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“If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.” (G Monbiot, Heat, 2007, xvii)

I recently gave a 15 minute presentation on the Social Brain Centre's emerging ideas relating to behaviour change in the context of Climate Change. The title was: "What of behaviour change do we need?" The details will soon be unpacked in a report, grounded in evidence from a national survey, but the idea in outline is as follows:

  • Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don't manage to ('climate ignorers')

  • Focus on practices that have strategic value (changing behaviour in a way that promotes attitudes or values that reinforce rather than undermine related behaviours)

  • Help people change certain social practices (often called 'habits') that are formative of their relationship to climate change.

  • Through a shift in civil society, local government and businesses, change political will at national and international levels.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours.

Now I know that pattern of change sounds a bit too good, platonic and partial to be true, but it's a relatively coherent roadmap, and it helps to frame the role, relevance of nature of the behaviour change interventions that we want to work on. I'm really excited about this work programme, which feels very promising, and I am therefore very grateful to our funders for giving us a chance to give some practical definition to this theory of change.

And yet, when I gave the talk, I didn't feel quite right afterwards, and sensed that I hadn't connected with the audience as well as I might usually hope to. What was going on ?

I gradually realised that the room was full of people who are working actively to reduce emissions in the UK. Everyone present had some form of connection with The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration and many, perhaps most, have some practical experience of attempts to implement The Green Deal.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours. I suspect most people in the room were focussed on the latter issue, while I spoke mostly to the former.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

The climate change challenge is compounded by the fact that people think about it in very different ways. Many see it fundamentally as a technical problem. On this view, Climate Scientists tell us about the extent of the risk to the stability and predictability of natural systems in probabilistic language, the political class, advised mostly by economists, make a collective judgement about how serious the problem is, and then they decide on what a credible and achievable solution looks like. In theory, businesses, civil servants, consumers and citizens then rally to that judgement.

On this framing of 'climate change' it's a clear problem lending itself to a solution. The corollary is that behaviour change is principally about working to make efficient energy use easier and more rewarding, and then measuring the impact of those interventions against national targets. If you can get people to retrofit their homes in the right way, switch to green energy providers, and improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and their driving behaviours, then you are taking huge strides towards solving 'the problem'.

Climate Change: Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?

But many don't see it as that kind of 'problem' and are sceptical that such 'solutions' could ever really work. At the risk of sounding (Bill) Clintonesque, there is a difference between Climate Change as a natural phenomenon and 'Climate change' as a social and political issue, and even when you accept the reality of the former, there is huge scope for dispute about the latter. Indeed, in a previous post I suggested there are at least 30 wedge issues on climate change.

Perhaps the most important wedge in these wedge issues is one we make in Transforming Behaviour Change (see part two, p17), namely the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. In this respect it is noteworthy that Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz suggests that most failures of leadership stem from the tendency to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Could this be happening to Climate Change?

While you can and should deal with some energy-related inefficiencies as technical problems, climate change as a whole is a more complex adaptive challenge requiring a wider set of responses. I will develop this point in our forthcoming report, but for now consider the following simple example that shows the huge difference between measuring impact through emissions(national, in aggregate) verses measuring it through carbon footprints(personal, international).

Although not generally consonant with our approach, a review article in The Economist gave a good example of a technical solution that fails to grapple with the underlying challenge. Simply stated, Government emissions targets do not reflect the carbon cost of imports, and this (in my view!) is at least partly because factoring in the carbon costs of imports calls into question the whole nature and purpose of the global economy.

Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions.

" By concentrating on their own carbon production, and how to reduce it, Europeans have ignored the impact of their continued demand for goods made using carbon- intensive processes. Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions. The regulatory approach, argues Mr Helm, has got the worst of all worlds. It is expensive, it has not cut emissions and its treaties are unworkable. No wonder the public is growing sceptical."

As always with climate change, there is a lot going on in that paragraph, but the key point is that the 'demand for goods made using carbon intensive processes' is an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.

Dealing with that challenge requires forms of behaviour change that go way beyond our immediate relationship to energy in our homes. Indeed, viewing climate change as an adaptive challenge means engaging with attitudes and values relating to consumption more broadly, and even our perceived need for economic growth.

In other words, coming back to George Monbiot's quote, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change, the form of behaviour change we work on has to go beyond improving energy efficiency, and at least raise the question of how we might successfully change our lifestyles.

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