Social networks are key for spurring climate actions, psychologist says

Reading time: 6 minutes
22 July 2015

The Climate Group interviews psychologist, entrepreneur and economist Per Espen Stoknes about the impact of collaborative action and positive communication around climate change.

Climate Week NYC takes place again this September – the international summit which brings together businesses, governments, organizations and society in a week-long series of events in support of a low carbon future. How can society engagement on climate change influence big business and governments?

Last year we had over 400,000 people on the streets of New York demonstrating, pushing, protesting and talking loudly about climate. This is vital to further boost attention among political and business leaders. But even more important than demonstrating, is to purchase and vote accordingly. Therefore, I also find it significant that surveys show more and more Americans express willingness to prioritize a politician that takes the issue of climate for real over those that express denialist attitudes.

In your new book, ‘What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming’, you state that communicating about climate change in a negative way doesn’t encourage people to adapt their lifestyles to become more low carbon. How do think institutions like the IPCC and media outlets can go about things differently? Are there examples of where you believe it is being done well?

For a start, there is the Sustainia 100 guide, which reviews and grades hundreds of new business opportunities and start-ups – if they were able to scale up, they would have a green impact. And the businesses that are doing it well are celebrated by celebrities and in the media and this changes the focus to opportunities and solutions. There is also The Solutions Project and the New Climate Economy report, which is headed by Nicholas Stern and the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón. They are showing that smart climate action is compatible with economic growth. There is also a company based in Norway called DNV, a certification company which is currently producing a report about what the main barriers and main opportunities to get leverage, in a business sense, from climate change.

We need to frame climate in the sense of business opportunities, for better health and as insurance for the future. If ever more players were pitching this, journalists would have an easier time breaking their habit of doom and gloom reporting. People have become numbed by these gloomy stories and then people revert to avoidance behaviors; they start automatically to avoid the topic and the messenger.

For about 15 years from 1990 to around 2005-06, the doom and gloom message was an easy sell for these newspapers and magazines. However after 2008, there was a strong reduction in media coverage of climate change. I believe this to be down to the overuse of the doom and gloom framing, an ‘apocalypse fatigue’. The media knew no other way to write about climate change. Due to this, climate coverage went down as climate scientists and communicators weren’t quick enough to come up with new framings. But now we know what actually works, such as the health benefits, seeing climate investment as insurance and the abundant business opportunities.

In your book you mention that there is this human behavior where people copy their ‘neighbors’ or peers. For example, in the research you mention that the most effective way of encouraging people to install solar panels, is not by telling people that having them is better for the environment. If they believe that everybody else are getting them, they want one too. Do you think this can be applied to businesses and organizations, who could encourage each other to take more measures against climate change?

This is using the power of social networks. There is both a psychological and an organizational level to that. On the psychological, individual level, for example, if your next door neighbor got an electric car, you would be more likely to follow and also get an electric car. These are what we call ‘social norms’. These are beliefs of what other people we care about would do in the same situation.

You can find some of the same social influence on the organizational and strategic level too. The world’s biggest corporations are following each other closely. Some research done by McKinsey along with WWF, gave three main reasons why companies were reluctant to go ‘green’. First of all there were capital constraints. If the opportunity came up to invest in something that would take measures against their impact on climate change but it cost millions of pounds, it would compete with other projects that management may see as more important for business.

Secondly, there is the barrier of management attention. It’s not top of their priorities. However, if they perceive that a company that is a competitor is moving into that domain and positioning themselves within the green area, then management turns around and start paying attention. That’s an organizational equivalent to the social norms effect we saw on an individual level.

The third barrier is lack of knowledge. Very few people in organizations are aware of the latest possibilities and the best available technologies in terms of resource and energy efficiency. Both education and competence development with management teams and breaking down these capital constraints will help change the speed at which these corporations turn around and face the issue of climate change.

What do you think incentivizes the world’s biggest companies to act on climate?

First it is concern for their brand, but they are also are looking to see how it could impact their future markets. It is interesting that in the 20th century, the biggest companies in the world were petroleum companies. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell etc. However this century, after the innovation of the internet, three of the four biggest companies in the world, measured by market capital, are now internet orientated companies – Google, Apple and Microsoft. These three are now competing with each other to become 100% renewable and gradually being able to manage the supply chain more efficiently. Brand recognition is important.

Secondly, it is now down to the cost that Google, Apple and Microsoft are getting solar and wind power. It is now commercially competitive with coal-powered electricity. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, if climate change accelerates, which it seems likely to be doing, companies will see their market growth rates suffer. They have also become very sensitive to disruptions to their supply chain. So say there is a flood in Thailand or a Japanese power system goes down, then they will not be able to bring their products to market as quickly and as efficiently as they need to.

Do you feel that steps are being made in the right direction? Either in terms of government policy or society’s acceptance that something needs to be done or is a major shift still required?

I think we are in the middle of that major shift. To me, it is hugely significant that in 2014, the economy grew while CO2 emissions flat lined. China for instance, has been taking down its coal use by 10-11%. Also, we see how economics and economists have started to shift. I think we are in the middle of a huge transition toward a true green growth. There are lots of steps in the right direction but we still need to do a lot more, and quickly.

There are three main groups who must act together as a system: Businesses, governments and the public. The public needs to put more pressure on the politicians, the government needs to be more creative in their regulation and in the price mechanisms they use, and businesses need to be willing to take some risks and step up their investments in green technologies. Lots of companies are starting to turn it around such as Siemens, Ikea and Walmart. There are, however, typically just a few leading companies in each industry who are way ahead of the pack. Then there are too many laggards that are going about business as usual. This is why we need government to come in and regulate them, forcing them to introduce measures that other similar major organizations companies already are doing. In order to do that, governments need to feel supported by increasing pressure from the public in spite of the lobbyists for big business.

There is no silver bullet to climate change, but what do you think should be an urgent focus for business and government if they could collaborate effectively on one thing? 

I would ideally like to see one simplified and standardized reporting indicator on resource productivity relative to growth rates. The concept of green growth is often muddled. True green growth is a type of economic development where resource productivity grows substantially quicker than the rate of growth in the economy overall. What everyone wants is more value added, with less emissions and environmental degradation.

According to the IPCC, we need to at least halve our emissions from 2015 by 2050. That means -2% a year. On average, all economies grow by 3% per year. Thus, if all companies on average improved their ratio of greenhouse emissions to value added by 5% per year, then we would be on track. This is the single most important metric I know: If any company improves its carbon productivity by more than 5% per year then it’s part of the solution. If it is less than 5% it is part of the problem.

Achieving both profitable growth with an even stronger resource productivity simultaneously is very manageable. There are technologies in some sectors that can easily add 80% to resource efficiency per unit of value added. We just need to get businesses and governments to utilize these opportunities as soon as possible – and get public cred for doing it!

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by John Barrow

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