Reducing Climate Change by Making it Less Abstract

There is no longer any doubt: the world is getting warmer, and humans are partially to blame. Unless we make significant changes at both the individual and societal level in the coming years, the consequences could be catastrophic. However, such changes are inherently difficult to enact because they cut directly against human nature. Humans are naturally prone to making short-term decisions (for instance, taking the plane rather than the train) as opposed to pursuing longer-term collective interests. In other words, they often prefer benefits in the concrete “here and now” to those that occur in the abstract future. But how can this tendency be overcome? How can concrete outcomes—cash, time, comfort—compete with a threat as abstract as climate change?

The fundamental problem is that people experience abstract information differently than concrete information. Abstract information often leads to wondering and thinking, but no action. Concrete information tends to convey greater urgency, triggering the belief that “we need to act now.” Concrete information is also more likely to activate strong emotions such as joy, frustration, or empathy. We are happier with a bonus that we receive the next day than exactly the same bonus two months from now. And concrete experiences often trigger changes in our behavior. Seeing a small leak makes us renovate our house. Hearing a friend’s story about malaria may be enough to decide not to visit a tropical country. Small-but-concrete events can have powerful effects.

Although this fact of human psychology is a challenge in fighting global issues, it may also point towards a solution. For example, a story about an individual refugee will motivate people to help compared to when they are presented with arguably more worrying statistics about the numbers of refugees in general. A striking case in point was the 2015 photo of a Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach. At the time, the statistics on Syrian refuges were well known, but it was the picture of a single child that the sparked an outpouring of concern. It shows the power of empathy.

How can we tackle the abstract problem of climate change? One psychological solution derives from the realization that some collective outcomes, far from being abstract, actually do operate in the here and now. Concrete but otherwise rather trivial consequences may serve as a strong reminder of what is to come. A vivid case in point is a recent study in which harm to nature was framed in terms of the killing of crickets—yes, crickets, as a small and symbolic reminder of the nature we don’t think about. The study mimicked a classic “tragedy of the commons” type dilemma, in which the optimal strategy for any individual is to take more than their fair share of a limited resource. Participants were recruited in groups of six and told they would play a game involving a common resource pool which contained 3000 “points” redeemable for a small sum of money. In each round of the game, participants could take up to 30 points for themselves (anonymously). The catch was that if they took too many points, the resource pool would become depleted and the game would end prematurely, meaning less for everyone.

There was one key difference with classic research on this so-called social dilemma task.  Rather than depicting it only as an economic dilemma, half of the participants were told that their decisions to use the resource had immediate implications for the lives of crickets—with overuse having the potential to trigger the crushing of crickets. Rather than only modelling how people make decisions when they are solely focused on what they, or other players, might personally get from a resource, we also included a vivid but symbolic reminder of the harm done to the resource itself. In this version of the game, participants received sporadic feedback that the pool was becoming depleted. While half of them had been informed that this would have immediate implications for the lives of the crickets, the other half were not aware of the crickets, and were simply informed about the economics of the game (as is usually the case in this task) .  

The findings were clear. Many of participants witnessing the crickets were more likely to make sustainable choices—and did so consistently over repeated occasions. Perhaps witnessing the cutting of trees, or the fearful responses by many mammals, may help people make more sustainable choices. The message from this research is that sometimes if people have access to some concrete consequences—for example, if the cutting of rain forest implies the crushing of animals, even insects—people may become less focused on immediate economic gain for themselves.  

Rather than providing abstract information regarding climate change, governments who seek to reduce climate change may consider highlighting the harm to nature in more concrete ways. For example, rather than statistics about the depleting of natural rain forest, movies that depict the harm done to particular animals, and perhaps even special trees or plants, may help. Or public information campaigns might illustrate equally concrete, but perhaps less well-known, consequences of climate change such as the suicides linked with heat waves.

Another way to change people’s climate behavior concerns changing the way they think about the future. One way to do this might be to emphasize the people of who will have to deal with effects of our bad behavior. So far, there has not been much research on this topic. But in the past months, in some countries it has been the children themselves who organized strikes at school, demonstrating against climate change. And interestingly, in many places around the world, grandparents have started to demonstrate against climate change as well, in an attempt to safeguard a bright future for their grandchildren.

Indeed, the combination of “young and vulnerable” is especially strong in energizing empathy—for example, the suffering of one young puppy can enhance empathy, sometimes even more than the suffering of other human beings.  These tendencies are even stronger if it concerns the young and vulnerable that share our genes: our children. Kinship is indeed the first answer to why people tend to be helpful and cooperate with one another. Why not include children in public education campaigns for increasing awareness of climate change? Children serve the cue of vulnerability and trigger the need of care and protection. People who are encouraged to take the perspective of “their son” or “their daughter” are likely to be more mindful of the future.

Although humans have evolved the capacity to consider the longer-term implications of their actions, we have more trouble with this when the issue is abstract, or the consequences seem to be far in the future. Our research suggests that we need to find ways to extend self-interest, not only forward to future generations, but also outward to include other species or ecosystems.



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