Cost or Climate? Study investigates our behavioural motivators

APPEALS to ‘save the planet’ may not be the most effective way of addressing climate change, as a new study linking beliefs and behaviours reveals most people are driven by cost and fashion rather than a desire to protect the environment.

Two national CSIRO online surveys, canvassing 5,000 people in 2010 and 2011, assessed climate change beliefs and links to emotional responses and behavioral change.

CSIRO lead researcher Iain Walker says the most common emotional reaction associated with people who believe human activity is causing climate change is ‘fear’, while ‘irritation’ was a common response among those who attribute climate change to natural processes.

“If that’s a substantial proportion of the population, then any attempt to communicate about climate change has to overcome those inhibitors…and neither of those responses are likely to motivate positive behaviour adaptation or mitigation,” he says.

Prof Walker says the surveys reveal that even among those who accept anthropogenic climate change, concern for the environment is often not a primary motivator for changing behaviour.

“For example, retrofitting low energy light bulbs is a positive environmental act but often it may be motivated by cost or because a friend has done the same thing,” he says.

“That suggests that many people who don’t accept anthropogenic climate change, might still engage in behavioural change.

“Belief itself is not necessarily a barrier to behaviour, which can be motivated for other reasons such as cost saving or convenience.”

Dr Walker says different options are available to encourage adaptation and mitigation.

“The implications are that if you want to produce change, pleas to people’s better judgement are unlikely to work, pleas to protect the planet are not going to work. The options are mostly to utilise policy mechanisms.”

He says although policy mechanisms like a carbon tax or environmental building standards would meet general opposition initially, they would ensure change without changing behavior which can be difficult.

The surveys have found a majority of Australians, more than 90 per cent, accept climate change is happening.

Among those who accept it, opinions are roughly divided between human activity and natural forces as the main cause.

The remainder, less than 10 per cent, are equally split between those who do not know if climate change is happening and literal deniers that say climate is not changing at all.

He says the figures are consistent with surveys from around the country.