Blog post

Morality is missing from debates about behaviour change

Jul 19, 2013 by | 3 Comments

Every now and again, it’s good to remind your­self of the scale of the chal­lenge posed by cli­mate change. Leaving aside the small matter of the rest of the world, the UK has com­mitted to redu­cing its own carbon emis­sions by 80% in just over 35 years. This will require an unpre­ced­ented reversal of a uni­versal trend among indus­tri­al­ised nations: that as eco­nomies grow, so do carbon emissions.

Although reversing this trend will involve many dif­ferent trans­form­a­tions, under­pin­ning it all is human cul­ture – our atti­tudes, beha­viours and social prac­tices. Our col­lective decision making is the begin­ning, the middle, and the end of the story.

Tinkering at the edges of sus­tain­able beha­viour is not enough, because even on our own terms – judged by our own decar­bon­isa­tion tar­gets – we will fail unless we drastic­ally change gear on sus­tain­ab­ility. This means we have to find a way to get beyond the plastic bags and low-energy light bulbs. But how?

It’s a cliche, but some­times it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees. Over the past two dec­ades, a huge amount of time and effort has been expended trying to under­stand how to nudge, per­suade, cajole or reg­u­late people into more sus­tain­able pat­terns of beha­viour. But in our eager­ness to under­stand the drivers of beha­viour, and our enthu­siasm for meas­ure­able beha­vi­oural out­comes, we may have over­looked a crit­ical point: that sus­tained and sub­stantive beha­vi­oural trans­form­a­tions come not from gradu­ally ‘repro­gram­ming’ our beha­viour but from inter­n­al­ising the reasons for doing so.

A recent paper by Dr Rachel Howell at the University of Aberystwyth illus­trates this point well. Instead of asking how the everyday beha­viour of the gen­eral public could become incre­ment­ally more sus­tain­able, Howell started with people who had already made major changes in their life­styles, and worked back­wards from there.

What motiv­ated this group of people to make con­sid­er­able changes to their life­styles was not their par­ti­cip­a­tion in a pro­gramme of social mar­keting, nor exposure to clever advert­ise­ments about cli­mate change. The single biggest motiv­a­tion for their beha­vi­oural changes was a sin­cerely held con­vic­tion that cli­mate change was a matter of social justice – that it was unfair for indi­viduals in indus­tri­al­ised nations to use more than their ‘fair share’ of carbon when poorer people else­where would suffer the consequences.

This is not the only evid­ence that cata­lysing sig­ni­ficant beha­vi­oural changes might involve moving away from single beha­viours and meas­ur­able out­comes, and towards the under­lying ethics of the issue. As Professor Andrew Dobson has argued, if a sense of ‘envir­on­mental cit­izen­ship’ can be fostered in indi­viduals and com­munities, then their pro-environmental beha­viour is rooted in a com­mit­ment to the prin­ciples and values under­lying sus­tain­ab­ility, rather than to fin­an­cial or other types of external stimuli.

However – and in common with Howell’s find­ings – it is not neces­sarily ‘the envir­on­ment’ that motiv­ates envir­on­mental cit­izen­ship. Rather, it is a sense of fair­ness, justice, and civic respons­ib­ility that plays the most important role. The bottom line is that when people come to see taking action on cli­mate change as simply the right thing to do, a raft of beha­vi­oural changes are likely to follow.

So Barack Obama’s recent descrip­tion of cli­mate change as a moral issue – a matter of right and wrong – is exactly the kind of rhet­or­ical strategy that inter­na­tional leaders should be pur­suing. But cli­mate change as a moral issue has faded from British politics.

If chil­dren were taught that they would receive a pound coin every time they res­isted phys­ic­ally hurting another child, they would not learn that hurting others was wrong – they would learn that restraining them­selves was prof­it­able. But it is pre­cisely this logic that runs through major gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives such as the Green Deal. Saving energy is presented not as the right thing to do, but as a way of saving money.

To be clear, there is no reason that the cost of a green energy revolu­tion should be met through higher energy bills: the major power com­panies’ profits con­tain more than enough sur­plus to cover the trans­ition. But it should not sur­prise us that bribing people into acting in an envir­on­ment­ally respons­ible way doesn’t trans­late into mean­ingful engage­ment with cli­mate change.

Ultimately, it is morals and values, not facts and fig­ures, that inspire public sup­port for policies, and trans­form­ative beha­vi­oural changes will not follow from super­fi­cial methods of engage­ment. Perhaps it is time we stopped obsessing about beha­viour change, and con­cen­trated instead on re-connecting with a straight­for­ward idea: that mor­ally, con­fronting cli­mate change is simply the right thing to do.

Originally pub­lished by Guardian Sustainable Business on 19−07−13

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • You make a good point, but, how do you go about ‘con­verting’ people to your view of mor­ality? In my exper­i­ence, people who start off on this basis end up ali­en­ating the people they need to talk to.

    I believe you need to respect the interests of your audi­ence and frame sustainability/climate appro­pri­ately — an approach I call Green Jujitsu. That way you get their atten­tion and get them involved — get­ting some momentum going for the deeper trans­form­a­tion of morals and culture.

  • Well, I think one of the ways is to find that common ground, and there is plenty of it. The appeal of (or to) a sense of com­munity, being a part of good and moral thing. A cel­eb­ra­tion of this great gift called a healthy planet (or cre­ation) that sup­ports us. Concern for chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, as well as other vul­ner­able people.

    Respecting others’ views and life exper­i­ences goes a long way to finding these common con­nec­tions, what you call respecting the interests of your audience.

    I’m inter­ested in learning more about your Green Jujitsu approach.

  • […] Morality is missing from debates about beha­viour change (July 19) […]

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