Behavioral insights can make our climate strategies more effective

Blog Post Global Intelligence
Published March 2, 2020

Hex Picot

Head of Strengthening for Efficiency and Access to Cooling, KCEP

Hannah Roeyer

Senior Advisor

Hernan Bejarano

Behavioral Economist, Behavioral Economist, CIDE & Chapman, Economic Science Institute Economic Science Institute

Lina Fedirko

Associate Director, Road Transportation

Voices of 2050 Today is a new blog series that will explore newer, more emergent ideas and strategies that could accelerate climate progress and get us to net-zero emissions globally by mid-century. The posts in this series will bring experts from around the globe to share their perspective and highlight the nuances of each topic being discussed. This inaugural post explores how behavioral insights can be applied to policy-focused mitigation sectors and society-wide change.

The Greta Effect

As we enter 2020 and the “decisive decade” for climate mitigation, it is possible that we will look back on 2019 as the year that climate change, and the role of individual actions, truly entered the public consciousness. Greta Thunberg, the reluctant but inspiring teenage figurehead of climate activism has backed the flygskam (“flight shame”) movement in her native Sweden. The movement was boosted by headlines reporting on her first taking the train to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, and then traveling by zero emission-sailboat to the US ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Summit, originally planned to be in Chile.

Part of Thunberg’s effectiveness is that there is little for climate deniers to critique in terms of her lifestyle; she is vegan and does not fly. However, as awareness around the role of consumption-based emissions (particularly in wealthier countries and sectors of society) ramps up, so too does the debate around climate change mitigation approaches focused on individual behavior.

Concerns about the role of individual actions and responsibilities include the argument that individuals do not create the problem and may not have the resources to easily change their consumption behavior in a system stacked against them, as well as the worry that focusing on consumer action allows companies and governments (the big emitters) off the hook and risks promoting greenwashing and green consumerism, a pseudo-solution.

In addition, effective and long-lasting behavior change is difficult to produce, although when personal behaviors do change, cultural shifts and systems change can follow.

Finally, newcomers to the climate movement could be alienated if they feel they have to meet increasingly high standards of personal behavior. How can we expect the average person to be as dedicated as Greta?

All of these concerns should inform the way in which behavioral approaches to climate change mitigation are undertaken.

However, the need to ensure equity in how the world resolves the climate crisis implies that wealthier North Americans and Europeans (who are the highest-emitting) should be making significant lifestyle changes as soon as possible. Individual behavior change can encompass all levels of actors – policymakers and investors as well as individual consumers and citizens.

Behavior Matters…

Though behavior change alone will never be sufficient to keep global warming well below 2°C, research has shown that it can substantially increase the feasibility of these pathways and, indeed, that very few scenarios for a climate-safe future don’t require radical behavior change.

Behavioral insights present a few key opportunities to speed the low-carbon transition:

  • Lessons from behavioral science can magnify the efficacy of traditional decarbonization strategies, since almost all decarbonization strategies involve some human behavior. For instance, understanding consumer behavior can help us understand how tactics like supporting adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) by large fleets can normalize EVs and help accelerate their purchase by individual consumers; or how layering a behavioral nudge like ‘home energy reports’ – which rate a household’s energy use against neighbors or against a benchmark efficient household –  can significantly boost energy savings beyond that achieved by the isolated use of more traditional awareness campaigns or efficient technologies.
  • Behavioral insights enable us to unlock critical new frontiers focused primarily on human lifestyle choices, such as dietary shift. These lifestyle choices are not solely dependent on behavior by individuals, but are heavily dictated and limited by the institutions, the environments and by the choices that individuals have available to them. We believe that a behavior-informed approach includes attention to these environmental factors such as choice architecture (and similar effects well documented in the behavioral literature) or the design of ways in which choices are presented. A classic example of choice architecture is a grocery store encouraging impulse purchases from tired customers by placing candy in the check-out line, but this applies to a wide range of approaches: a sustainable diet can be encouraged by availability of healthy, sustainable food choices in local stores; use of low-carbon transit can be supported by the existence of quality transit options and bike lanes.
  • Approaching tough climate policy problems from a behavioral lens can help us understand and overcome the cognitive biases and human tendencies that affect policymakers just as much as they affect the rest of us, and that can falsely constrain or slow policy formation. For instance, in a recent ClimateWorks-supported report, researchers found that taking behavioral biases into account allowed for a much clearer picture of why some investors have fallen behind their peers in shifting capital toward the low-carbon economy. The report found that “a range of behavioral biases, cultural barriers, and attitudes, are at the root cause of the problem,” and that leading climate investors had a particular set of behaviors and tools to overcome these biases, such as a different perception of risk within their institutions, or a willingness to buck industry norms and draw attention as a leader in the space; strengths which can be amplified via behavior-based interventions.
  • The behavioral economics approach to climate change provides researchers, policymakers, and practitioners with a strategy that bases its recommendations on the observations of how real people take real decisions. Armed with experiments, this approach helps us better understand how institutional factors, such as property rights, work in tandem with individual factors such as altruism, identity, and attitudes toward risk. Thus, the behavioral lens not only helps us navigate behavioral biases but also helps to carve out a path to work through various cultural, political and identity lenses. Recently, this approach has been implemented in a variety of ways, such as interventions aiming to change behavior to reduce emissions or offset them via actions such as modifying college students’ diets or increasing the adoption of low carbon emission technologies by agricultural producers.

…So Does Philanthropy’s Role

Given the power of behaviors and lifestyles to both drive and lower emissions, philanthropy’s role in leveraging behavior change is as clear as advocating for clean power. Recognizing the magnitude of this opportunity, ClimateWorks Foundation undertook an effort to try to understand the ways in which behavioral insights can be leveraged internally through our processes and externally through grantmaking, the expertise our partners have in this space, and what collective recommendations can be made to the philanthropic community.

In collaboration with Root Solutions, ClimateWorks developed a comprehensive concept note that explored various pathways for philanthropic organizations to integrate behavioral insights into their operations. The concept note echoes three approaches we’ve been testing and recommend to other organizations:

  • First, in order to drive successful behavior change, strategies and projects need to draw on evidence-based research, not mere assumptions. In other words, a behavioral lens should be incorporated when developing and stress-testing strategies and projects.
  • Second, in recognition that behavior change can be a lever to advance climate solutions, organizations should invest in equipping staff with a baseline understanding of behavioral science, behavior change interventions, and related debates.
  • Lastly, as organizations get smarter about considering behavioral science in their work, the behavioral lens should be expanded to reach and engage partners by incorporating behavioral considerations into submission protocols for grantees.

In addition to internal approaches, there are several ways to leverage behavior science through grantmaking:

  • Funding behavioral research is a way for philanthropic organizations to broaden behavioral considerations in climate policy discourse.
  • Funding a project that targets behavior change through voluntary means (or “nudging”) is a way to lower emissions through non-policy means.

Whether through funding, dialog, or a deeper dive into behavior as a tool to mitigate the climate crisis, philanthropic organizations working on climate issues need to get smarter about what this lens can do for climate outcomes.