7 min read

Playing to win: human behaviour and climate action

Debate about the best way to tackle climate change at a local, national and global level is seldom far from the headlines. But how can we encourage people to adopt the pro-environmental behaviours which are vital, not just for better climate outcomes, but also for providing governments with the necessary mandate to pursue positive climate action.

Building and maintaining credibility and trust with the public in this area is a vital driver of success. As the UK prepares for a highly significant general election later this year, the fierce debate around the UK government’s recent rescheduling of its climate commitments illustrates how fragile this trust can be.

No democratic (or even authoritarian) government can top-down impose something against the will of substantial portions of the population over the long run.

wind farm in background of solar panels in foreground

The green transition will undoubtedly create discontent, whether because of increases in the cost of living, anxiety over job security, or simply disruption to a settled way of life. While large-scale surveys show consistently that across many countries the large majority of the population is in favour of more climate action, climate movements and green policies also trigger protest and backlash ('greenlash').

yellow vest protestor in France

Notable examples include the Gilets Jaunes in France and opposition in the UK to traffic controls such as LTNs and ULEZ. Recent scientific evidence also suggests that implementing green policies can lead to electoral backlash and rising support for populist parties. Decades of research in the behavioural sciences highlights the fundamental role played in this process by psychological phenomena such as loss aversion, present bias, and status quo bias. For example, people react emotionally more strongly to losses than to gains.

(Another research initiative at the School is digging deeper into the gap between growing consumer awareness of climate change and the lack of widespread changes in consumer behaviour - a phenomenon known as the ‘say-do’ gap.)

Even if society as a whole will benefit from an economic transition, the people who feel that they are losing out will be vocal and obstructive. Furthermore, present bias implies that people may be unwilling to incur immediate costs even if this could lead to future benefit. For example, the perceived hassle of improving home insulation can prevent investments that would drive down future energy bills. Jointly, these can lead to status quo bias, meaning that people are reluctant to give up the comforts of the familiar and to change habits.

These legitimate concerns need to be addressed. People can change their behaviour dramatically when new circumstances demand, as we saw during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic with lockdowns and social distancing. However, mitigating climate change is a social dilemma rife with cognitive challenges. The risk of climate impacts often fails to evoke the visceral reactions necessary for behavioural change due to their time-delayed and abstract nature, especially in countries where the current effects are not already felt to a high degree (ie the UK). In essence, we find it hard to vividly imagine the consequences of immediate (in)action today on life in the future.

This may explain why, while general public concern about climate change is growing, climate action and support for ambitious climate policies are lagging. There is evidence that climate change and climate concerns temporarily become more salient during heat waves or other extreme weather events. For example, these can lead to more google searches for climate change, worse stock market performance of 'dirty' firms, and can increase the vote for green parties.

However, short-term spikes in attention can quickly dissipate. With climate change, we need to be in for the long haul. One approach is to keep environmental concerns at the top of our minds in everyday life, for example through green labels.

In recently published co-authored research, we find that individuals are significantly more likely to engage in household energy and water conservation if they are constantly reminded through smart meters that provide real-time feedback. However, this generally requires that people feel and understand the urgency of mitigating the impact of human activity on climate change. The research that I am currently engaged with at our Centre for Corporate Reputation, and in collaboration with my Oxford colleague, Stefania Innocenti at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, is aimed at leveraging insights from the behavioural sciences to foster long-term engagement with behavioural change and policy support in addressing the climate crisis. We focus at both the individual and societal level.

The individual level

First, at the individual level we are investigating how novel communication tools can help people understand and vividly imagine the consequences of failing to address climate change, and also alleviate concerns about economic harm and perceived (un)fairness of climate policies. Given how far traditional mass communications have evolved, understanding how to package pro-environmental messages in media with which people feel most engaged is a key new challenge.

still from the developed game of an island in the middle of a lake

A project we are pursuing with the Oxford Smith School and Sony Interactive Entertainment tests the potential of 'edutainment' (education plus entertainment) in this context, through video games and virtual reality. Virtual reality (VR) offers an unmatched immersive potential to educate people about climate change. In one project, we are evaluating how best to use VR through conducting experiments in which people will use the 'Climate Station' app, developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment, visualising climate change and 150 years of weather data through virtual reality and unique exploration modes to explain temperature trends and complex relationships between weather patterns and extreme weather events.

The societal level

In a second project, we evaluate the potential of video games in engaging a large and diverse audience. Together with Sony Interactive Entertainment and Media Molecule developers, Stefania Innocenti and I have designed a narrative-driven mobile game, in which the player navigates the story by clicking through dialogues with non-player characters (NPCs) and learns about environmentally sustainable behaviour along the way through choices and feedback/consequences. Feedback is presented through, first, visual depiction of nature to help people vividly imagine the consequences of (un)sustainable behaviour; and, secondly, through dialogues with non-player-characters and mini-games to capture social motives of pro-environmental behaviour.

mockup of the game 'pecking orders' on a phone screen being handheld

That aspect of the social context of the game is critical in the real world: how individual preferences influence and are influenced by societal dynamics; how building on social evaluations and motivations such as reputation, status and conformity can alter the directly perceived cost-benefit trade-offs for engaging in pro-environmental action; and how far this requires that individuals perceive others to care and act as well ('social dilemma').

We provide more evidence of the importance of this multi-level perspective in our research into what impacts public acceptance for carbon taxation, a key cornerstone of effective climate policy. Our research shows how far acceptance is dependent on both social motives and individual perceptions of the policy. We conducted a representative survey in the USA and provided 'explainer' videos from the Oxford Smith School: 

We then analysed whether providing information in this way reduced the antipathy towards carbon taxation. It showed that once made aware of the broad social consensus in favour of climate action – evidenced by opinion surveys – people would themselves becomes less opposed, but only when we also alleviated concerns about the policy’s effectiveness and fairness.

The relationship between individual attitudes and societal dynamics is also captured in some of my previous research on the Covid-19 pandemic in Germany. We find that, in the second and third waves, when immediate fear of the virus had diminished, regions in which people showed higher average pro-sociality were also more successful in limiting the number of infections and deaths. Fostering pro-environmental attitudes through individual and social levers could thus also unleash dynamics supporting a sustained transition to net zero. So, when the UK government delays climate-related regulations avowedly to 'allow...the consumer to make that choice', whatever one’s reflections on the politics, it touches on an important underlying truth: individual and societal buy-in is essential for the successful delivery of national climate commitments.