What our conduct teaches us now can help the environment
UG researchers Thijs Bouman and Linda Steg, as well as Thomas Dietz, who works at Michigan State University, say personal values play a large role in how we respond. These values make people feel personally responsible for certain things and spur them into action. ‘When individuals act in accordance with their personal norms, they typically feel proud, good and true to themselves’, the researchers write in a paper published in Nature Sustainability.
The government can help, the researchers say. One thing they can do is communicate clearly. ‘When the crisis had just started, the measures they were taking were quite strict, and we believe this could help battle climate change’, says Bouman.
Initially, the government’s way of communicating was clear, consistent, and simple. Citizens knew what to do in order to battle the virus: wash their hands and keep their distance. It was also important that they communicated the crisis in a way people could understand, for instance by talking about the number of hospitalisations or deaths. This made citizens feel like it was something that directly affected them.
That’s important, because strict rules might only work for a little while; long-term change can only come about if people themselves change. They should want to follow the rules. ‘Just telling people they should feel personally responsible doesn’t work’, says Bouman. ‘Enforcement would need to be accompanied with strategies that foster intrinsic motivation to act, for instance by targeting the different factors of our theoretical model’, the researchers write.
Many of these factors are missing when it comes to environmental policy and the climate. But, says the trio of researchers, we can do something about it.
Once again, clear communication is key, like using numbers that show the impact of the climate crisis. ‘It’s easy to talk about CO2 exhaust, but people can’t see it, which makes it hard to understand. If you tell them about the number of people affected or how many species have gone extinct, they’ll get it. It makes the situation personally relevant.’
The government should also tell people what they themselves can do and what their contribution, like going vegetarian or cycling to work, actually does, just like they did when telling people to wash their hands and keep their distance.
Finally, actions speak louder than words: corporations and governments both should encourage environmentally conscious behaviour through financial support. They should also engage in the behaviour themselves. ‘Just like people who get into trouble because of the government rules during the corona crisis can count on compensation and settlements.’