cigarettes ronnieb morguefileThere are breakthrough moments along the way, laws enacted and whatnot, but big cultural shifts often happen incrementally, slowly enough that they seep into mainstream attitudes rather than changing them overnight. Looking back over the recent past, it’s clear that attitudes and behaviors that may have once seemed radical or impossible have become perfectly natural to us in a few decades’ time. Take our attitudes about smoking, seat belt use, and recycling. They’ve become second nature for us.

And these are among ten major, historical behavioral changes being studied at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratories to help understand how people might inch toward new attitudes about global warming—and in particular, energy conservation in their own lives. The study has been commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state reach its “climate challenge” goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

Here’s a snapshot of the project and the reasoning behind a focused look at behavior change (as reported in Scientific American):

For starters, [LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery] Greenblatt is examining the full mix of technical advances in both the supply and demand of energy that could possibly help meet the target, including more efficient electric motors, better insulation, intelligent controls for energy, as well as fluorescent and LED lighting. But even all of these technological advances may not get California to its mid-century mandate alone.

Individual choices could close the gap, according to historical data. Because smoking cessation data and seat belt—use statistics have around for decades, scientists have a good grasp on so-called adoption rates, or how much behavior change is ultimately possible. Historical data also explains how long it takes for change to stick. For example, tobacco smoking has been in a steady decline since the 1960s with all sorts of factors driving this trend—improved science and epidemiology, education through labeling and advertising campaigns, and greater public awareness of risks—all of which could be applied to behaviors that contribute to climate change.

So, what do we learn from seat belts, cigarettes, recycling and other major, culture-wide attitude and behavior shifts that we can apply to energy conservation to fight climate change? The results of the study aren’t out yet. But to me it seems clear that no one factor worked alone to bring about cultural change on any of these issues.

Take smoking as an example. Many reading these words are old enough to remember a time when people smoked everywhere—work, the grocery store, and movie theaters—but today, smoking is something most often done on a corner or in an alley. What happened? Science got stronger and clearer in its indictment of cigarette smoke as the cause of many serious diseases and other problems like fires, and that helped spur shifts in social norms, systems, and policies.

In turn, brave officials began passing local legislation to limit smoking. As those policy changes took hold, systems adapted, and norms followed. Today, if someone lit up a cigarette in a movie theater people would be outraged and would likely gang up on the smoker, demanding him to put it out (norms); they’d tell the management (systems); and ultimately, if they had to, they could call the cops (policy).

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The smoking shift is an example of how policy can influence norms, and as norms change they start to shift policy. Real, deep cultural shifts happen on all three fronts at once. When big policy changes fail—think cap and trade legislation—then work can continue to try to shift social norms or to encourage systems to change that pave the way for new behaviors.

As people got used to clean air in one part of their lives they naturally wanted it in other places. As cost savings are realized, good jobs are created, or barriers removed to energy conservation—systems changes—energy reform policies would start to seem like the natural thing to do. So they’d support policy makers who proposed to make that happen.

One obvious problem is that people seem to resist change. And if you’ve been paying any attention to attitudes and behaviors that could curb global warming, it may seem that needed changes in behavior will never come. But, ecologist and sociologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University is optimistic. “I often hear energy experts who have never studied behavior say that behavior doesn’t change,” Dietz told the Scientific American. “But if we learn anything from the last 50 years, it’s that behavior changes in huge ways.”

Fifty years!? This kind of shift may seem painfully slow. It was 1950, after all, when cigarettes were first linked to lung cancer. But, consider the moral dimension to these attitude shifts: most of us—large, small; shy or brave—are totally comfortable conducting what amount to citizens’ arrests when we get a whiff of cigarette smoke in an unauthorized location. Similarly, we stake our very identities on our feats of recycling. We look down our noses at neighbors, friends, or relatives who’d dare to toss number 2 plastics into the landfill.

What we tend to forget are the systems and policies that stand behind our sense of moral superiority in these situations (and the years of public education that got us to that place). The recycle bin didn’t just magically appear on the back porch, after all. Smoking in restaurants didn’t simply go out of fashion on its own.

One day we make wake up and find that energy conservation measures are second nature, that we see them as the perfectly natural and moral thing to do, and that climate attitudes have become the norm. The question is: what are the systems and policy solutions that will nudge us in that direction? What’s the recycle bin of energy conservation?

Hopefully the results of this study will give us some clues.

Thanks to my colleague Roger Valdez for input on this. Read his post on norms, systems, and policies and the Sustainability Gap.

Image courtesy of ronnieb on MorgueFile.