Emotions, Stories, and…Compost

Emotions, Stories, and…Compost

As I arrived at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference’s opening plenary for my fifth year, I was struck by how many familiar faces I saw in the sea of round conference tables – as well as how much attendance has grown! BECC has become a vibrant community of scientists, practitioners and policymakers sharing the latest thinking and practice in the fields of human behavior, social psychology and communications as they relate to energy and climate change.

After five years, there was still so much to learn. The conference agenda was packed with fascinating sessions that delved into how individuals and institutions are motivated to shift behaviors and participate in new technologies, programs, and policies that support energy and climate solutions. Here are some of the highlights:

Climate change is an emotional issue

George Loewenstein, Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, gave the keynote address on “Too Little Heat about Too Much Heat: Behavioral Economics, Emotion, and Climate Change”. He asserted that with the exception of political partisanship, climate change hasn’t evoked emotions commensurate with the severity of the threat that it poses. Loewenstein outlined six thought-provoking factors that keep individuals from connecting with the issue on an emotional level:

  1. Climate change feels temporally remote, which decreases one’s sense of risk
  2. Consequences are intangible and impacts often feel uncertain
  3. Lack of identifiable victims (i.e. stories about specific people are more motivating than statistics)
  4. Motivated information avoidance (i.e. we’re good at not seeing what we don’t want to see)
  5. Individuals are less emotional about gradual changes than sudden shifts
  6. Without a well-defined end-point, progress on the issue is hard to measure

Telling stories with technology

Loewenstein emphasized storytelling as an important tool for illustrating how climate change is affecting communities (and moving away from our dependence on statistics). These stories enable people to connect with one another on an emotional level and convey how climate change is already impacting communities around the world in significant ways.

Another session I attended showcased examples of how organizations are employing a storytelling approach through the use of technology. Beth Karlin, from the University of California, Irvine, is taking an interdisciplinary approach to leveraging technology for resilience. Her project, FloodRISE, works with decision-makers and residents in Southern California to prepare for flooding events exacerbated by sea-level rise and climate change. Through household surveys, FloodRISE team members hear directly from residents – many of whom have lived in these areas for decades – about their perceptions of flood risks and attitudes toward potential responses in order to develop communication and preparation strategies that are tailored to local needs. 

Community Based Social Marketing success

Given that the obstacles to public engagement often feel numerous and complex, it’s always encouraging to hear a success story. At a session on marketing “in domains beyond energy”, Lindsey Maser from the City of Portland shared how Portland was able to reduce its residential garbage by nearly 40 per cent while increasing compost three-fold.

Maser’s experience serves as a case study of successful Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM), which is a set of tools developed by Doug McKenzie-Mohr. CBSM is based on the idea that initiatives that seek to shift behavior are most effective at the community level, in direct contact with community members themselves. The City of Portland followed this concept by connecting with residents through surveys and focus groups that identified barriers and benefits of the new composting effort, and developing a pilot to learn which messages were most resonant amongst a subset of residents before launching the full program.

Climate Access presents its work

This year, I was excited to share Climate Access’ own learnings on climate engagement alongside ecoAmerica’s Meighen Speiser and Environmental Defense Fund’s Jorge Madrid. I presented recommendations and examples of best practices on how climate leaders can convey that low-carbon solutions are both achievable and beneficial. The guidance is based on our recent work analyzing public option trends and developing framing guidance for the Tar Sands Solutions Network and the RE-AMP Network on shifting the climate conversation toward a solutions narrative.

At the end of each BECC conference, I come away with a new perspective on the challenges climate communicators face and innovative ways for overcoming these barriers. The City of Portland’s message testing, for example, found that residents were much more motivated to compost in order to “put food waste to good use” than “reducing methane from landfills,” which points to the idea that there is still more work to be done to increase the public’s understanding and concern about climate change. Connecting with individual’s emotions is a crucial component for all communicators to remember when developing a communications strategy. By telling stories of not only those who are affected by the impacts of climate change, but also those who are developing and benefiting from solutions, we can bring an issue that can often feels complex and remote closer to home.

image of #BECC2014 tweets via tinlizzieridesagain.wordpress.com