Climate change and society – behavioral researchers: with the herd effect for more climate protection

At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, leading experts from around the world have come together to form an initiative. They want to know how people can permanently change their behavior – eg to protect the climate. Behavioral economist Sean F. Ellis argues that natural disasters, such as massive floods, can also be a trigger—but only if they are atypical and unexpected events and only for people who have no doubt about climate change. In order to encourage people to save energy or water, for example, it may be useful above all to take advantage of the herd effect – that is, for people to look at what neighbors or friends are doing and compare themselves to it. According to Ellis and the Behavior Change for Good initiative, such actions can help ensure that measures against climate change are taken on a broad scale in society.

(pa / dpa / Harald Title) How urban planning can react to the increased risk of storms
The extent and consequences of prolonged heavy rains in Germany were surprising. How can flood risks be reduced? Overview


The full interview:

Kathryn Cohn: You may have seen it – here in Germany and other parts of the western European Union we have experienced torrential rains and torrential floods. Many people have died, others have lost their homes or been seriously damaged. What does that do to the community?

Sean Ellis: It is somewhat of a social question. From a behavioral economic point of view, it could be an opportunity to take measures to adapt and mitigate the risks associated with climate change.

wide: Regarding the climate crisis, climate change – from your research, to what extent are such disasters really a turning point?

Ellis: So it depends on the type and severity of the event. If it’s an event that doesn’t usually happen – so if we get a big blizzard in the middle of summer, it’s going to have a much bigger impact. It also seems important to know what beliefs people had before the event. If someone already believes that climate change exists and is something that needs to be addressed, they are more likely to attribute extreme weather events to climate change. While someone who does not believe in climate change doubts its existence, he sees the event as being part of the normal spectrum of weather events that occur in the region.

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Social comparisons as a driver of change

wide: So if that could be a starting point now. What would it take to change our behavior now, to change something about the climate crisis?

Ellis: One of the most important things we can do now is fund research to develop evidence-based policies and then rigorously test them after implementation and then identify where behavioral interventions might be useful. For example, there are ways to use social comparisons. Comparing people to their neighbors has been found to be very effective in getting them to reduce their energy use or water use. Or there are ways to get farmers to grow more ground covers that store carbon in the soil and that can help mitigate some of the greenhouse effect of greenhouse gases.

wide: So it’s about the fact that we don’t always have to talk about what the risks are, but we have to give people the opportunity to change something, so kind of a positive view.

Ellis: Absolutely. A large part of the challenge in dealing with climate change, as well as with other environmental issues, is the problem of inertia. People are unsure of the best course of action. And when someone is unsure, there is a tendency to stick to the status quo, even if there are alternatives.

Rubble in front of a townhouse in the Ahrweiler district after a storm and flood.  The flood destroyed at least six homes.  (DPA/Harald Teitel) (dpa / Harald Title)We will also have to adapt to climate change
The probability of the frequency and strength of such heavy rains as in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia increases with temperature every tenth of a degree, comments Werner Eckert of SWR.

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Use the herd effect to change

wide: Having said that, it might make a lot of sense to empower the individuals who lead the way in such situations and are good examples of what can be done?

Ellis: Whatever the case. There is a herd effect in many climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. We humans tend to imitate the behavior of our friends and neighbors. One of the most cost-effective ways to encourage people to adopt climate protection and adaptation strategies is to create a social norm around them.

wide: Our situation here is that we have a general election in September, so the politicians are in a special situation where they can’t handle everything as usual. Could that be an obstacle to doing something?

Ellis: Certainly can. Here in the United States, politics and political polarization have been a major obstacle to taking action against climate change. According to my research and that of others, the best way to get around this is to bypass politics to some extent.

positive competition

wide: But who can do that?

Ellis: It’s about creating a policy that both sides can support, regardless of climate change. So, here in the US at least, asking people to reduce their energy consumption due to climate change can be polarizing. This may be due to the politicization of climate change. There could be a huge roadblock there. Alternatively, if you simply approach people – for example, there is an electricity supplier who sends electricity bills and compares the user with his neighbors. What they found was that these comparisons encouraged people to reduce their energy consumption. Because it is important to know – first – that people are interested in what their neighbors do, how they compare themselves to them and what others think of them – and – second – that they also save money by reducing energy consumption. I think most people want it, save money.

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wide: So a kind of positive competition.

Ellis: exactly!

Objective: adapting to climate change

wide: This means that we have to rethink our previous strategies. Take a look at your search. What must be done urgently to slow climate change?

Ellis: Most urgently, we need a comprehensive approach. We know that the transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources is important. This requires a global change in how we live as people. Then there are many, many different things and aspects that we have to address. So what has to happen is that research needs funding on how to achieve these different things. To develop an evidence-based policy, which then must be thoroughly tested. And if something doesn’t work, we have to go back to the drawing board. And if something works, maybe we should move on with it.

wide: Finally, do you think we can turn things around?

Ellis: When it comes to climate change, the question is no longer whether we can prevent it. I think it’s about how we adapt to it and how we reduce our negative impact on the climate. This is what the focus should be on now.

The statements of our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not take the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

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