Climate Change Requires Silver Buckshot, Not a Silver Bullet

This is part of our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: With the release of the UN report suggesting that we only have a dozen years before facing significantly worse impacts from climate change, we've been hearing a lot about the need for major policy and systems change from governments around the world. We also know that systems and policies are constructed by people, who fall prey to the same behavioral flaws as the rest of us—such as being less inclined to act when there are long-term rather than short-term benefits or consequences (i.e., present bias). How should we think about using behavioral insights to encourage more responsible and responsive behavior from governments in the context of climate change? 

The climate challenge is huge, messy and not susceptible to a single fix.  Despite that, the policy focus has been on big silver bullet solutions. Big responses are necessary—we need solid, comprehensive legislation and a robust functioning international agreement. But, for a unique challenge so intertwined with every part of every human’s life, a reality confirmed by the recent IPCC report and the National Climate Assessment, we need much more. Climate change is about how people consume energy, which we all do in one way or another 24/7. The problem is us, and that means we must also be part of the solution. We can’t say that experts, maybe the government, will take care of everything. Silver buckshot added to silver bullets—every tool in the tool box, a big bag of human changes—might.

The climate trajectory is not a smooth curve. It’s a process of jagged edges and possibly swift turning points—what the scientists call tipping points. Without an exact parallel in Earth’s history, it’s very hard to know what changes are the most meaningful and how all of this will play out. 

And we are all humans, trying to figure out how to get through this. That impacts how we assess and manage threat, in multiple ways. Our human instincts to be optimistic and hopeful might cause us to read the IPCC report as giving us 12 or so safe years before bad things happen. In fact, on the current pathway, things are getting bad today, a lot faster than we previously expected and we have very little time to do anything about it.

More behavioral scientists—in academia, industry, and in the realm of policy—need to put climate change at the top of their agenda.

What we do with this information is informed by instincts developed over millennia. The short-term objective of getting quickly to the grocery store or wanting to fly across the country to reunite with beloved family quickly defeats the long-term objective of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we care a lot about the carbon consequences, in our daily actions, we take the instinctive, easiest-course-of-action pathway.

How do we overcome these hardwired instincts? That’s a question more behavioral scientists—in academia, industry, and in the realm of policy—need to put at the top of their agenda, working to formulate concrete, practical ideas for policymakers to put into action. Answers (and hope) will come from groups working across disciplines who can show us the way from our unsustainable behavior today to an existence that’s viable for generations to come.

Daniel Kahneman shows us the way. Robert Cialdini was a pathbreaker. Some of the people doing my favorite work in this area are professors Eric Johnson and Elke Weber, Tripp Shealy, and Leidy Klotz. Their work bridges the research application gap and is erasing boundaries across disciplines with plausible examples of silver buckshot.