If climate change is to be tackled, we need both individual behavior change, and system and governmental reforms – that is clear to all of us. But how can we effectively instigate change across the globe?

Kimberly Crystal Doell

In one of the largest experiments in the psychology of climate change, an international team of researchers, co-lead by psychologist and ECH member Kimberly Doell of the University of Vienna, studied the reactions of over 59 000 participants from 63 countries to various phrases urging them to take action on climate change. We spoke to her about her results:

ECH: You have investigated which measures promote sustainable behaviour in people and how they are accepted in different countries – which measures in particular?

Kim: When we were designing this project, we wanted to investigate how the interventions we developed impacted a variety of things. So, we targeted belief in climate change, support for climate change mitigation policies, willingness to share information on social media, and an effortful behavior. For the willingness to share variable, we provided participants with a post “Did you know that removing meat and dairy for only two out of three meals per day could decrease food-related carbon emissions by 60%? It is an easy way to fight “ClimateChange”, and they were asked to share it on their favorite social media platforms. For the effortful behavior, participants were required to sort some number combinations, and the more time and effort they put into it, the more trees we planted on their behalf. Thus, they had to exert voluntary extra effort in exchange for a positive environmental outcome.

ECH: What were your favorite findings in this study?

Kim: My favorite finding is that, across nearly 60,000 participants from the 63 countries we surveyed, belief in climate change is sitting at 86% on average! That is way higher than any of us expected. Support for climate change policies is also sitting at an impressive 73%! When it comes to behavior, 50% of all participants did everything they could regarding the effortful tree-planting behavior. This means that, internationally, the majority of people believe in climate change, support policies meant to mitigate it, and are willing to do nearly everything they can to help reduce it’s impact.

My other favorite part of the project is that, thanks to the efforts of all of our participants, we planted over 300,000 trees in the real world! This is due to a collaboration we had with The Eden Reforestation Projects!

ECH: What was the most surprising finding for you and why?

Kim: I think one of the most surprising things is that we did not find one “best” intervention to use across belief, policy support, and the two behaviours. If one intervention worked well at promoting belief, it tended to backfire, reducing effort in the tree-planting task. Part of the reason why is because there was so much diversity within the data. For example, in Austria, one of the best ways to increase effective pro-environmental behaviour, such as time spent planting trees, is to present people with information that shows climate change is already happening now, it is negatively affecting Europe and it is harmful to people nearby. This is what behavioural scientists call reducing psychological distance. This framing makes the risks and dangers of climate change feel more immediate and relatable, which encourages people to act against it. However, that same intervention backfired in Germany, reducing belief in climate change, support for policy, and reduced the effort invested in the tree-planting task.

These results really highlight the need to use interventions that are targeted for specific populations. We have used our findings to help design a new climate intervention app that can empower people to make more environmentally conscious decisions at governmental, community and household levels. Based on the vast pool of data used in our research, anyone can explore how effective interventions have been in specific countries, within certain age ranges or even according to political identity, ideally by looking at samples with more than 30 people for the best results.

ECH: Detailed question about your web app: You have developed a web application – what can it do and who can it help?

Kim: This free and easy-to-use app could be particularly useful for policymakers and climate change communicators. For example, if you want to know how to best increase policy support in Europeans who are over 50 years old, emphasising how those policies will affect future generations, especially their own children and grandchildren, might be your best bet.

However, it could also be useful for the general public too! Whenever making personal choices related to climate change, such as opting for a slow train or booking a quick flight, you can use these results to help make your decision easier. Log into the app and see what works well for people of a similar age to you living in the same country. You can then consider the intervention before making your decision.

ECH: What is special about your study and why does it fit well into the ECH?

Kim: This is one of the largest experiments ever conducted on the psychology of climate change. It is also vastly interdisciplinary as it includes the collaboration of over 250 scientists from across the globe. Thanks to this data, and the freely available Webapp, it also stands to provide evidence-based solutions geared towards promoting climate change mitigation! These are all points of importance for the ECH, which helps to exemplify why and how interdisciplinary science can help to overcome societal issues.

ECH: What was the benefit of the interdisciplinary collaboration for your study?

Kim: Pooling together expertise from all of our collaborators allowed us to design and develop an experimental protocol that allows us to conduct high priority research in this domain. It was only thanks to this wide-ranging expertise, and the collaboration from our team, that we were able to collect this sample!

ECH: Thank you for this interesting conversation and exciting insights.

This interview was conducted by Nora Gau, Coordinator for Communication at the ECH.