Motivating Climate Action with Stories, Ethics, Faith and Fun

This year marked my third trip to the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference in Sacramento, CA. I continue to be impressed with the scope of topics that are covered at the event and the level of expertise exhibited by the participants.  BECC gathers individuals across a range of disciplines, from social and natural scientists to program implementers, with the goal of facilitating collaboration across sectors and sharing the latest thinking on behavior change programs and technology, energy and climate policy, and communication strategies.

With concurrent sessions on each day of the conference, I came away feeling as though I only scratched the surface of the vast amount of information available. However, as I think back on the intriguing presentations I attended and interesting conversations I had, I'm struck by the continued resonance of four key methods for motivating action on climate change:

Storytelling for change
On the first afternoon of the conference I attended a thought-provoking presentation on "storytelling for change" where Erica Priggin, executive producer at Free Range Studios, offered advice on how groups can tell powerful stories to engage the public, rise above the din of media saturation, and move people to action. From a memorable marketing video to a fairytale that has endured across cultures and generations, Erica outlined the four tenets of powerful story structure: a hero, key information, the underlying moral, and an appeal to our higher values. She also shared "Winning the Story Wars - The Hero's Journey", a video produced by Free Range Studios that illustrates how we can apply the time-tested techniques of oral storytelling traditions in the digital era.
My "ah-ha" moment from Erica's presentation was her observation that organizations often cast themselves as the hero of their own story and that for a message to motivate change, the true hero has to be your audience. Instead of focusing on your organization's own methods and processes, put your audience front and center. Tell a story that incorporates the four storytelling tenets: show how great your audience can be, give them the information they need, explain the morality behind why the change is required, and appeal to their core values.
Our ethical obligation
With behavior change as a central topic of the conference, the BECC schedule includes a number of sessions on the technical mechanisms behind motivating and measuring home energy behaviors. Since I spend most of my time immersed in the world of communications and public opinion, I enjoy the opportunity to broaden my understanding of consumer energy behavior. I also find myself seeking out the sessions that speak to my affection for the social science side of the issue. I was happy to hear a talk by Max Wei of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (and Climate Access member) that looked at behavior change from a historical and ethical perspective.
Max's presentation, titled "Confucius, Keynes and Christ: Is There a Larger Role for Ethics in Driving Climate-Friendly Behavior Change?" investigated the idea of whether we have an ethical obligation to move away from a consumption-based culture in order to preserve the natural environment for future generations. He explored cross-cultural secular and faith-based teachings, from Christianity to Western and Confucian philosophy, to examine how ethical arguments can drive behavior change, particularly as they relate to energy consumption and climate change. I'm intrigued by his question of whether a modern "conservation ethic" can motivate the shifts that are required – from changes in infrastructure and lifestyle to risk assessment – to achieve a low-carbon society.
Faith-based networks
It seemed fortuitous that thoughts about ethical obligations were still fresh in my mind as I walked into a session on engaging faith-based groups in climate action. Dina Biscotti (UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center) presented findings from her research on Interfaith Power & Light and Greenfaith, two influential national organizations in the growing faith-based environmental movement that spans the Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions. These organizations are helping congregations adopt energy-saving behaviors and mobilizing political action to address climate change.  Dina's research found that Interfaith Power & Light and Greenfaith foster "conditional cooperation," whereby individuals adopt pro-social behaviors based on the knowledge that others in their communities are also engaged in similar behaviors. In this way, climate change moves from feeling like an overwhelming problem to a practical challenge that is being addressed in collaboration with other members of the community.
Susan Stephenson, executive director of The Regeneration Project and its Interfaith Power & Light campaign, also participated in the panel and described the importance of values to motivate communal action. While behavior change can be a quasi-taboo subject for some groups, she asserted that the faith community is not afraid to talk about concepts such as sacrifice and guilt (which received a knowing chuckle from the audience). Interfaith Power & Light is addressing climate change from a moral perspective by promoting energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy through a lens of stewardship for God's creation. Susan described how they are not only reducing the carbon footprints of congregations across the country, but also engaging the faith community as advocates for strong climate policies.
Making energy efficiency fun
Gamification is always a popular topic at BECC. This year's schedule included multiple gamification panels and the one I attended necessitated additional chairs being squeezed into the room as the speakers began. Clearly it's a hot topic. In the world of household energy behavior, "gamification" refers to the design of game-like experiences to encourage energy-efficient behaviors and reduce energy consumption. These game mechanisms are used as tools to educate consumers and encourage behavior changes through gaming-related mechanisms such as achieving points and status. They also typically include a social component for players to share their achievements with (and hopefully inspire) others in their network.
James Scarborough (Stanford University) presented his research on how multiplayer computer games can improve home energy behavior. Using the online game Power House as a model, James described how gaming mechanisms, like feedback and rewards, can increase knowledge and promote real-world behavior change. Power House users can view their home energy data, earn badges and virtual currency, and compete in challenges with other players. The game is also a research tool for collecting data about energy consumption goals and actual behavior.
I believe that stories, ethics, faith, and fun are each vital means for motivating action on climate change. (I also recognize that these approaches are not necessarily appropriate for every organization. For some groups, talking about faith and ethics may come more naturally than others. What's more important is choosing the tactics that fit with your mission and target audience.) Storytelling is a way to connect with your constituents on a deeper level and show them that they're the most important part of your work. By conveying the ethical obligations we have to future generations, groups can engage in a conversation about the large-scale societal changes that are required to reduce climate impacts. Employing a moral perspective can also help individuals come together to tackle climate change with the support of their community. And finally, when your goal is to educate the public and motivate climate-friendly behavior, don't forget to make it fun.