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We’re studying everything but human behavior to combat climate change

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Amy Impson is a behavioral scientist with 24 years’ experience helping hundreds of people change their behavior. She lives in Louisiana, where unprecedented rainfall and rising sea levels have repeatedly harmed her state. She is one of thousands of skilled behavioral practitioners who could be put to work helping every community mobilize to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, there is no funding to support such large-scale but vital efforts.

President Biden has proposed an ambitious effort to address the problem of climate change. Its success can be vastly enhanced if we make more use of the knowledge and methods of behavioral scientists.

When behavioral science has addressed important national problems, good things have happened. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) paid huge dividends in addressing some of America’s most pressing public health challenges. For example, thanks largely to research funded by NIH, we reduced the percentage of people who smoke from 45 percent in 1965, to 15 percent. 

However, our research documents an unfortunate lack of federal funding for behavioral science research to reduce emissions. We reviewed federal funding for behavioral science research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We found only a handful of projects that were experimentally evaluating strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Behavioral science is already making progress on climate-relevant behavior. A large body of research shows that some combination of information, prompting, goal-setting, feedback, incentives, or fines can reduce consumption of electricity, gasoline, water and meat, and can reduce the volume of trash production. Funds are needed to expand these efforts to the scale that is needed.

Here are examples of how behavioral science can address this greatest threat to human wellbeing.  

  • Comprehensive community interventions. Thousands of communities around the world are taking action. However, our review of 14,000 papers on emission reductions did not identify a single instance of an experimental evaluation of a comprehensive community intervention. Behavioral scientists are needed to set up systems to monitor targeted outcomes, to identify the strategies that are most effective, and to evaluate those strategies so that we identify increasingly effective ways of achieving change. Our recent paper describes how this can be done. 
  • Mobilizing public opinion in favor of reducing emissions. An experiment conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications showed that when people hear personal stories about others affected by climate change, it makes them more supportive of efforts to combat it. However, we are far from reaching the millions of people who must be reached with effective stories. A program of research testing strategies for generating public support across the nation could mobilize public support for the policies and programs that are needed.  
  • Getting climate-friendly policies adopted.  Imagine how much progress we could make if we funded multiple projects to scale up and experimentally evaluate strategies for getting policies and programs adopted in communities, states, or regions. We could become increasingly clear about which policies work best. 
  • Compliance with regulations.  It is one thing to issue a regulation regarding methane emissions, it is another to achieve widespread compliance with that regulation.  Recent experiments are showing that we can identify more effective ways of getting regulations adhered to.  

The first great mobilization of the nation’s science community came at the outset of World War II. President Roosevelt created the Office of Scientific Research and Development because he realized that science was essential to winning the war. That effort included a sizable component of social scientists.  

Once again, nothing less than a national mobilization is needed. We are facing a slower moving, but ultimately, greater threat than WWII. Roosevelt had trouble mobilizing the nation to prepare for war until Pearl Harbor changed that. And now, with thousand year floods and fires occurring annually, we have our Climate Pearl Harbor.  

In light of the limited number of studies testing strategies for affecting greenhouse gas emissions, the NSF, EPA, and DOE should be directed to identify all of their projects that involve the use of an intervention to affect any aspect of individual, household, organizational, or community behavior or actions that affect greenhouse gas emissions.

A committee of behavioral scientists should be created to recommend promising programs of research that are likely to affect any source of emissions. 

Finally funding opportunities should be established that commit 10 percent of the NSF, EPA, and DOE funding that is currently expended on any aspect of climate change to behavioral science research.

In the past week, an analysis of the unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest indicated that “nonlinear interactions in the climate have substantially increased the probability of such extreme heat, much beyond the gradual increase in heat extremes that has been observed up to now.” The dangers we face may be far worse than we thought. It would be tragic if we failed to use all of the knowledge we have to bring about the massive changes that are needed. 

Anthony Biglan PhD is a member of the Board and the Executive Committee of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives and a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore.

Tags Carbon finance Climate change Climate change policy Climate change policy of the United States Global warming controversy Joe Biden

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