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The challenges to behaviour change for climate change

Written by Current Affairs, Science

Back in May, the Committee on Climate Change wrote a letter to Boris Johnson containing six recommendations for tackling climate change that must be considered as the country begins to rebuild following the recent lockdown. This included a government-led “shift towards positive long-term behaviours,” altering social norms so that public behaviour post-lockdown becomes more proactive when tackling the issue of climate change.

But how easy will it be to actually alter behaviour?

Climate change has been a recognised concern of the United States since 1965, but by 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had already concluded that the increased burning of fossil fuels would only serve to speed up the natural greenhouse effect. These predictions closely match those of today’s scientists. So why over the last 120 odd years has behaviour not drastically changed?

Behaviour is more likely to be sustainably altered if we are able to easily see the impacts of the change and receive recognition for our efforts.

For individuals to help tackle climate change, they must be willing to alter their diets, travel, and everyday goods consumption. This means a voluntary change in behaviour. The individual must choose to make that change for personal gain without being motivated by regulations or compelled by an external source. In theory the change should have a lasting effect as behaviour is now more congruent (that is to say aligned) with personal views and goals. However, humans are creatures of habit, so coaxing voluntary changes when tackling climate change seems to rarely have lasting effects.  

Credit: Nick Fewings via Unsplash.

Behaviour is more likely to be sustainably altered if we are able to easily see the impacts of the change and receive recognition for our efforts.

Take smart meters; they provide a clear visual of your energy consumption and energy saved. This feedback and recognition reinforces the change in behaviour making them more likely to persist over time. Failing to meet a goal, such as not saving as much energy this month as you did the previous month, may also motivate people to alter behaviour further. Additional motivation for lasting change comes from the financial incentive the smart meter provides by saving people money. But for other types of behaviour change, there is a lack of feedback on the effect that change may have.

Lack of reinforcement for continuing with the behaviour means, over time, people are likely to slip back into their old habits.

It’s harder to see the impact of buying products in less plastic packaging or taking public transport to work each day, when on future visits to the supermarket everything is still wrapped in hundreds of layers of plastic and there are still cars stuck in traffic jams on your commute. And there’s also little financial incentive. This lack of reinforcement for continuing with the behaviour means, over time, people are likely to slip back into their old habits. Although this is less likely to happen if we are around others who are also trying to implement the same changes, providing both peer support and pressure.

Credit: helloimnik via Unsplash.

The need to be accepted by the group and avoid being rejected is so strong that we may alter behaviour in order to fit in. If we surround ourselves with people who are all working towards a common goal then there is motivation to continue with the behaviour change, or we run the risk of being rebuffed by the group.

If we really want to sustainably change our behaviour we must find ways to reward these changes, to clearly show the effect our new behaviour is having, as well as influencing others around us to change in order to keep ourselves on track.

Featured Image: Markus Spiske via Unsplash.

Last modified: 6th October 2020

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