How To Sell Climate Action To People Who Don’t Believe In Climate Change

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How To Sell Climate Action To People Who Don’t Believe In Climate Change

Category:Behavior Change,Climate Action,Climate Change,Environmental Psychology,Health,Petra Hurtado

Author: Petra Hurtado

Do you believe in climate change? If not, I won’t try to convert you. However, I suggest even if you belong to the group of the so called “climate change deniers”, you should do what climate action agendas propose, not for the sake of climate mitigation, but for the sake of your own personal health. Obviously, some people have a hard time believing in climate change. On the other hand, many people who believe in climate change still don’t change their lifestyles towards more sustainability. I wanted to find out why that is and the answer is actually very simple. We don’t care as much about global phenomena as we care about ourselves. I will explain the reasoning behind this in more detail in this article, raising the question why we are trying to make the world more sustainable by focusing on a global phenomenon people have a hard time understanding instead of focusing on something everyone can identify with on a personal scale and that may result in the same outcome.

Climate change is happening. We got to a point where climate change is not just a phenomenon in the far future, but something we experience first-hand every time the thermostat hits 20 degree Celsius in places like Chicago or Vienna during the winter, when temperatures should actually be somewhere around zero. We see it every time places get flooded that had never been flooded before like it happened in Manhattan during hurricane Sandy; when skiing resorts in the Alps suddenly have to shut down due to the lack of snow; and when entire towns and cities in Alaska start to relocate due to rising sea levels. All of this is already happening, which is why the United Nations are not just discussing climate change mitigation anymore; we are at the point where we are talking about climate change adaption.

Of course, no one complains about spring-like weather in February in Chicago, when everyone is already tired of the cold winter weather, craving for a day of sunshine and outdoor activities. No one would think, “Oh no, spring weather in February! From now on I will take public transit and I will sell my car in order to produce less greenhouse gas emissions.” We may care about the people affected by rising sea levels, those who lost their homes because of flooding, and those who had to abandon their farms because of drought. However, we don’t act as if we cared. We may feel sorry for them and some of us might send a donation, but hardly anyone changes their lifestyles because of what they saw in the news.

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It is hard to understand why there are still people out there that think climate change is not real. Do you really want to risk that your kids will have to experience snow by reading about it in a history book? However, it is even harder to understand that most people that do believe and know that climate change is happening already still don’t change their behavior.

According to the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett James Hardin (1968)[1], we as human beings have a genetically rooted tendency to underestimate or even deny risks and threats to ourselves, a tendency that probably goes back to survival instincts from the Stone Age. Our mindset tells us that bad things only happen to other people, and so will climate change.

In addition, the American psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner claims that environmental knowledge does not correlate with environmental action. Even though people believe in climate change and they know its consequences, they don’t act according to their knowledge. This is especially the case when it comes to long-term instead of short-term consequences, a phenomenon that also roots back to the Stone Age and survival instincts we developed then but didn’t evolve since. Nowadays we are able to think long-term, but our inner instincts make us act short-term. Therefore, “people’s behavior is determined mainly by its immediate personal consequences, rather than its long-term consequences”[2] and “the more remote the predicted consequences, the less likely we are to follow advice.”[3]

Therefore, climate change and climate action are very hard to sell. For those who do believe in climate change, it is still hard to grasp and it feels like it won’t affect them directly. And for those who don’t believe in it, there is no reason for action anyways.

So what can we do to motivate people to live according to what our climate action agendas suggest, even though we are genetically predestined to not care about long-term consequences and to believe that only others will be affected and not ourselves?

Looking at climate action agendas, pretty much everything they propose to make the world a more sustainable place also relates to improvements of conditions that influence our personal health. For instance, reducing the use of fossil fuels for energy production and transportation results in lower greenhouse gas emissions and less air pollution; something that also affects our health by decreasing the risk of respiratory diseases. Action items such as bike riding or walking instead of driving have the additional effect of increased physical activity that results in less obesity and a decline in illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases as well as a decrease in traffic injuries and deaths. I could go on and on with this list, but I think you got the point. Almost any action item touched on a climate action agenda also has positive direct or indirect effects on our personal health.

So why don’t we just talk about health instead of climate change? Even if some people don’t believe in climate change and others just simply don’t care enough, we must all agree that we all need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink in order to survive. Personal health is something that affects everyone directly and almost immediately.

Every time I attend an event on climate change or climate action, I wonder why we hardly ever talk about health. Why do we try to sell a phenomenon that is so hard to grasp to people who, according to Skinner[4], “lack responsibility for those who will follow”, “do not have a clear perception of the problem”, “are not using [their] intelligence”, “are suffering from a failure of will”, and that “lack moral strength”?

Why don’t we just ask people to do exactly the same things we suggest in our climate action agendas, but instead of advertising a global phenomenon, we emphasize on their personal interest of living a long and healthy life? Maybe cities should call their sustainability strategies “life action agenda” instead of “climate action agenda”. The strategy would be the same, it might just be more appealing to people and a better motivation to change their behavior.

You may say this is a very naive way of viewing the world. We all know that even when it comes to our personal health, we hardly ever do what we ought to do. Smokers know that smoking may cause cancer, but in most cases, a doctor suggesting to stop smoking is less effective than a boyfriend who complains about bad breath. People don’t necessarily act in rational ways, they are much more driven by their emotions and personal values. However, looking at the smoking example it becomes obvious that strict laws and regulations regarding smoking in public, warning signs on cigarette packages, and many other educational actions resulted in a tremendous decline in smokers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Norms and regulations in combination with education seem therefore an effective solution to solve health issues. According to Skinner, cultures and governments have so far helped to balance the problem of remote problems by implementing norms and laws. If you kill someone, you will go to jail. If you drive too fast or cross a red light, you will get a ticket. Direct, immediate consequences that keep us from doing things that are “illegal”. Unfortunately, the norms and regulations for unsustainable behavior are not yet strict enough, they are not immediate enough, and they are not affecting us directly enough to result in behavior change.

Skinner adds to his claim that experience with consequences also plays an important role when we make decisions. “[…] we take advice not because of the consequences that will follow in a given instance but because of consequences that have followed in the past.”[5] We don’t have experience with tackling climate change, but we do have experience with tackling health issues related to smoking and changing behavior towards healthier lifestyles. The healthy lifestyle sector has been booming in the last decade like never before. Learning from phenomena like the smoking issue might help us to deal with other health-related issues that also affect climate change. Maybe this indirect approach of tackling climate change through action towards healthy lifestyles would be more likely to succeed due to the focus on personal interests instead of global issues.

If people don’t want to believe in climate change it is one thing, and laws and regulations may be tools to fix it. However, what is not just a problem but a dangerous threat to all life on Earth is if the people who make the laws and regulations are the ones who don’t believe in climate change. The newly elected president of the United States doesn’t believe in climate change and puts the Paris Agreement, a global effort towards climate action, at risk. If someone told him that everything climate change-related also affects his personal health, would we have a chance to change his mind? If we just called the Paris Climate Agreement a “Paris Health Agreement”, would we have a better chance to succeed in a world of genetically self-interested people?

“Proposals to build a better world are usually rejected either as hopelessly utopian or as threats to the status quo.”[6] Maybe bringing the global threat of climate change down to the individual’s personal self-interest of living a healthy life may help to make people understand that the status quo is the threat and not the change of it.


[1] Hardin, G. (1968): Denial and the gift of history. In Hardin, G. (ed.): Population, evolution, and birth control

[2] Gardner, G.T. and Stern, P.C. (2002): Environmental Problems and Human Behavior

[3] Skinner, B.F. (1987): Upon Further Reflection

[4] Skinner, B.F. (1987): Upon Further Reflection

[5] Skinner, B.F. (1987): Upon Further Reflection

[6] Skinner, B.F. (1987): Upon Further Reflection