Behavior Science: A Powerful Agent of Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes that rapid and transformational change is required to keep the risks of climate change within tolerable limits.

Behavioral change must come from all actors in society, including citizens, governments, and private organizations to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Thus far, the scientific community primarily has focused on leveraging economic muscle to influence emissions or technologies that contribute to climate change. For example, the IPCC and others have assessed how imposing policy-driven financial costs on emissions or technologies might influence GHG emissions.

Little research attention has been given to the behavioral sciences as a change agent in reducing GHG emissions, despite their demonstrated ability to address problems in human behavior on an individual, as well as societal, scale. At the same time, the IPCC has proposed incorporating behavioral science factors into its upcoming Sixth Assessment.

The knowledge and methods that behavioral scientists have accumulated in the past fifty years can accelerate the reduction of GHG emissions in at least five ways.

First, behavioral research can develop and experimentally evaluate comprehensive interventions to reduce GHG emissions. Many communities are involved in such efforts, but they are not making use of behavioral science like they could, both for devising and evaluating individual components of comprehensive interventions and doing multiple baseline experimental evaluations of the impact of components and the intervention as a whole.

Second, behavioral research can develop, evaluate, refine, and disseminate strategies for supporting governments and organizations in adopting and implementing policies that affect GHG emissions (this work can include assessing the impact of those policies on subsequent emissions).

Third, behavioral research can develop, evaluate, and continuously refine diverse strategies for influencing household and organizational carbon footprints. For example, interrupted time series experiments have shown that feedback and incentives can influence a variety of environmentally relevant behaviors.

Fourth, behavioral research, in concert with technology, can be used to evaluate how best to accelerate the measurement of GHG emissions, the use of apps to influence GHG relevant behavior, and the purchase of more energy efficient products.

Fifth, behavioral science research, when integrated with technology can develop and experimentally evaluate strategies for scaling up interventions that have been shown to affect GHG relevant behavior with small numbers of households or organizations. As technologies are developed that can monitor and give feedback, incentives, and social reinforcement for reducing GHG emissions, we have the potential to reach millions of households and organizations.

Climate change is a behavioral problem. Behavior scientists possess the tools to tackle it, but support for this work is minimal, and time is running out.

If behavioral scientists have any say in how this problem is solved (and it cannot be solved without them) than a systematic effort to stimulate and conduct effective research will be required. Additionally, scaling up effective methods and application of community interventions combined with policy regulation and widespread adoption will be necessary.

It is the mission of Coalition of Behavioral Science Organization’s Climate Change Task Force to see that these goals are achieved. We believe that behavior science is the most powerful agent for mitigating the threats imposed by a warming climate. Our mission is to harness the power of behavior science to cultivate a world composed of sustainable, nurturing communities that provide resources for all. A world in which all citizens, organizations, and governments are acting to reduce GHG emissions so that future generations may thrive.

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