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Behavioural Scientist: Listen to the people affected by climate action

For the world to become CO2 neutral, society must undergo massive changes. This will affect all of us, so politicians and authorities must listen to citizens' concerns.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 6/24/2024

A recent study showed that about three out of four homeowners are willing to make sacrifices to help the climate and the biodiversity. Specifically, about 5,000 people in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Finland were asked if they would support the preservation of salt marshes near their homes in three different ways that could benefit the climate and biodiversity:

  1. Allow the reeds in the salt marsh to grow so high that the view from their houses would be blocked and property values might drop.
  2. Accept limited access to the area.
  3. Increase taxes slightly to pay for the removal of old dikes.

Most were willing to accept limited access to the area and tall reeds, while slightly fewer accepted a tax increase.

Around three quarters were positive about all three proposals, leaving about a quarter who - at least when asked in this survey - were not willing to make any sacrifices to help the climate and biodiversity.

Waste sorting and windmills

Whether this survey is representative of the Danes’ willingness to support climate action remains to be seen, but it is unlikely that 100% support will ever be achieved. No politician or authority can implement climate measures without some negative or concerned reactions from society.

For example, a summer house owner might not want their sea view disturbed by a wind farm, or a landowner might be sceptical about giving up their land for nature restoration or a new bike path. Residents might struggle to find space for all the different rubbish bins required by the municipality.

- Citizens may feel that climate measures have negative personal consequences for them, which should not be ignored when working to implement climate action. These concerns should be acknowledged and addressed, said Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, a behavioural scientist and Professor at the Danish Center for Motivation and Behavioural Science at the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The same mechanisms are at work

In particular, Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani has used her expertise in behavioural research to understand what motivates or inhibits us to live healthily, such as whether we are motivated to follow the doctor's instructions. Now she will use her expertise in the climate-related EU project ARCADIA, which aims to find good nature-based solutions for better aquatic environments and climate adaptation.

The idea with nature-based solutions is to let nature help in the fight against climate change and loss of biodiversity, for example, by planting salt meadows on flood-prone coasts instead of building dikes.

- I fundamentally believe that the same mechanisms can be at work when we feel motivated to do something good for our health and the climate - and vice versa; it also applies when we experience barriers, says Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani.

The more you can see the benefits of backing it, the more inclined you will be to do so. This also applies to climate action.

Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, Professor, Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics

The present is more important than the future

It matters that we feel a sense of ownership, she says: That we feel a say in what should happen, that we know how we can make a difference, that we have access to the right information, and that we feel heard and our views recognized.

There are obvious global benefits to supporting climate measures, but according to Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, these can be so distant and abstract that they sometimes fade into the background when we humans have to decide on climate action that is planned in our vicinity.

- We may become more concerned about whether the climate measures will have more immediate, negative, personal consequences for us right here and now - and our daily lives may become more expensive. And then resistance can arise. In research, we talk about present bias: that we are more likely to act based on what affects us at the moment than what may affect us in the future, says the behavioural scientist.

Authorities and decision-makers are like schoolteachers

Resistance can be a major challenge for the various actors seeking to gain our support to implement climate action.

- Such actors can be called authorities. In this respect, local politicians and authorities are comparable to, for example, NGO’s, schoolteachers and doctors. They want a behavioural change from us so that they gain support to implement the measures they believe are right, says Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani.

If you want to gain support as an authority, it is important to know what motivates people to support, she emphasizes:

- The more you can see the benefits of backing it, the more inclined you will be to do so. This also applies to climate action.

The positive consequences

It is not always enough just to argue that a climate action helps the climate and biodiversity:

- It is a good idea to also talk about what the individual citizen will gain from the climate measures you want to implement. For example, their risk of basement flooding may be reduced or they will save money by switching to public transport. Many people are unaware that climate action can have direct, positive consequences for them – and not just for the climate, nature and animals, she says.

In behavioural science, you can call this a dual-purpose strategy, and more authorities could benefit from using it more often, she believes.

- To the best of my knowledge, there are no good guidelines for strategies that can be used by decision-makers, organisations etc. That is something we will work on in a new project.

Dialogue meetings do not always go well

Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani is convinced of the need for such guidelines:

- It is important to know what motivates people and what incentives you can use to implement initiatives that benefit the climate. It is also important to listen to the barriers that may exist. You need to communicate with the citizens involved and together find an acceptable solution within the given framework. Sometimes it may not end up as the authority wanted, but as a compromise.

Authorities often invite the public to dialogue meetings prior to implementing climate measures. It can be a municipality that invites to a hearing or holds public meetings because it wants to establish a nature area or a solar park.

- It does not always go well. They may simply not understand or acknowledge the concerns people may have. This is where behavioural science can help develop guidelines and intervention programs that address citizens' concerns while being consistent with the climate agenda, says Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani.

Support for Climate Initiatives. Five pieces of advice for those who need to "sell" a climate project.

  1. Be systematic when identifying motivations and barriers for support.
  2. Listen and make sure people feel heard.
  3. Explain the specific, immediate positive impacts a climate action can have for the individuals.
  4. Be willing to compromise.
  5. The motivation must not come from external pressure - e.g., from a city council. If people feel pressured to support a climate initiative, their motivation will disappear when the external pressure stops.
Meet the researcher

Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani is a professor in physical activity and health behaviour at the Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics. She is associated with the Danish Center for Motivation and Behaviour Science, SDU Climate Cluster and the ARCADIA climate project.


Our psychological needs

In order for people to make lasting behavioural changes, certain psychological needs must be satisfied: 1. The need for autonomy (the feeling of ownership). 2. The need for competence (the feeling of being able to accomplish what needs to be done). 3. The need for cohesion (recognition and being an important part of the relevant social environment).

Editing was completed: 24.06.2024