The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change is Behavioral

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its most up-to-date understanding of the climate system and climate change. The report is titled Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Skim the report’s Summary for Policymakers and you will notice a recurring theme: “human influence.”

That’s right, “The Physical Science Basis” of climate change comes down to human behavior—part and parcel of the natural world. Here is one of the most incriminating Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers:

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.

The report cites evidence from over 14,000 scientific publications and models the impact of human activities on future worlds. Below is an IPCC trailer describing those investigative efforts. Particularly noteworthy is the IPCC trailer’s emphasis on us.

Their’s an interplay between our behavior and the behavior of the climate, which is why the IPCC trailer says, “Our climate is our future”, which depends on the “choices we make today.”

Behavior Science at the Ready

A recent review in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences asked: Have behavioral sciences delivered on their promise to influence environmental policy and conservation practice? According to the authors, behavioral sciences have only partially fulfilled their promise. Pro-environmental feedback, frames, and nudges appear to work, but they have yet to be adequately scaled-up. The problem isn’t just with scale though.

The research cited in the Current Opinion piece is largely “built on the ‘heuristics and biases’ research agenda…” (p. 5). It’s based on the premise that “cognitive biases” preclude certain prosocial and pro-environmental behaviors. It’s the supposed problem of “thinking fast” vs. “thinking slow” proposed by Daniel Kahneman. According to Kahneman, it’s usually better to think slow because too fast and you’ll land on the suboptimal choice.

While it might be true that cognitive biases confine us to certain environmentally unfriendly behaviors, it would be shortsighted if we didn’t consider the host of associative and instrumental learning procedures pioneered by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. In the journal called Energy Research & Social Science, Susan Schneider and Angela Sanguinetti do just this. Their article is called Positive reinforcement is just the beginning: Associative learning principles for energy efficiency and climate sustainability.

Not Just Any Feedback

Schneider and Sanguinetti (2021) get us past just feedback as intervention. As is the case with most things, there’s more to it.

For one thing, feedback isn’t just reinforcing. It can punish undesirable behaviors, motivate more desirable ones, or signal the consequences for environmentally friendly vs. unfriendly behaviors. And if we want certain pro-environmental behaviors to persist after any intervention is said and done, then we can vary the schedule on which any feedback is delivered. Schneider and Sanguinetti (2021) put it like this:

Variable schedules shine in fostering the critical transition to successful post-intervention maintenance. Indeed, they are known for enhancing perseverance — problematic for gambling, but beneficial for sustainability.

The List Goes On

Schneider and Sanguinetti (2021) don’t stop there. They describe habit creation, the process of shaping new behaviors, choice behavior, and delay discounting. In the case of shaping, we need to “Meet people where they’re at” (Schneider & Sanguinetti, 2021, p. 4). Pro-environmental behaviors can be demanding and their consequences are often delayed. We need to bridge the gap between the behaviors we already engage in and the pro-environmental behaviors we need for a better future.

If reinforcing pro-environmental behaviors little-by-little isn’t enough, then we can change the nature of the choices we have before us. Schneider and Sanguinetti (2021) go on:

We always have choices so energy experts should ensure that a green behavior of some sort is always available, as easily performed and richly reinforced as possible, while simultaneously making existing, more wasteful behaviors harder and less rewarding.

People will choose the green behavior over the unsustainable behavior, so long as the green behavior is accessible, effortless to whatever extent possible, and rewarding. This gets us back to the IPCC’s statement about the “choices we make today.” We get closer to securing a better future by making green choices easy and worth our while now.