What will solve climate change? Will it be technology? Policy? A growing number of researchers and activists say it's what's behind it all: people. And understanding them is vital to addressing climate change.
The problem is that people don't understand people very well, research shows.
In the 1970s, a researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University named Scott Geller and colleagues conducted a workshop in residential energy efficiency and then measured its impacts. A newspaper advertisement recruited 40 participants on a first-come-first-served basis, and the workshop lasted three hours. Before and after the workshop, subjects took surveys measuring how much they knew and cared about energy efficiency. The change was significant -- participants significantly knew and cared more about the issues after the workshop than before.
But when the researchers looked at the actual actions that people took afterward, the results were discouraging. One person lowered the temperature on the hot water heater. Two additional people had installed insulating blankets around their hot water heaters --- but they had done it before the workshop. Eight people did install low-flow shower heads -- after all 40 participants had been given the low-flow shower heads at the workshop.
If these were people who cared enough about energy efficiency to attend a three-hour workshop, what hope was there for people who didn't?
While many environmental activists might view the example as cause for despair, Doug McKenzie-Mohr, who told the story at a talk on Tuesday, said it can offer lessons that can help activists and researchers develop more effective strategies.
Participants at the three-day third annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, which ended yesterday, in Washington D.C., focused on examining the underlying reasons behind why many efforts toward getting people to adopt more sustainable behavior have had limited success. They also explored ways to design more effective programs to change behavior surrounding climate change.
While the study, spurred by the last energy crisis, was conducted in the 1970s, its lessons about human nature still apply today, said McKenzie-Mohr, a professor of psychology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and author of the book "Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-based Social Marketing."
Thinking does not equal doing
The example illustrates a basic principle in social psychology: that people's attitudes do not translate into action. But most environmental activism remains centered around the assumption that changing behavior starts with changing attitudes and knowledge.
"Social psychologists have now known for four decades that the relationship between people's attitudes and knowledge and behavior is scant at best," said McKenzie-Mohr. Yet campaigns remain heavily focused on brochures, flyers and other means of disseminating information. "I could just as easily call this presentation 'beyond brochures,'" he said.
In the marketing world, one way this issue manifests itself is in the "say-do problem," which says that what people actually buy does not necessarily correspond to what they say they will buy. That complicates the efforts of those who seek to predict consumer response to a product, for example.
"The say-do problem isn't something just in the marketing world," said Art Barnard, president of a Madison, Wis.-based market research firm, GKA Research. "Why do people constantly say they're going to meet you on a Friday night, meet their friends, and never show up?"
Those who seek to gauge consumer behavior to learn how better to sell them products have known this principle for half a century, and since the 1990s, they have been adjusting for it in their research methods, Barnard said.
That hasn't been the case in the world of climate change.
Bridging the gap between attitudes and action
To bridge the gap between attitudes and action, people must first address the barriers that stand in the way of action, McKenzie-Mohr said.
Barriers include not knowing what actions to take, not understanding the benefits or having mistaken information -- for example, research has shown that the top reason parents do not want their kids to bike or walk to school is because they fear abductions, even though the number of abductions per year in Canada is often in the single digits, McKenzie-Mohr said.
Several sessions at the conference discussed bridging this gap between beliefs and actions. That will affect individual behavior, such as turning off the lights, not driving a car or eating less meat.
The conference was attended by some 400 people from utilities, national nonprofit organizations, community groups, consulting firms and other businesses, and both the federal government and local governments, according to a participant list.
Speakers tended to agree that changing people's attitudes remains a problem.
Behavior is more complicated than climate
As the U.S. Senate debates sweeping climate legislation and leaders express increasing doubts that next month's Copenhagen climate negotiations will lead to a treaty, a poll conducted in October by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that only 57 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening. Only 36 percent believe humans are the cause.
Individual behaviors can achieve fast, immediate impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, if they are implemented, presenters said. But Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and a leading expert on public opinion on climate change, said that what will have the most far-reaching effect is policy changes. And for that, public opinion is critical.
Leiserowitz said there needs to be much more research on what exactly it is that causes public opinion to be the way that it is.
"Human social behavior is at least as complicated as the climate system," added Leiserowitz, who has done public opinion research internationally and focused on the United States. "And, in fact, I'd argue it's more complicated -- because a carbon dioxide molecule doesn't change its behavior when you ask it a question.
But, he added, one giant "resource" that has not been tapped enough is the power of human relationships.
How can you change 'what's in people's heads'?
Much research has shown that social networks have significant power to affect people's behaviors, and to find them, perhaps there is no better place to look than local communities.
Many of the conference's sessions focused on communities' efforts to influence their residents, many of whom know each other and local organizations. Even a face-to-face personal conversation can have major impacts.
McKenzie-Mohr gave an example of a town's efforts to reduce idling at schools. After learning that air quality was something residents cared about, leaders of the effort placed signs by where parents parked to pick up their children from school. The signs had no effect. But when, instead, a person dressed as a public health official spoke to parents personally as they waited, the frequency of idling dropped by 32 percent, while the average length of idling dropped by 72 percent.
In a talk geared toward community activists and leaders, McKenzie-Mohr said building successful outreach programs requires people being willing to test their ideas empirically. They must use empirical data, from surveys and focus groups to interviews and academic papers, to figure out what actions to target -- based on impact and previous results showing success -- as well as the barriers that stand in the way of action. Knowing the exact barriers can help them craft their programs to address them, he said. Only then should the program should be tested on a pilot scale. And only if there is success should it be rolled out on a full scale.
McKenzie-Mohr suggested that communities create a system of sharing successes in a standardized format, to cut the time and costliness of programs being adopted at a large scale. In Canada, a program called the NRCan Turnkey Toolkit has spread to 200 towns, he said.
Ultimately, McKenzie-Mohr, Leiserowitz and other speakers said, what the climate movement needs is vision -- which it currently lacks.
"I think we have become very, very good at describing that we're against. ... We're terrible at describing what we're for. We're against climate change, we're against biodiversity extinction, we're against land-use change, etc., we're against pesticides ... but what are we for?" Leiserowitz said.
Martin Bunzl, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, compared the climate change movement to the civil rights movement. Climate change is often described as a "technical" problem with technical solutions, he said, a portrayal that research has shown is ineffective.
Instead, he said, the key is culture change -- it's about changing what's in people's heads.