Lessons from behaviour change research: Why Clive Hamilton (and others) are wrong on climate “radicalism”

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Last week’s Crikey had an article by former Australian Institude head-honcho Clive Hamilton, arguing that Australia needs “a new brand of environmental radicalism”.

Hamilton writes:

After a high-pressure meeting in Canberra, in which the government dangled the carrot of a 25% cut in Australia’s emissions, the Southern Cross Climate Coalition — comprising the ACF, WWF, the Climate Institute, ACOSS, and ACTU — agreed to support the government’s scheme.

How could major environment groups back a scheme that was so compromised and inadequate to the task — a scheme that handed out billions of dollars to coal-fired power plants, endorsed a strong future for the coal industry, allowed offshore compliance and would deliver, according to Treasury, no reductions in Australia’s emissions until 2035? All this was agreed by the ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in exchange for a hypothetical 25% cut in emissions that Blind Freddy could see was never going to be delivered.

I think there are three reasons that explain how these groups could support such a travesty.

The punchline to last year’s conservative, climate-denialist takeover of the Liberal Party, was climate group after climate group condemning the Australian Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and Climate Institute for “selling out” on Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

These environmental groups – leaders in the area of climate change advocacy and action – had devolved to accept the neoliberal ideology of carbon trading and the efficiency of markets. They had “abandoned their interest in a different type of society” and focused only on “incremental change” of the existing (sick) capitalist system. Worse still, they had succumbed to “professionalisation” – basically the charge of “careerism” – where the interests of big donors mattered more than the grassroots.

Worse still! These so-called environmentalists “find it hard to accept what the climate scientists are really saying” – they are Manchurian Candidate climate change denialists who “filter the science to rob it of its sting” and “cling to false hopes”.

Hamilton’s diatribe – which could have been written by any of the current crop of climate action vanguardists – unfortunately pushes a party-political barrow, and utterly ignores the science of organisational and behavioural change. What’s more, Hamilton denigrates that hard work of a lot of dedicated, honest and passionate people working at the organisations he attacks.

Getting governments, industries and whole societies to change how they work, operate, think and behave is the largest behaviour change challenge imaginable.

Human societies naturally resist changes – especially radical ones. This is why conservative policy-makers use times of crisis to push through unpopular reforms like cuts to welfare, restrictions on collective bargaining and reduction of environmental protections. (Cf. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.) Even relatively popular policy changes are subject to resistance from organised sectional interests. Look at the resistance to the introduction of superannuation in the 1990s, or the gun buy-back scheme after the Port Arthur Massacre.

The very excellent resource “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” describes it as the “default effects” on decision making: our “tendency to stick with the option that is selected automatically instead of choosing an alternative option”. In public policy, this is called “path dependency”.

When faced with a change situation, a common response is to resist that change. For governments facing a change situation (the global climate crisis), the resistance is both active and passive. It is further complicated by the fact that humans are hard-wired to focus near-term goals and threats (i.e. situations where the costs/benefits are in the present, rather than when the costs/benefits are not realised until some future, possibly indefinite, time).

Active resistance in our political system for example comes in the out-and-out climate denialism of Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin and Corey Bernardi. However, we can also see it in the path-dependency of some Ministers with carbon portfolios (mining and energy for instance) – where public policy continues to be framed around short-term benefits (of increased coal exports), over long-term benefits (of increased investment in renewable energy technology exports).

More insidious is the passive resistance of government, where the defaul option is to just simply wait. Waiting until Copenhagen. Or waiting for India or China to act. When the default action leads to short-term reward (such as more mining royalties), the pressure is even greater to do nothing.

Combined with political imperatives of immediate risk-minimisation (doing nothing – or little – to avoid the short-term pain of a political campaign waged against you by the mining industy for example), and path dependency (or “default effects”) are exceptionally powerful.

These challenges are well known by researches and activists involved in behaviour change programs.

Hamilton’s demon of “incrementalism” is actually a key element of getting someone to change their behaviour. Small changes that are managable are important steps towards larger changes.

We also know that behaviour changes lead to attitude changes. It doesn’t matter how much someone knows that smoking is bad, it’s still hard to stop smoking. Similarly, every one knows that recycling is the right thing to do, but without recycle bins at work, on the street or at home, few people would bother to separate their rubbish from their recyclable cans and bottles. Reducing your calorie intake can be hard, but by making the small adjustment of switching to smaller plate sizes, you can start down the path of eating less.

What’s more, people are also hard-wired to not respond to criticism well. Most people are automatically defensive when criticised. We are more likely to harden in our pre-existing views about an issue when we’re told that we’re wrong – especially something that relates to us personally (our religious or political views, work practices, etc). Similarly, we are more likely to respond well to praise. No matter how rational we like to think we are, our emotions are powerful drivers of our opinions, attitudes and actions.

Politicians and policy-makers are no different.

The Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions suggests to good starting points for people or organisations seeking to change public policy on climate change. They are soundly based on the psychology of behaviour change.

Make the default option the optimal option. When faced with multiple options, people will typically choose whatever is the default. By making the default option the sustainable, climate-friendly option, we can positively influence individuals’ decisions. In a political context, this means ensuring that decisions that are made by our political leaders which are positive towards climate action are applauded in public, with criticisms made in private. This is a recognition that any progress – even small progress – is better than doing nothing. The power of symbolism is also important, as it reduces resistance to further change as existing change appears easy, positive and the default.

Provide near-term incentives. A challenge for installing solar panels on every roof is that the pay-off period can be a decade or more. It is economical, but not right now, and that is a large hurdle to overcome when trying to motivate action. Similarly, in a government and political context, programs and changes that will have an impact two or three elections away is a hurdle to action now. Politically, climate activists need to try to make the payoff for political action today pay-off today. Promoting policies that have an immediate impact is also good, such as incentives (tax breaks or rebates) for personal or industry clean energy projects are important.

There are a lot of other ways that the psychology of behaviour change should be adopted by climate activists. The totalisation of climate vanguardists is typically not helpful. The radicalism of the Vietnam protests only made a difference politically when the grandparents, public servants, teachers and suit-wearers started to go to rallies. As climate action becomes more “mainsteam”, the huffers and puffers like Clive Hamilton can do more damage than good.

It is certainly counterproductive to attack and undermine the hard work of progressive organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation or World Wildlife Fund.

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