How to motivate people to tackle climate change

We’d like to act more sustainably, but find it difficult because of how our brains work. So how can we be persuaded to do the right thing?

A banana in luxury plastic packaging bought at a service station in London. This image appeared on the cover of Benetton’s Colors 40 magazine in 2000. It contained confrontational stories and shocking facts about waste. Fast forward 18 years and the newspapers are now full of stories about oceans drowning in plastic and ambitious sustainability goals. But despite this progress, the transition is happening in slow motion. In 2018, we are still using unnecessarily large quantities of single-use plastic; fruit is still wrapped in non-biodegradable plastic. Why is it taking so long to change our behaviour?

Cognitive biases

The slow transition may have something to do with how our brains work. In Don’t Even Think About It, the British activist George Marshall investigates why our brains are inclined to deny climate change. In a discussion, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that the climate problem is too abstract, invisible and remote. Our brains cannot easily identify the issue as requiring immediate attention, argues Kahneman. The problem is not sufficiently urgent and salient for us to take action.

In essence, we’re not rational beings who make decisions after weighing things up properly. Part of our brain is capable of using such a system. But usually, a different system – that relies on intuition and does not require as much effort – wins. Our brains prefer the second system, which takes rapid, but not always the most sensible, decisions via cognitive biases. These biases mean that we choose temptation and convenience in the short term over uncertain improvements in the long term. Unfortunately, the climate problem calls for the latter. Kahneman is therefore pessimistic. He also has little confidence that the increase in knowledge about these biases will overcome these barriers. He believes that humans’ reluctance to reduce our standard of living is much stronger.

Social norms

Marshall is more confident about the possibility of motivating people to act. He believes, just like Kahneman, that we often follow our intuitive system and deny the problem, because it doesn’t feel like a direct threat. But according to him, humans are also wired to take action against future disasters. Marshall points to our propensity for pro-social, supportive and altruistic behaviour. “No single human instinct is stronger than what drives us to defend the interests of our offspring and social group.” According to Marshall, when we take decisions we don’t just base them on our own opinion. We also look at social cues and others’ behaviour. Stories of business people or other role models can motivate us to change our behaviour, for example. Marshall argues that we can take on the greatest challenges if we are held to account for our values and if we arrive at new social norms that reinforce this. By raising the profile of climate change, Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio have begun to help people to form new social norms – but they have not yet led to drastic action.


Drastic changes with regard to our behaviour may be asking too much. New norms such as ‘eating less meat’ or ‘using less single-use plastic’ need time to mature. Just like it took years to ban smoking in the workplace. Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria cites household recycling as an example of a new norm that is already engrained and gives grounds for optimism. “30 years ago, nobody did that in Canada. And now it’s the most normal thing in the world”. With a nod to Kahneman, he adds that this is all the more impressive because “our brains are not wired to do it: it takes effort and doesn’t usually deliver anything immediately”.

The road to these new norms will be long and winding. According to Gifford, we will encounter dragons – he identifies almost 40 – along the way that stop us from taking action. “It’s a human trait to make excuses to wriggle out of changing behaviour. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. It’s easier to change thoughts than to change behaviour.” Gifford’s dragons are arguments for sticking to old behaviour. For example, we are afraid of changing or taking risks. Or we believe that the climate problem doesn’t affect us, that it’s for other people to solve, that we’re already doing enough, or that change is detrimental to us. Perhaps the most important dragon is that we wonder what difference our contribution makes, if our neighbour, or even a neighbouring country, does nothing.

Polar bears

Gifford says we can slay dragons. He argues we should “make the easy choice the right choice”. He explains: “The recycling rate rises significantly, for example, if you can separate waste at your desk and you don’t have to walk far to do it.” Another piece of advice from Gifford to businesses and governments is: “Bring those things that are far away closer. Don’t talk about polar bears in the North Pole, but about the impact on the environment of the people you’re addressing.” He also believes that you can motivate people by making the impact transparent. “This makes it clear what choices make the difference.” For example, it’s clear now that in relative terms eating meat has an enormous environmental impact per euro.

The dragon slayers who Gifford mentions are on the rise. Businesses are increasingly attempting to persuade customers to make sustainable choices through nudging or framing choices to make them easier to adopt. They also promote their products on the basis of their environmental and social impact. The organic product wholesaler Eosta for example, makes the impact of its products as transparent as possible in terms of climate, water, soil, biodiversity, health and social cohesion – and uses this information in marketing campaigns. One of its advertising images shows a woman carrying pears in front of six cubic metres of earth. That represents the quantity of fertile soil she is ‘saving’ by buying organic produce.

Honey bees

By invoking impact, you appeal primarily to environmentally-aware people, or those with what psychologists call biospeheric values. It’s also possible to motivate people who are less invested. “Lots of people belong to the group we call honey bees,” explains Gifford. “These are people who do good for other reasons: such as a person who insulates his or her house to save money. Or somebody who cycles simply because it’s healthy and they enjoy it.

There isn’t much point in tempting people who are not environmentally engaged with financial incentives either. According to researcher Ellen van der Werff of the University of Groningen, incentives do have an effect, but it’s only temporary. Her research rewarded people for using public transport and showed that incentives work only as long as people receive the reward. As soon as the incentive is withdrawn, the motivation disappears and they revert to their old behaviour. According to Van der Werff, other research shows that small financial incentives achieve very little. “People apparently don’t want to make an effort for a limited financial reward. Whereas [some people] do want to make an effort to achieve a good environment. It makes them feel good.”

What works well is appealing to past good behaviour, says Van der Werff: “That encourages [people] to take the next step more quickly.” She emphasises the importance of a positive message. “Emphasising your good behaviour or the good behaviour of others works better than saying that the world will end if we do nothing.”

Icelandic giant

Environmentally-aware people are essential to embed new social norms. They are the easiest to persuade to adopt new environmentally-friendly behaviour. If environmentally-aware people are won over, there’s a good chance that others will follow. According to Van der Werff, we are more likely to make sustainable choices if we see that behaviour around us, for example, among colleagues in an environmentally aware organisation, or neighbours who purchase solar panels.

Our conformism could well be a blessing in disguise, certainly if we see more role models adopt norms that are not yet commonplace. A well-known CEO who uses public transport or sports people who are vegetarian could be game changers. In a recent advert, drinks company SodaStream exploits this phenomena to convince us that we shouldn’t buy packaged water anymore. In the commercial, a bad-tempered Mother Superior hectors an errand boy who is lugging bottles of water. She rings a bell and calls out ‘shame’. When the boy delivers his two six-packs of water to a film set, he receives a reprimand from Game of Thrones actor Hafthor Björnsson. The Icelandic giant draws water from a tap and says: “you can drink water without pissing off mother earth”’. Next to him is a man in stocks. Who would dare buy water in non-recyclable plastic bottles after that?

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