activity, particularly if they are made publicly. One successful example highlighted was a university competition that made use of software that automatically posted energy saving pledges to their Facebook profiles.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.