Changing Behavior Means Changing Beliefs

At EDF, all our advocacy and education around climate change aims to change behaviors — of individuals, corporations, utilities, governments and communities. But in order to change behavior, we must first change their belief systems.

Sitar ModyThat point was made eloquently in last month's final episode of Years of Living Dangerously, the Showtime documentary series about the human impact of climate change. The episode featured a conversation with President Barack Obama, a report on the impact of accelerated glacier melt in the Andes and the far-reaching effects of human-induced ecosystem changes in Bangladesh on the economy and society.

For me the takeaways were:

  • It's vividly clear that climate change is an issue of national security in poor countries, where extreme weather creates huge groups of impoverished, resource-strapped people who easily end up in slums and ghettos, often refugees in countries far from their homes. For instance, the incursion of ocean water in Bangladesh is disrupting rice farming.
  • Abrupt climate events can destroy overnight the societies and self-sustaining lifestyles that agrarian communities have built up over many generations.
  • The United States is responsible for a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and it's only a matter of time before we become a target of worldwide anger for the damage climate change is wrecking on our planet.
  • We must guard against cynicism, especially among the youth. Obama's recently released energy plan paints an optimistic vision of an achievable future with reduced dependence on foreign oil, affordable clean energy technologies and improved energy efficiency.
  • Putting a price on carbon is one way to change mindsets, by forcing people to recognize the true cost of a resource differently.

The notion of changing beliefs in order to change behavior has been front and center at recent meetings EDF has held with various academic partners whose work focuses on social, behavioral and organizational sciences. So often, environmentalists focus so much on scientific evidence of problems and technological solutions that we neglect overt discussion of the human element and how to successfully convince decision makers to apply the science to their decisions and use the best technological solutions.

This is well-trodden ground for social scientists, who study and systematically research effective methods for changing minds and habits. It was exciting to brainstorm with highly respected academic scientists and scholars about projects to deploy social science tools to achieve desired environmental outcomes. It would truly break ground for an environmental nonprofit like EDF to collaborate with social scientists in research and the practical implementation of that research.

When it comes to changing beliefs, we're about to see a living experiment in the rollout of government mandated carbon pollution standards for power plants across the U.S. The proposed standards have already run into opposition from people with entrenched ideas about the challenge of sustainable energy and viable solutions. In the court of public opinion, the trial has begun.

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One comment

  • Wendy Gordon | 4 weeks ago

    I would recommend working to change behavior first. The more desired change in beliefs (or attitude) will follow because of the consistency principle.

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