Faux polar bearAs we wait for Congress to resume work on climate change and energy legislation, psychologists and sociologists are trying to figure out how to inspire action at the local and individual levels.

An article in a recent issue of Nature helps explain why Seattle is a leader in fighting global warming, despite the fact that from a strictly “rational-choice perspective” doing so provides little real benefit to the city.  (Those benefits apparently didn’t include reelection—a fact that  soon-to-be-former Mayor Greg Nickels probably regrets.)

Researchers at Colorado State University wanted to know if there was “a mathematical logic behind an area’s response to climate change.” They chose 150 US localities (county governments, metro areas, or agglomerations) and examined three factors:

  • Risk level from climate change (temp change over past 100 years, proximity to the coast, history of hurricanes, floods, or droughts)
  • Amount of greenhouse gas emissions being released
  • Political bent (R or D)

Here’s what they found.

  • Cities that produce lower carbon emissions and have the most at risk are most likely to take action to cut their pollution. Seattle is a poster child of this position: the politically-liberal city mostly uses clean energy from hydropower and works hard to increase energy efficiency; while its water supply is threatened by shrinking snow packs and its shorelines at risk from rising tides. 

    The upshot here is that there are “‘hotspot clusters’—regions with similar risk and stress profiles—which policymakers can consider together when recommending plans of action.” Seems like a pretty good rationale for regional climate pacts, such as the Western Climate Initiative.

    So community action (or inaction) can be largely explained by risk, emissions, and political orientation.  But what about individual action, or lack of action? An American Psychological Association task force tackled the question and this month released a 230-page assessment. It has a lot of “hmm, I think I knew that already” moments, but it’s helpful nonetheless—particularly in understanding the biggest needs for future research:

    • Reducing the perceived social and fianancial risk from changing our behavior to reduce emissions
    • Improving public trust in government and science
    • Framing behavior changes in more positive terms, as personal or societal gain

    New Scientist this week took an entertaining stab at compiling strategies to get people to take action. They include educating people about their peers’ good deeds to motivate their own positive actions (which I covered in this blog post), and the role of social networks, such as Facebook.

    What might that look like? Say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh:

    “the attachment that people can develop towards Tamagotchi virtual pets, is testing the persuasive power of a “virtual polar bear” standing on an ice floe that grows bigger as people adopt environmentally friendly behaviours such as taking shorter showers. Initial results suggest the polar bear has pull.”

    Bear photo courtesy of Flickr user Step It Up 2007under a Creative Commons license.