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New research asks: what could motivate global action on climate change?

Posted on 13 February 2024

With the window for climate action closing fast, scientists have posed the question: what would motivate people to change their behaviour?

Participants in the study could complete up to eight trials of a boring task, and for every completed trial, the research team donated money to The Eden Reforestation Project for a tree to be planted. Overall, more than 333,000 trees were planted as a result of the project.

A psychologist from the University of York has taken part in a global study, involving nearly 60,000 participants from 63 countries, to search for answers to this question. 

The research team tested 11 different strategies for motivating people to change their climate beliefs and behaviours. These included targeting participants with “doom and gloom” style messages about the impacts of climate change, emphasising the scientific consensus on climate change and setting them tasks such as writing a letter to a child from a future generation. 

They then looked at the impact of these interventions on participants’ beliefs, their support for policy to tackle climate change, their willingness to share messages online about climate change and their willingness to take part in a tree-planting task.

Boosting belief

In the UK, an intervention co-developed by University of York researcher Assistant Professor Lusine Grigoryan was found to be the most effective, boosting belief in the urgency of tackling climate change by more than 3% and increasing support for green policies by 8.5%. The method asked participants to project themselves into the future and write a letter addressed to themselves in the present, describing the actions they would have wanted to take regarding climate change. 

The research team found that there was a high baseline level of belief in climate change in the UK, with 79% recognising it as an urgent issue and 70% of participants supporting green policies.  

Participants in the study could complete up to eight trials of a boring task, and for every completed trial, the research team donated money to The Eden Reforestation Project for a tree to be planted. UK participants were most motivated to do this by interventions focusing on social norms and bonds, and overall, more than 333,000 trees were planted as a result of the project.

Future selves

Lusine Grigoryan from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said: “The idea behind the intervention I co-developed is that ethical behaviour can be promoted by prompting people to think about their future selves. We thought that this future-self continuity would be particularly important in the context of climate change since the most disastrous consequences of it will be happening in the future. This intervention was in top 3 out of 11 interventions globally in terms of its power to change beliefs in climate change and climate policy support. It also increased participants' willingness to share information about climate change online.”

The international team of scientists used the findings of the study to create a tool that can aid in increasing climate awareness and climate action globally by highlighting messaging themes shown to be effective through their experimental research.

Encourage action

Madalina Vlasceanu, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the paper’s lead author, said: “We tested the effectiveness of different messages aimed at addressing climate change and created a tool that can be deployed by both lawmakers and practitioners to generate support for climate policy or to encourage action”.

Globally, the results of the study – which had participants in 63 countries, including Algeria, China, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, and the United States – present a complex picture, with the same interventions having contradictory results in different countries. 

For example, emphasising scientific consensus on climate change (i.e.“Ninety-nine percent of expert climate change scientists agree that the Earth is warming, and climate change is happening mainly because of human activity”) increased support for climate-friendly policies by 9% in Romania, but decreased support by 5% in Canada. Asking participants to write a letter to a socially close child, as a member of the future generation, increased climate policy support in the United States (10%), Brazil (10%), Ghana (8%), Russia (7%), and Nigeria (5%); however it decreased policy support slightly in the UAE and Serbia (3%) as well as in India (2%).

Global agreement

Overall, while responses varied significantly among geographic location and participants’ demographics and beliefs, 86% recognized the dangers posed by climate change and more than 70% backed systemic/collective action addressing climate change.

Lusine Grigoryan added: “I was quite surprised by how much people worldwide believe that climate change is a serious issue to be addressed and how much they support climate change policies. There is clearly a global agreement that this is an urgent issue and action should be taken, it is now up to those who have power over those policies to pay attention to this global consensus.”



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About this research

Addressing Climate Change with Behavioral Science: A Global Intervention Tournament in 63 Countries is published in the journal Science Advances. The study was carried out by an international team of researchers from more than 200 universities. 

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