I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 1:28 AM GMT on March 14, 2013
Personal and Public Barriers in Responding to Climate Change
I want to continue on the subject of barriers to the use of information about climate change. In last week’s entry, I wrote about barriers like engineering standards and permitting processes that have not evolved to the point that they are flexible enough to take a changing climate into account. I ended with language barriers and how the political and emotional responses to climate-change knowledge influence language. For example, perhaps it is impossible to talk to city politicians about adaptation to climate change but possible to talk about vulnerability of their seashore to the increasing storm surges of the past 20 years. There is an aspect to the language barriers that is purely political. This charging of language with political purpose happens in any contentious process where there are advocates of different points of view.
I want to leave those political barriers in the realm of hopeless irrationality and explore more general barriers. There has been an enormous amount of effort to communicate about the science of climate change and global warming. I have argued before that polling data suggest that as a community we have actually done quite well in this communication path. A large majority of Americans think that global warming is real and concerning. Recent polling data suggest that a growing number of people are alarmed about climate change (Six Americas in September 2012). Yet there remains the general perception that, as a whole, we are not doing anything. One response to this is to communicate more, to educate more, with the idea that in a participatory democracy such as ours, the ultimate solution comes from the public’s demanding a policy response.
This experience suggests that there must be barriers to the public response of this knowledge of climate change. Often in environmental problems, people identify cost and inconvenience as barriers – think about recycling. In some instances, we try to reduce these barriers through policy to offset the cost or to improve convenience. A couple of years ago, for example, there were many programs of reduced cost or free distribution of compact fluorescent light bulbs. These bulbs use less energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and helping slow climate change (EPA on compact fluorescents). This is a typical approach that focuses on personal behavior, using essentially marketing techniques. Such approaches can be effective, but generally in a piecemeal way (Meeting Environmental Challenges).
In 2009, a group of my students looked into more systematic ways to instill the use of climate-change knowledge in day-to-day life. Their particular focus was on sustainable communities. They did a lot of analysis of energy and water use, house design, and transportation and then developed guidelines. But one of the ideas that they had in that document was the use of community associations and civic organizations to both promote and provide incentives to take behavior normally associated with individuals and to extend that behavior to communities. There were also ideas to extend across communities through, for example, competitive marketing techniques. One goal of such a strategy is to help reduce the reluctance that individuals might have to taking action in the absence of their neighbors, their social network.
An important finding from this work on building sustainable communities is that knowledge, even in combination with a receptive attitude towards sustainability, is not a strong predictor of whether or not individuals will alter their behavior to take action. Perhaps one could conclude that there is just too much anchoring in our old behavior to change. I know that I will drive by the ATM that takes deposits 10 times, thinking that the branch office has to be open to make a deposit. Perhaps reluctance to act is a matter of cost and convenience; yet in polls of those people with the positive sustainability attitude, they’re willing to pay more and be inconvenienced. These real barriers, small and large, in total retard our response to climate change.
Returning to the beginning and to the idea that communicating and educating more completely will motivate action. Though necessary, this is not sufficient. What is obvious is that there is a convergence of items that motivate any individual to take action. This is formalized in a paper by Hines and others in 1987 entitled Analysis and Synthesis of Research on Responsible Environmental Behavior. In this work, they pose that, in addition to knowledge, there is a need for information about what to do with that knowledge and training on the skills of how to use that knowledge. They state specifically, “The erroneous assumption is often made that skills evolve naturally from knowledge.” These knowledge and skill bases then need to come together with personality factors, including attitude and perhaps situational factors that become motivators for action.
Though this work does not suggest that there is an easy formula for breaking down these barriers, it does suggest training on what to do with the knowledge and the skills on how to do it are as important as the knowledge itself. With an accompanying structure of practice, there is an increased probability that people will take action, which should then beget more action.
Figure 1: Model of Responsible Environmental Behavior – Adapted from Hines and others in 1987 entitled Analysis and Synthesis of Research on Responsible Environmental Behavior. An individual who expresses an intention to take action will be more likely to engage in the action than will an individual who expresses no such intention. However, it appears that intention to act is merely an artifact of a number of other factors acting in combination. Before an individual can intentionally act on a particular environmental problem, that individual must be cognizant of the existence of the problem; this is prerequisite to action. However, an individual must also possess knowledge of those courses of action that are available and will be most effective in a given situation.
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