Creating change when change is hard: A climate change perspective

April 9, 2014 12:00 AM

bike photoNote from the author: A few months ago, I wrote a blog post focused on communicating about and acting upon climate change, given its inherent, scientific uncertainties.  Though a strong consensus that climate change is real and largely driven by anthropogenic sources has been reached by the scientific community, the public remains unwilling to engage and act on this consensus.   This is problematic; scientists must be more effective at communicating controversial and often uncertain science, such as climate change, to the public.  This blog post follows up with insights on encouraging the critical behavioral changes needed to slow humanity’s contributions to climate change.  These insights were adapted from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which my lab mates and I are currently discussing.

Exacting the large-scale, meaningful behavioral changes required to reduce humanity’s effect on climate change has eluded scientists for the past two decades.   However, increasingly, tools and frameworks are being developed to help scientists recognize the importance of and methodologies for helping the public understand the realities of climate change, and the need for behavioral changes to combat it.   One such framework is explored in the popular book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.  The framework outlined in the book emphasizes the duality of human psychology, specifically the human desire to be rational and the human propensity to be emotional, and provides insight into harnessing this duality to move forward on a clear, action-oriented path.   Creating change, the Heath brothers write, can be boiled down to three critical pieces: (1) directing the rider, (2) motivating the elephant, and (3) shaping the path forward.   Let’s explore this framework further by returning to the topic of climate change.

The first part of the framework, directing the rider, appeals to the rational part of the human psychology and is centered on three main principles: (1) following bright spots, (2) scripting critical moves, and (3) pointing to the destination.  In the context of climate change, applying this framework may begin by emphasizing the bright spots: isolated pockets where behavioral change in response to climate change is already happening.  For example, recognizing the negative impacts of human activities on the climate, cities such as Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have begun to take steps to advance the efficiency of their transit systems and power grids, respectively.  Sharing the stories of these bright spots – like WWF’s use of online media – and continuing to outline procedures, processes, and methods to reduce carbon and mitigate climate change steer the rider toward behavioral changes.

SludgeTo exemplify the second piece of the Switch framework, motivating the elephant, travel from the urban cities mentioned above to my current home: central Iowa.   Motivating the elephant to make behavioral change is fixed on: (1) finding the feeling, (2) shrinking the change, and (3) growing your people.  At its core, finding the feeling is about attaching to an emotion, often provoked by a visual, which resonates with individuals.  For example, a few Tuesdays ago I spent the afternoon driving through agricultural fields in central Iowa.  With the recent increase in temperatures, the winter’s snow and ice had begun to move.  Extensive gullies mangled and abraded the tender landscape.   Farmers, desperate to expedite the removal of water from their water-logged fields and concerned over the likely probability of concentrated and severe spring precipitation events, scarred the landscape with mile after mile of tiling.  This is my visual.  This is my climate change feeling.  These open wounds on the landscape are my motivation– this is why I am passionate about the agricultural system, the environment, and the climate. Climate change is causing more severe, though less frequent, precipitation events, and these events are causing highly problematic land use decisions (e.g., tiling land), especially on marginal lands.  But just small-scale changes can be made to begin to engage the rural community to mitigate climate change, just as our urban neighbors above have done.   Shrinking the change to practices such as no-till, which may increase carbon sequestration and reduce fossil fuel use, are small steps forward that can be shared among farmers, effectively growing the people. 

Finally, the last piece of the framework, shaping the path forward, involves a final three components: (1) tweak the environment, (2) build habits, and (3) rally the heard.  Tweaking the environment to foster change is a critical step forward.  In the urban example above, the city governments and several green organizations tweaked the infrastructure and policies of the cities to allow for the development of more efficient and climate-friendly practices.  On the agricultural landscape, engaging with landowners, providing education, and increasing the ease of adoption of practices aimed at decreasing the carbon footprint of food production through incentives and policies may improve the likelihood of positive behavioral change.  By targeting repetitive activities, such as driving, using electricity, or plowing the field, behavioral changes can be made through the formation of positive habits.  As the habits garner the notice of others and become bright spots, the herd grows and gathers strength – and change begins to happen. 

Though Switch provides just one possible framework to encourage large-scale behavioral change, its accessibility and practicality makes it an ideal place to begin considering this important step in the scientific process.  Effectively communicating the results of the science, particularly climate science, to motivate public action is a challenge that each one of us needs to rise to – as I noted in the previous post, this is truly the challenge of our time. 

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