How Behavioral Science Can Help Fight Climate Change

Human behavior is an under-appreciated aspect of the effort to address climate change. Photo: Papaioannou Kostas
Human behavior is an under-appreciated aspect of the effort to address climate change. Photo: Papaioannou Kostas

By Susann Roth, Cass R. Sunstein

Behavioral insights offer effective tools to come up with innovative solutions to address people’s behavior and biases regarding climate change.

In recent years, behavioral science has been used to inform policies in many domains, involving economic growth, poverty reduction, job creation, public health, environmental protection, public safety, and crime reduction.

Behavioral science builds on decades of research in economics, psychology, and neuroscience, which shows that human beings are “boundedly rational” and they depart this rationality in systematic and predictable ways. In short, we live with predictable biases that can lead to a great deal of trouble.

Let’s look at five examples how biases can affect climate change actions:

People can suffer from present bias: The present matters a great deal, but the future might seem very far away, and people might not attend enough to it.  In the case of climate change, many people have neglected long-term effects, focusing on today and tomorrow. Present bias has made successful responses to climate change far more challenging to adopt.

People can be unrealistically optimistic; we suffer (or benefit) from “optimism bias.” There is a widespread human tendency to think that things will work out well, even if an objective examination of the evidence suggests that serious problems will arise. In the context of climate change, optimistic bias has played a major role in deterring private and public initiatives designed to reduce emissions and promote adaptation (against the risks associated with extreme heat, wildfire, flooding, and drought).

People show status quo bias: For many of us, inertia is a powerful force, and people might stick with existing habits and arrangements even if the evidence suggests that they ought not to do so.  Status quo bias makes large-scale changes quite difficult, especially if the goal is to shift to (for example) energy-efficiency or “green energy.”

In making predictions, people often use the availability bias: they assess probabilities by asking whether salient examples readily come to mind. Use of the availability bias can make people either more complacent or more fearful than they should be. At times, availability bias has led to undue complacency about climate change, because salient examples have not come to mind. 

People suffer from cognitive scarcity: This is not a bias, but it is a real problem.  People cannot think about everything that affects them, and if they are busy, poor, elderly, or sick, the problem of cognitive scarcity might mean that they will not attend to important matters, even if their well-being is very much at stake. Turn to climate change in this light:  In any year or decade, individuals, private institutions, and governments have many issues and challenges on which to focus, and climate change might seem insufficiently pressing or urgent.

In these circumstances, it might seem unsurprising that insufficient efforts have been made to combat climate-related risks. The case of climate change is, of course, merely illustrative. The points above can be applied to help countries to understand why many problems persist.

The good news is that behavioral science also offers a host of tools with which to counteract the relevant biases. To counteract present bias, incentives might be used, in the form of subsidies for electric cars or green energy. To counteract cognitive scarcity, systems thinking and cross-disciplinary teamwork can help. For example, when giving subsidies for electric cars, one also must think of the possible e-waste, the supply chain of the batteries, and the relevant carbon footprint.

In many countries, the capacity to use behavioral insights needs to be increased.

To counteract present bias and optimistic bias, particular attention has been given to “nudges,” understood as liberty-preserving approaches that steer people in particular directions, but that also allow them to go their own way. In recent years, both private and public institutions have shown mounting interest in the use of nudges, because they generally cost little and have the potential to promote economic and other goals (including public health).

In daily life, a GPS device is an example of a nudge. It suggests a direction but does not force you to take it. So is automatic enrollment in green energy; so are the default settings on computers and cell phones; so is a system for automatic payment of credit card bills and mortgages.

In government, nudges include simplification of processes and requirements; graphic warnings for cigarettes; labels for energy efficiency or fuel economy; “nutrition facts” panels on food; the “Food Plate,” which provides a simple guide for healthy eating; default rules for public assistance programs (as in “direct certification” of the eligibility of poor children for free school meals); and even the design of government websites, which list certain items first and in large fonts.

In many countries, the capacity to use behavioral insights needs to be increased. Governments and private organizations should consider building expertise in behavioral insights, perhaps through the creation of offices, units, or teams and partnerships with behavioral insights research teams.

To use behavioral science in the future, we should consider three general lessons:

  • We need to make certain choices easier or simpler. Automatic enrollment is one example; simplification of processes is another. Reduction of “sludge,” understood as administrative burdens, is another.
  • An accurate rather than speculative understanding of human behavior is needed. If a program is designed to help people reduce carbon emissions or to increase adaptation to climate-related risks, it is necessary to know the likely public response in a specific country and societal context. For example, it is necessary to know if people will adapt to or ignore the policy.
  • Uses of behavioral insights should consider who is helped and who is not helped.  To evaluate nudges, it is essential to consider more than their overall welfare effects. Some nudges will not help, and might hurt, identifiable groups. More targeted, personalized nudging may be needed to maximize social welfare and promote distributive justice.

 Perhaps the biggest challenge in addressing climate change is people’s behavior and biases. Behavioral insights offer effective tools to come up with innovative solutions to address them.