Overcoming barriers to climate actions

  • 19 June 2020
  • Environment
  • Ellen Taylor

Averting a climate catastrophe requires change. Change on a systematic level of course, but also change in the behaviours and choices of individuals. It is more urgent than ever for policy-makers to consider how such changes might be encouraged. There are many different theories about what drives sustainable individual decisions – the problem is complex, and a myriad of factors – tangible and intangible, internal and external – all need to be considered. However, there is a consensus on the importance of two particular factors - the degree of environmental concern, and the degree to which individuals feel they themselves can make a difference. 

The first of these factors might seem straightforward. When people don’t care about the environment, it is easy to assume that they simply mustn’t be aware of the sheer scale of the problem. Yet it is not simply a matter of education. Belief in anthropogenic climate change – and in turn, the will to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviours - has become irrevocably entwined with personal and political identity. Studies have demonstratedhow those who perceive themselves to hold certain social identities are more likely to hold certain views about climate change – regardless of their education level on the matter. While there is variation between countries, those who identity as being on the right of the political spectrum are one group who generally show lower levels of environmental concern, as are those who identify as holding a conservative outlook, or those who value personal or national gains over those of the global. Whether we like it or not, climate science is political.

The question therefore becomes not one of education, but one of the framing of information. Often, issues relating to climate change are framed in such a way that they appeal to those on the left – they are presented as questions of injustice, for example, which often does not align so strongly with the moral values of those elsewhere on the political spectrum who may hold different priorities. Studies have demonstrated how realigning the moral framing of the problem can encourage pro-environmental behaviours amongst different groups – one study in the United States highlighted how appealing to patriotic values, to a moral obligation to ‘protect the American way of life’ through protecting the environment, can bring on board those who identify as more conservative, who may be less swayed by the usual emphasis on climate change as a problem of global injustice. 

The second important factor that influences pro-environmental behaviour is the degree to which an individual feels they can personally make a difference to environmental issues – perceived effectiveness. Regardless of their social identities, regardless of how much they care about the environment, people who feel that their actions are of little consequence have no motivation to change to more environmentally friendly behaviours. Indeed, there is much evidence to support the strength of this as an indicator of behaviour, with one study suggesting that it may account for 33% of the variation in pro-environmental consumer behaviours. This makes perceived effectiveness an all the more crucial problem to tackle - if many people feel that their actions are of little consequence when it comes to the environment, then we are faced with a classic case of Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’. After all, how harmful can be just the one person’s waste not recycled, just one person’s purchasing of low-cost fast fashion items? Why wouldn’t an individual seek to increase their short-term profit at the expense of long-term cost, if their personal impact on the world is minimal?

It is difficult to change a low level of perceived effectiveness, which might be a deeply engrained social norm, or even a personal identity. Yet its decisive power when it comes to people’s behaviour makes it a crucial to attempt to do so. Individuals need to feel like they have a voice, and so enhancing democratic processes when it comes to environmental policy could be a way in which perceived consumer effectiveness is maximised. Further research, along the lines of that which already exists about the social identities behind environmental concern, could also be of great value here – what social identities lead individuals to feel they can make little impact when it comes to the environment? This would offer a head start to policy-makers attempting to tackle this problem. 

When it comes to such an emotive and hotly debated issue as climate change, unfortunately we cannot hope to make science apolitical – but we can at least avoid the policy becoming unscientific. It is important to develop ways of talking about environmental concerns that engage social and political identities across the spectrum, and it is important that people are made to feel that their actions do have consequence – in short, people need an obligation, and a motivation.  While of course, systematic change is key to tackling the climate crisis, we must remember that we vote for change not only through a cross on a ballot paper, but also through our individual actions – and improving how this is communicated to the public at large could be of great benefit.

Ellen Taylor is a student of MSc Global Development at the University of Copenhagen. A graduate of BA Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford, her interests include the anthropology of sustainability and climate change, international development, and climate justice.