December 8, 2014

Evolution of human emotions inhibits response to climate change, says Loewenstein at BECC

By Mark Golden

WASHINGTON, DC—Getting people to act in ways that could lessen climate change faces an uphill battle not only due to traditional economics, but also to behavioral economics, a founder of the latter field said at the annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference.

Dian Grueneich "Except for partisanship, climate change hasn’t provoked emotions in line with the severity of the threat," the conference’s opening keynote speaker George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University said Monday. "The challenge of climate change is just poorly met through our evolved emotional systems in a number of ways."

Loewenstein gave some reasons for optimism, but he focused on the challenges that are critical to the work of the scholars, entrepreneurs and policymakers trying to change people’s actions relevant to global warming. The reasons people have not responded emotionally to climate change are deeply rooted. For example, humans tend to be less emotional about threats that are remote in time.

Similarly, the intangibility of consequences inhibits behavior change. "Climate change has this in the extreme," said the economist. "People can get really upset about some birds killed by the Ivanpah solar power plant, but there’s no direct tangible way for people to know that the ocean is 30 percent more acidic."

People are much more sympathetic when presented with identified victims than with statistics. One study showed that people are willing to nearly triple donations to help feed hungry children if the appeal includes an image of a child—even if the child appears well fed—than if presented with data. In fact, adding statistics to an image of a child lowers donations considerably compared with just an image.

In another inhibitor to pro-social climate action, people avoid additional information if they suspect that the information will bring bad news. For example, they look up their retirement portfolio when they know the stock market has risen that day, but do not do so when the market is down. The volume of portfolio lookups so closely follows the broad market index, that graphs of the two are nearly indistinguishable, said Loewenstein. For climate change, this is a big hurdle because the news is usually negative.

In conventional economic analysis, dealing with climate change must also overcome the "free rider" problem of external costs, as well as economic interests concentrated in maintaining the status quo.

Reasons for hope
Societies have overcome many of the same conventional and behavioral economic barriers to deal with problems such as smoking, the insecticide DDT, polluted lakes and urban air quality. The psychological factors that inhibit change all have counterpoints, Loewenstein explained. For example, the remoteness of the Vietnam War for many Americans was erased by Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of children, including the severely burned girl Kim Phuc, fleeing the village of Trang Bang, which was under napalm attack. That image is given a great deal of credit for the U.S. withdrawal from the war soon after it was published.

Loewenstein and numerous colleagues have promoted behavioral economic approaches to successfully dealing with climate change by making appeals to political conservatives. "Libertarian paternalism" or "regulation for conservatives" has worked, he said, citing conservative converts like New York Times columnist David Brooks and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

For individual behavior change, said Loewenstein, nudges are the key, though progress can be slow while building toward a critical mass in favor of change. A success here, he said, is the energy efficiency firm Opower, which became a publicly traded company this past spring.

"People are ready to sacrifice for things that are meaningful to them," he concluded. "We need to find a way to evoke the right mix of emotions connected with climate change."

Behavior, Energy & Climate Change is an international conference focused on understanding the behavior and decision-making of individuals and organizations, and using that knowledge to help accelerate the transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon future. BECC is organized by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the University of California’s California Institute for Energy & Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which is based in Washington, DC.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)


Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629,