Fight Climate Change with Behavior Change

A green car used to be seen as an aesthetic compromise for the crunchy few—a less stylish but more virtuous alternative to the many gas-guzzlers on the road. This changed in 2012, when Tesla unveiled its Model S luxury electric sedan. Clearly aware that buyers care less about a car’s fuel efficiency than its curb appeal, Tesla rebranded electric vehicles as futuristic status symbols with a smaller carbon tire-print.

The company’s market value now exceeds that of Ford and GM, and Tesla’s more affordable Model 3 car has already become one of America’s best-selling sedans, even though it has only just started rolling off assembly lines (after a long delay). Meanwhile, other luxury brands, including Porsche and Bentley, are now busily pushing their own electric models in a race to make a “Tesla slayer.”

The electric car’s makeover into an aspirational good—one that allows drivers to publicly signal their elite standing and ethical values—carries lessons beyond the automobile industry. For decades, conservationists have presumed that the best way to convince people to behave more sustainably is to highlight the catastrophic consequences of the status quo. But even though nearly six in ten Americans say climate change is already affecting their local community, no amount of guilt or logic has reliably prodded people to fly less, recycle more, or keep offices at a temperature above frigid in summer. Other conventional policies, such as bans on misbehavior (like wildlife poaching) or tax credits for green investments, also have a spotty record. Getting people to make lasting changes clearly requires a more nuanced understanding of the often emotional and social reasons people make decisions.

We had really hoped that if we just tell people how bad it is, how much we’re screwing things up, they will change their behavior, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Kevin Green, the senior director at the Center for Behavior and the Environment at Rare, a conservation organization. Instead, psychologists and behavioral economists have shown that people are not only less rational than policymakers presume but also uniquely ill-suited to addressing environmental problems.

For starters, we have trouble prioritizing future concerns over current needs—what psychologists call our “present bias.” This makes it hard to convince people to make dramatic lifestyle changes now to prevent some remote and slow-moving catastrophe down the road. We also tend to be too selfish or paranoid to cooperate with people we don’t know to protect common resources. For example, a campaign in the late 1990s to persuade affluent households in an English town to use less water during a shortage ended up encouraging the opposite. In the absence of either strong community bonds or financial incentives, residents ended up consuming more water than usual for fear they would run out.

More generally, we struggle to even grasp something as vast, abstract, and complex as climate change (how many elephants is a gigaton?), particularly when the effects seem far away. Our understanding of the issue, and our willingness to do something about it, is apparently flimsy enough to be swayed by scientifically irrelevant information. Although changes to the climate are largely unrelated to variations in the weather, Eric Johnson, director of the Center for the Decision Sciences at Columbia University, has consistently found that people are more likely to believe global warming is a problem when they are asked on an especially warm day. (It bears noting that while small changes in daily temperature are not necessarily evidence of larger climate patterns, scientists have found that climate change has increased the number and strength of extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding, in recent years.)

Even though nearly six in ten Americans say climate change is already affecting their local community, no amount of guilt or logic has reliably prodded people to fly less, recycle more, or keep offices at a temperature above frigid in summer.

“We’re not well-built for this kind of challenge,” says Toby Park of Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team, a company that has pioneered the use of psychology to help policymakers change behavior through “nudges” rather than laws. “From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense to focus on immediate threats and benefits when the priority is survival. But when it comes to the environment, we are very much having our cake and eating it now, and too often aren’t willing to make the immediate lifestyle compromises needed for long-term, collective benefit.”

All of this sounds like bad news. But the more we understand our shortcomings as impulsive, shortsighted, and often lazy thinkers, the better equipped we are to craft the kind of choice architecture that will nudge us to make better decisions. For example, there is evidence that we are more likely to make far-sighted environmental choices when we are first prompted to think about how we want to be remembered. Americans are also more inclined to behave in environmentally conscientious ways when we are primed to see the country as old and mature, and therefore destined for a long future. (As Winston Churchill once observed, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”) In some cases, merely using less politicized language can influence people’s decisions. For example, airline passengers who identify as Republican or Independent are far more willing to pay a green fee when it is called a “carbon offset” instead of a “carbon tax.”    

Campaigns that use stories of doom and gloom to sway behavior are fairly common but rarely successful; people are generally good at ignoring or rationalizing away inconvenient information. “Scaring people into action, guilting people into action, works well if you can do one thing to make yourself feel better,” says Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. For a problem as big and overwhelming as climate change, however, negative messaging tends to leave people feeling hopeless or defensive. Instead, Weber has found it is more effective when campaigns promise a feeling of pride if people make the “right” choice, rather than one of guilt when they make the “wrong” one.

Campaigns that use stories of doom and gloom to sway behavior are fairly common but rarely successful.

Economic incentives sometimes push people to be more green-minded, but the devil is in the details. Because most investments in energy efficiency require big investments up front in the hopes of seeing gradual savings in the future, people tend to stick with what they have. Solar panels, for example, can cost between $15,000 and $25,000 to install on an average American home, before tax credits, making them prohibitively expensive for most homeowners. SolarCity, a solar-energy company now owned by Tesla, dramatically increased solar installations by letting people put panels on their roof for no money down in exchange for shared savings over time. Another successful economic nudge was the federal government’s so-called “Cash for Clunkers” scheme, which in 2009 encouraged Americans to trade in old vehicles for more fuel-efficient models. The program, which gave participants refund vouchers up front rather than at a later date, was so popular that it blew through its initial $1 billion in funding in its first week.

The most effective interventions simply make the ideal behavior as easy as possible. For example, changing the default setting of a choice has a dramatic impact on participation, whether we are talking about pension contributions or organ donations. Most people are either too trusting or too lazy to change what appears to be a socially and institutionally sanctioned status quo. So when consumers are given a choice over which energy to use, they tend to stick with the default choice, even if it is the more expensive sustainable option. “Adults make 35,000 decisions in a day, which leads to decision overload,” says Weber. Given how time-consuming it is to make rational decisions, it makes sense that we often take shortcuts.

When it comes to a problem as immense as climate change, it is easy to feel discouraged by the seemingly piddling effects of personal behavior. A few effective nudges here and there hardly seem sufficient in the absence of grand changes in environmental policy. But a new report from Rare finds this hopelessness misguided. Individual choices about everything from the food we eat to the cars we drive can have a significant impact on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Scaling up these behavioral changes could reduce about one-third of the projected global emissions between 2020 to 2050.

Given the role choice architecture plays in making these decisions, some see a silver lining. “On the one hand, everything that’s gotten us into this mess is everything that’s wrong with the brain,” says Kevin Green, of Rare. “But we can use our understanding of how we got here to get us out.”