If we can convince people that climate change is real and important, then surely they will act: this intuitive idea underlies many efforts to communicate climate change to the public.
Initially it was very successful in increasing public awareness and support, but anyone aware of the protracted climate change “debate” can see that people who are still unconvinced are now very unlikely to be swayed.
In research published in Nature Climate Change today, my colleagues and I show that people will support action on climate change if it helps to create a better society.
The importance of climate change as a public issue has been slipping since 2007 in countries such as the United States, and is given a relatively low priority across the world.
To reinvigorate people’s support for climate change action, we may need to look at options other than just convincing people that climate change is real. Rather than trying to persuade people that climate change is more important than their other concerns and goals, perhaps we should start with those concerns and goals and show how they can be addressed through tackling climate change.
For example, if action on climate change reduces pollution or stimulates economic development, people who value clean air or economic growth might support climate change action, even if they are unconvinced or unconcerned about climate change itself. These broader positive effects of climate change action are often called “co-benefits”.
But could such co-benefits motivate people to act? If so, might different co-benefits matter more to people in different countries? These questions have been the focus of our large international research project examining the views of more than 6,000 people from 24 countries.
Through this research, we aimed to identify the key co-benefits that motivate behaviour around the world to help create more effective ways of designing and communicating climate change initiatives.
Fixing climate change, fixing other problems
We asked people whether the social conditions in their country would become better or worse as a result of climate change mitigation, including a wide range of potential co-benefits.
We found that people grouped these co-benefits into larger clusters relating to promoting development (such as economic development, scientific progress) and reducing dysfunction (such as poverty, crime, pollution, disease).
As social psychologists, we were also interested in how addressing climate change could influence people’s character. We asked people how taking climate change action might result in people in society becoming more (or less) caring and moral (benevolence), and capable and competent (competence).
We related these four overarching co-benefits to people’s motivations to engage in behaviours to address climate change. These include public behaviours (such as green voting and campaigning), private behaviours (such as reducing household energy use) and financial behaviours (donating to an environmental organisation).
Around the world, two types of co-benefits were strongly related to motivations to act in public, at home, or in providing financial support.
People were motivated to act on climate change when they thought it would lead to scientific and economic advances (development), and when it would help create a society where people cared more for each other (benevolence).
Yet there was an important difference between who favoured benevolence and development. Making society more caring was a strong motivator for action across the globe, whereas promoting development varied in its effects across countries.
For example, development was a strong motivator in France and Russia, but only a weak motivator in Japan and Mexico. However, we could not identify a systematic reason for this cross-country difference.
Surprisingly, reducing pollution, poverty and disease was the weakest motivator of climate change action, despite issues like pollution and poor health being commonly invoked as co-benefits of addressing climate change, such as the US climate action plan.
Although mitigating climate change will produce these health and pollution benefits, these don’t appear to strongly motivate people’s willingness to act.
Critically, if people thought acting on climate change would improve society in these ways, it didn’t matter if they believed it was happening or not, or whether it was important. And it didn’t matter what political ideology they held.
This shows how these co-benefits can cut across ideological and political divides that are stalling climate change discussions.
Climate policy with something for everyone
The findings can help communicate climate change to the public in more convincing ways, but the real key is to ensure that climate change initiatives can achieve these development and benevolence co-benefits.
While the economic opportunities of addressing climate change already receive public discussion, it may be less obvious how climate change policies could help create communities where people care more for each other.
“Top-down” policies such as a carbon tax or emissions trading aren’t traditionally the stuff that helps build communities. However, policies that support “bottom-up” initiatives have this potential, such as engaging local communities in climate change activities that build friendships and strengthen networks.
Such community initiatives have been used to increase renewable energy use in the UK.
There is increasing recognition from the United Nations that successfully meeting the climate change challenge needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
These findings should strengthen the hands of those arguing for bottom-up approaches at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. If climate change policies and initiatives can produce these co-benefits for the economy and the community, people around the world will support action.
Paul will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 12:30 and 1:30pm AEST on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.