Why we don’t do much about climate change

A fascinating paper from the World Bank looks at the question of how people understand climate change and change their behaviour accordingly – or more often, don’t.

Climate change, the paper argues, is an anthropogenic problem, so the solutions need to be anthropogenic too. Instead, current talk of solutions focuses almost exclusively on economics and on technical solutions – but rarely on individual behaviour. And individual decisions, such as travel, heating, and food purchases, result in about 40 per cent of OECD greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course we are bombarded with exhortations to change our behaviour, but the net effect has been slight. Awareness of, and concern about, climate change is growing, but so are driving, flying, and so on.

So if people know more, and they worry more, why don’t they do more? Part of the problem, argues author Andrea Liverani, is assuming that information leads to action. In fact, information doesn’t even necessarily lead to understanding:

Concern about climate change does not necessarily mean understanding of its drivers and dynamics, nor of the responses needed. Polls show that the public admits to remaining confused over climate change’s causes and solutions.6  This “green gap” in public attitudes partly stems from how climate science is communicated and how our minds’ (mis)understand climate dynamics.

Even if we were indeed fully rational, knowledge would not necessarily lead to action.

The reasons are many: We can only worry about a finite number of things; we are attached to social traditions and identities that aren’t always purely rational; and quite rationally, we realise there are ‘tragedy of the commons’ dilemmas around who pays for mitigation, and who benefits.

Furthermore, we have a great capacity to just think about it in a way that makes sense to us:

People also construct and reconstruct information to make it less uncomfortable, leading to strategies of socially organized denial that shape the way societies and governments interpret and respond to the challenges of climate change.27 The evolution of standard narratives about climate change provides an example. Focusing on country emissions rather than per capita emissions can lead individuals living outside the big emitters to minimize their own responsibility and rationalize their failure to act.

In other words, everything you know is wrong. People are often rational, but not always, and not in the ways that one might think. We need information, but when we do get it we sometimes twist it to suit other needs and inclinations.

So what does this tell us — or more to the point, what does it tell the policymakers for whom this report is intended? There are a few takeaways: communications, institutions, and social norms.

Communications is apparently a hot issue in policymaking: is it feasible, or even necessary, for the public to understand the issue? It sounds less shocking when you hear figures such as ‘four in 10 Americans can’t name a fossil fuel’.  At the same time, the World Bank argues it would be a mistake to overlook it: another US survey found that one of the main factors behind negative views of cap and trade was not scepticism over what it would cost, but whether it would be effective.

Second, institutional reforms. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but individuals tend to measure future benefits of taking action to avoid climate change (aka ‘discount rates’) differently depending on the incentives they are given. And they value visible, local benefits more highly than diffuse benefits.

Third, social norms. This is not easy to change, especially from a policy point of view. But it is possible – littering is given as an example of behaviour that is normally constrained by group behaviour (though anyone who’s spent much time in London might disagree).  It cites a Californian experiment in which householders reduced their energy use when they know how much their neighbours were reducing their consumption. (This is where a lot of the excitement around smart meters and their associated software comes from.) These sorts of social mores could be employed by levying a carbon footprint tax on consumer goods, and then giving equivalent rebates. People, apparently, don’t mind green taxes so much when they know that they’re not for revenue-raising.

All of this might not be enough to ensure climate policy success, the paper argues, but they may prove necessary:

Encouraging behavior change for mitigation and adaptation goes well beyond providing additional information, finance, or technology. Traditional measures can be completed by alternative types of interventions, often at low cost. Rather than simply treat these social and psychological drivers of behavior as barriers to adaptation and mitigation, policymakers have the option to use them to build more effective and sustainable policies and interventions.

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