Verbal Behavior and Climate Change

Guest Blog: Cynthia Pietras, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology, Western Michigan University

 

Dr. Cynthia Pietras is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Western Michigan University. Her background is in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. She has served on the editorial board of multiple behavior-analysis journals, including as Associate Editor, and has served on several boards of ABAI and local affiliate chapters. Her research focuses on basic behavior processes, including choice, punishment, avoidance, and social behavior, and more recently on climate-change relevant decision making. She has conceptual interests in verbal behavior and radical behaviorism.

The Climate Problem

Image by Malte Reimold from Pixabay

What does verbal behavior have to do with understanding and addressing the climate crisis? Just about everything. Verbal processes are involved in all aspects of the human response to climate change, from the scientific and social behaviors that produce stimuli that establish our understanding of climate change, to the behavioral processes that motivate – or hinder – climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

Let us review the climate problem. Human societies are pushing our planetary boundaries beyond safe zones (see Rockström & Gaffney, 2021), and the greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, produced primarily by high carbon-emitting nations and citizens, are threating to tip the planet into temperature extremes not experienced in thousands of years. People who have contributed least to the problem, along with nonhuman species, will suffer the most. Tremendous effort is needed to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050 (or sooner). Otherwise, the amount of GHG in the atmosphere will warm the planet above the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target, yielding increasingly devastating consequences (i.e., damaging storms and floods, heat waves, drought and crop failure, ice sheet loss and more sea level rise). Failing to protect biodiversity and ecosystems from further exploitation and degradation, along with global warming, will lead to species losses and the collapse of natural carbon “sinks” (forests, peat, wetlands) which may further accelerate global warming. Action is needed – and fast. But last year, 2023, greenhouse-gas emissions were greater than at any other year in human history, indeed in the last 125,000 years, and world leaders are still not committing to the necessary steps. What has gone wrong? What can we do now?

Verbal Stimuli Impact Our Response to Climate Change

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An analysis of verbal processes may be key to understanding the problem and developing solutions. Climate scientists, like all scientists (see Skinner, 1957) formulate rules – if-then statements – about contingencies based on their observations (tacts) and verbal derivations (intraverbals). These climate rules, such as those found in the reports of the IPCC (2023), include warnings about the negative impacts of accumulations of GHGs into the atmosphere, and necessary solutions. The public is typically exposed to these climate rules through news sources, education systems, personal conversations, and social media, and they impact our reaction to climate change.

Why have climate warnings often failed to motivate sufficient action and what can behavior analysts do? I argue that analyses of rule-following derived from operant research and theory, specifically analyses of variables that impact rule control (see Barnes-Holmes et  al., 2001; Pelaez, 2013; Stapleton, 2020; and Törneke, 2010) can be applied to human response to climate change. Analyzing climate action in terms of rule following may help us better understand reactions to climate warnings and contribute to the design of communication and behavior-change strategies.

Challenges of Climate Communication – and Possible Solutions

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For people to react appropriately to rules, they first must be exposed to the rules and have an appropriate verbal history to understand them. In the U.S., the scale and urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis is not well communicated in schools or in the media, although there are efforts in several U.S. states to institutionalize climate education. Furthermore, climate information is often presented in technical, jargony terms. For climate rules to motivate action, listeners need better education and climate-change information needs to be presented in ways the public can readily understand.

People have also been exposed to conflicting climate messages, especially given the spending by the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation and cast doubt on climate science, and the polarized political environment in the U.S. (e.g., Republicans are typically less likely than Democrats to see climate change as a concern). Thus climate-change warnings and solution statements need to come from trusted speakers.

The framing of climate change risks and solutions also makes a difference to the degree to which action is taken. Climate facts are often focused on physical science. Facts alone, although critical for providing the basis for climate science, may fail to fully illustrate the scale of the risk, the urgency of acting, or relevance to climate justice. Moreover, climate warnings may not generate urgency if impacts and potential worst-case scenarios are framed as temporally and socially distant, and probabilistic. Scientists are trained to make “pure” tacts (under control only of data), and to be cautious in their conclusions. Yet, a catastrophic event that has “only” a 20% likelihood and might result in significant loss of life (e.g., a heat wave). Warnings and solution statements need to connect to outcomes the audience values (i.e., stimuli that listeners find reinforcing/punishing, such as personal and local impacts), and be framed in ways that reduce psychological discounting (i.e., the devaluing of outcomes with time, risk, and social distance; see Kaplan et al., 2014).

Climate rules that are overly pessimistic or that suggest there is little we can do to mitigate climate change, may reduce motivation to act (and see Mann, 2021). Although the dire threat of climate change should be communicated, many have suggested (e.g., Hayhoe, 2021; and see Ted talk by Ritchie, 2023) that climate communication frame climate-change mitigation as an opportunity for positive change (e.g., by reducing pollution, improving health, reducing inequity), and highlight progress that has been made so far (e.g., such as in the growth of renewable energy).

People who are already concerned about climate change may not know what to do about the problem, or how to do it. Thus, rules should specify action. Fortunately, scientists have articulated actions needed to address the climate crisis (e.g., Hawken, 2017), and better education and communication about high-impact solutions is needed.

Encouraging Climate Action

Education or information, however, is often insufficient to produce behavior change when barriers exist, such as high effort and weak reinforcers, and few prompts for actions. Behavior scientists have shown how applications of learning principles, such as changes to antecedents (i.e., education and persuasive messaging) and consequences (i.e., incentives or feedback), can alter climate-relevant action (see blogs in Green Behavior Analysis).  Examples of successful community interventions can be found at Tools of Change; Community Based Social Marketing, and see Making Shift Happen (Van Leuvan et al., 2022).

Policy changes are also needed to change behavior on a broad scale. As Mann (2021) has argued, putting the onus of addressing climate change totally on individual consumers is a denial tactic used by fossil-fuel interests to avoid regulation. Similarly, psychologists have argued that focusing entirely on individual-level solutions misses opportunities for system change (e.g., Chater & Lowensein, 2022).  Policy change may include carbon taxes, emission regulations, new building and energy codes, transportation tariffs, etc. Policy change will require verbal interventions to educate and motivate political and organizational leaders. Such interventions will require careful messaging and collaboration to engender public support, and will need to keep climate justice at the forefront.

What Steps Can We Take Now?

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Despite the challenges of climate communication, about 56% of people in the US state that they are alarmed or concerned about climate change (Leiserowitz et al. 2023). More work is needed though, to make climate change a top priority. Talking about climate change and biodiversity loss with others, seeking educational opportunities, and joining with others to support and motivate climate action (e.g., 350.org; BFSR; CCL; Sunrise) are the most effective steps people can take to keep our planetary systems safe. Effort by behavioral scientists is needed to educate and motivate the public, promote behavior change in communities and organizations, and design effective policy. Behavior analysts are especially well equipped to contribute given our understanding of verbal processes and record of designing effective environmentally-relevant behavioral applications.

References

Barnes-Holmes, Y., Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2001). Relational frame theory: a post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. Advances in child development and behavior28, 101–138. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0065-2407(02)80063-5

Chater, N., & Loewenstein, G. (2022). The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How focusing on individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 46, e147. https://doi.org/10.1017&am, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4046264 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4046264

Hawken, P. (2017). Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. New York: Penguin Books

Hayhoe, K. (2021). Saving us: a climate scientist’s case for hope and healing in a divided world. New York: Simon and Schuster

IPCC. (2023). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 1-34, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-cycle/

Kaplan, B. A., Reed, D. D., & McKerchar, T. L. (2014). Using a visual analogue scale to assess delay, social, and probability discounting of an environmental loss. The Psychological Record64, 261-269.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s40732-014-0041-z

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Goddard, E., Carman, J., Verner, M., Ballew, M., Marlon, J., Lee, S., Myers, T., Goldberg, M., Badullovich, N., Thier, K. (2023). Global Warming’s Six Americas, Fall 2023. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/global-warmings-six-americas-fall-2023/

Mann, M. E. (2021). The new climate war: The fight to take back our planet. New York: Public Affairs.

Pelaez, M. (2013). Dimensions of rules and their correspondence to rule-governed behavior. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 14(2), 259–270. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2013.11434459

Ritchie, H. (September 2023). Are we the last generation — or the first sustainable one? Ted Conferences. https://youtu.be/Kl3VVrggKz4?si=kjGOzhL-iMxtNH3H

Rockström, J., & Gaffney, O. (2021). Breaking boundaries: The science of our planet. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Stapleton, A. (2020). Choosing not to follow rules that will reduce the spread of COVID-19. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 17, 73–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.07.002

Törneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical application. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Van Leuvan, N., Highleyman, L., Fujita, R., & Kellerman, A. (2022). Making shift happen: Designing for successful environmental behavior change. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.