From global pandemic to global warming: lessons for behavioural scientists
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
We’ve all seen pictures of nature reclaiming our urban spaces in the past 12 months. Whether it’s rambunctious goats roaming the streets of Wales, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge, or deer grazing in front of the White house, these light-hearted snapshots have offered a welcome break from the otherwise impressively depressing news cycle. It hasn't all been good news. In the global south, for instance, reports of increased poaching in Tanzania and deforestation in the Amazon paint a significantly bleaker picture. Despite this, the story of Covid and climate change in the media has largely been one of much-needed reprieve.
Happily, the numbers support this claim. Research published in the last months of 2020 shows that the global response to COVID-19 has driven the largest fall in CO2 emissions since the Second World War, with a drop of 2.4 billion tonnes last year (a 7% decrease from 2019 levels) (1). This reduction was even greater in countries like France (15%) and the UK (13%), where lockdowns were harshest.
Obviously, the changes which led to this reduction aren’t sustainable, and any healing done to the environment has come at a great cost to quality of life. However, that doesn’t mean that things have to go back to the way they were once lockdowns are over. If we can learn from the pandemic, and apply these lessons to tackling climate change, we might be able to avoid going through similar crises in the future.
The links between Covid and climate change don’t stop, or even start, at the environmental benefits of lockdown.
In fact, Covid and climate change share a number of the same root causes. The climate emergency, and COVID-19 both represent massive collective action problems, and both were born of human activity which has led to environmental damage. Some researchers have even gone so far as to claim that climate change played a key role in the origins of the coronavirus pandemic (2). They argue that climate changes such as increasing temperature, sunlight and carbon dioxide levels have shifted the makeup of vegetation in southern China, turning the area into a global hotspot for bat species which might have led to the conditions needed for COVID-19, and future similar viruses, to evolve.
While a direct link between climate change and COVID-19 is yet to be established, it’s true that zoonotic diseases such as coronaviruses are likely to become more and more common as climate change, and human encroachment into wildlife habitats, continues.
So, as if we needed more motivation, it now seem that any step we take towards tackling climate change may also go a long way towards preventing another year spent staring longingly out of windows...
Unfortunately for us, the lockdown gains seem short-lived…
Once the last lockdown eased in Britain, traffic surged back onto the roads, and air pollution followed swiftly behind it. In a survey of 49 British towns and cities, 80% reported contamination levels that were the same or worse than before the pandemic, and China has rebounded so significantly from its lockdown that their emissions may actually exceed the 2019 totals! The latest wave of national lockdowns has given us a second chance at an exit strategy, but governments and individuals both need to do more to make sure that we can maintain environmental momentum as we head towards a (hopefully) more permanent escape from lockdown.
Many scientists are urging governments to soften the uptick in carbon by using economic stimulus packages to invest in “green” rather than “brown” industries. These green investments could work either by providing funding to businesses on the condition that they commit to behaving more sustainably, or by investing directly in green infrastructure, education and training, natural capital investment, or clean research and development (3).
Green investments offer one pathway to an environmentally friendly escape from lockdown, but as behavioural scientists we should consider exploring other avenues for change. The national lockdowns have provided us with two huge opportunities. First, they’ve generated a near universal moment of “habit discontinuity” – a time of transition in which old habits are disrupted, and new habits become easier to form. Research has already suggested that these transition periods can help people adopt new, more sustainable habits, and the changes wrought by COVID-19 provide us with the opportunity to alter all kinds of behaviours, from travel to shopping and energy choices (4).
Second, the coronavirus pandemic has given behavioural scientists the opportunity to observe a tragic, inadvertent natural experiment, which might reveal important information about the processes required for large- scale behaviour change. By looking at the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and climate change, behavioural scientists might be able to leverage the moment of habit discontinuity offered by lockdown to avoid future catastrophes.
Climate change and Covid inaction are both driven by the same cognitive biases, and understanding the way that these biases affected behaviour during the pandemic may be the key to achieving a different, more positive outcome when it comes to climate change.
Failure to understand non-linear trends
Both Covid and climate change are “high momentum trends”, which means that they progress in a way which is difficult for humans to grasp (5). The long incubation period, prevalence of asymptomatic individuals, and exponential growth of cases during the pandemic all meant that people underestimated the danger posed by coronavirus in its early stages, a mistake which delayed governmental responses to the outbreak (6). Climate change has a similarly complex but even slower progression, which means that by the time most humans consider climate change a threat, it may already be too late to be stopped.
When threats are considered distant, many people are reluctant to act until it’s too late, even if the consequences of inaction would be dire. This myopia, otherwise known as “present orientation”, occurs when people heavily discount the benefits of reducing future risks, and overweight the costs of acting in the present. Environmental psychologists have long been aware of the dangers posed by present orientation, and it seems that this cognitive bias may have played a similarly important role in delaying the international response to coronavirus.
Even if people consider climate change or coronavirus a threat in general, very few consider them a direct threat to their way of life. When people are uncertain about how to respond to a threat, they tend to rely on certain heuristics to help them make a decision. In assessing the probability of a pandemic in their region, humans tend to rely on their past experiences and determine the probability by the ease with which similar past events come to mind. This is known as the availability heuristic (7), and it likely caused people to underestimate COVID-19 in countries which hadn’t recently experienced the effects of a pandemic (8). Similarly, studies have found that people’s concern about climate change and their willingness to adopt mitigation measures, are positively related to experiences of climate change-related risks, such as floods (9).
Most people have a “finite pool of worry”, which means that they can only worry about so many things at once. This causes many people to rely on “threshold models” to decide whether they want to take protective measures in advance of a potential catastrophes (8). If they feel that the probability of a disaster occurring is sufficiently low, they’ll cast it from their minds and focus on more “pressing” issues instead. Many climate change-related risks, such as natural disasters, fall afoul of these threshold effects, and the same biases seem to affect behaviour during pandemics. People frequently downplay the probability of a pandemic until it occurs in their vicinity (10), which is when they finally start wearing masks (11).
Finally, when people aren’t sure what to do, they often rely on the perceived “wisdom of the crowd”. Whether people follow the crowd because they think that the group knows best, or because they want to avoid being judged for falling out of line, social conformity can be a powerful driver of behaviour change. Indeed, while government regulations obviously played a role in compliance with COVID-19 regulations, conformity also seems to have been a powerful driver of behaviours like social distancing and wearing a mask (8). Unfortunately, here we see a difference between Covid and climate change. While many countries quickly reached a social consensus condemning reckless behaviour during the pandemic, the threshold for sustainable behaviours to become the norm still hasn’t been reached.
This hits on a key problem with the comparison between coronavirus and climate change. In the case of coronavirus, we didn’t overcome these biases, circumstances simply changed so that they no longer motivated inaction. Once we started to feel the effects of COVID-19 closer to home, both the effects of myopia and the availability heuristic worked in the opposite direction, the pandemic passed our worry threshold, and effective policy action became feasible. In the case of climate change, we won’t have that luxury. By the time we have readily available examples of natural disasters or immediate health risks, it will be far too late to act.
What coronavirus did do for us was provide further confirmation that these biases are important drivers of widespread behaviour change. If we can design our intervention strategies to work with these biases, rather than against them, we may be able to change people’s behaviour before it’s too late.
If we want to overcome people’s myopia, we could attempt to make the risks of climate change seem more immediate, perhaps by linking climate policies to similar policies which are currently being used to combat the pandemic (8). We might also try using an approach inspired by “attribution science” to make the consequences of climate change seem less distant and more easily available to recall. Organisations such as World Weather Attribution are already using this technique, providing timely analysis in the wake of extreme weather events to demonstrate the role which climate change plays in causing such natural disasters. We should also try and personalise our campaigns to show people that climate change is affecting them already. Campaigns using these techniques have already found success, for example, through targeting information about climate change to people who have personally experienced flooding caused by hurricanes (12).
As we saw with COVID-19, an alternative way to help people overcome these biases is to change the context so that said biases no longer motivate inaction. While we can’t really change the context when it comes to the myopia and availability biases (it would probably be unethical to start using a doomsday device to spawn natural disasters around the world), we might be able to change the social context enough to create new, greener social influences on people’s behaviour. In fact, we’re actually heading in that direction already. More than 1 in 3 people in the UK are already trying to shop more sustainably, and current trends predict that number will have moved up to 1 in 2 people by 2025. If we can draw attention to this rapidly growing dynamic social norm, we may be able to reach a greener consensus without too much effort. Nevertheless, we still might want to speed the process a long a little. We might try using well- connected gossips to spread the good word (13), or perhaps giving green number plates to people with environmentally friendly cars to make the new social norm more visually evident (14).
There may be one final avenue to helping people overcome their cognitive biases. While it’s easy for us behavioural scientists to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on nudges, we shouldn’t always assume that they offer the only way forward. Gerd Gigerenzer is one of the principal proponents of education as an alternative to nudging, and his research has demonstrated that many of the most infamous cognitive biases, such as failure to understand Bayesian frequencies, can be overcome through training (15). We shouldn’t be too quick to assume that these unhelpful cognitive biases are fixed or unfixable. Perhaps, the right education program could allow people to overcome their cognitive biases and release themselves from the shackles of indecision. An approach such as this would likely be more labour intensive than other solutions, but it also might well generate a more robust change in people’s behaviour. If given the proper tools and motivation, people can defend themselves against their cognitive biases even when behavioural scientists cannot.
The ideas proposed in this article do not address all (or even most) of the structural and psychological barriers which stand in the way of sustainable behaviour change. What they do offer us, however, are three good places to start when designing interventions. Whether by changing our messaging to work with people’s biases, changing the context so that people’s biases work for us, or helping people to change their own biases, intervention efforts informed by the global struggle against COVID-19 will be vital if we want to make the most of the opportunities offered by the global transition out of lockdown.
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