Nudge and climate change – a reappraisal

The use of nudge theory’s influence in politics was highlighted in a 2008 book by the economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein. It was an open invitation to governments to employ ‘nudge’ units which would magically convince the population to do the ‘right thing’ and avoid problems such as legislation and community backlash.

The UK one, set up in 2002 under the then UK Coalition Government, was privatised and became the Behavioural Insights Team. Other governments used the strategies, but few created similar units. The blog found Australian Governments were not that enthusiastic about nudge theory and preferred ‘hard-hitting’ campaigns which were either ineffective or encouraged the target audience to engage in the behaviour they were supposed to be nudged away from.

Antialcohol advertising was often a prime example of this approach. An infamous Howard era anti-alcohol campaign featured drunken youngsters at a party. When the post campaign research was done it turned out the standard response from young people in the target audience was –“I wish I’d been at that party.”

Nudge theory was based on the 1974 work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which showed that people use heuristics – simple strategies – for making decisions and don’t always behave in a perfectly logical way. It challenged economists’ belief that people made rational choices and stimulated discussion of behavioural economics.

The work was popularised in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Now Kahneman has recently died, following Tversky, who died before the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics was awarded to Kahneman. It would have been shared if he had lived.

The enthusiasm with which the theories were accepted brought with it some problems which the blog discussed some years ago. Behavioural science and its complications | Noel Turnbull

The theory is also relevant to a phenomenon we see every day in politics – one analysed in Albert Hirschman’s 1991 book The Rhetoric of Reaction which was also discussed by the blog some time ago. The battle to frame perceptions of political parties | Noel Turnbull

The book identified three standard objections to any reform – perversity, futility and jeopardy. Perversity was an argument that a proposal would make the problem it was meant to solve worse; futility – it wouldn’t make any difference; and, jeopardy would endanger some other goal or value.

Cass R. Sunstein discussed, in an online article published by Cambridge University Press  (23/7/2022), how opponents of nudge theory – usually proponents of policy inaction –                                                                                                                                                                                                     whether it be about smoking, climate change or eating – use one or all of the Hirschman categories to oppose change.

But despite the opposition behavioural economics is still critically important as acknowledged in November 2022 when Nature Human Behaviour and Nature Climate Change published a series of articles Climate change and human behaviour | Nature Human Behaviour about climate change and human behaviour updating much of the material and work it had earlier published about complications in behavioural science. This time it emphasised that “Human behaviour is complex and multi-dimensional, making it difficult – but crucial to account for it in climate models” as acknowledged in the 2022 IPCC report.

Australian politicians should get someone to read the research and inform them that there is very much they could be doing to shape support for climate action if they were really inclined.

Among contributions are ones covering social justice in the Global South; the need for green nudges to facilitate the effectiveness of carbon taxes and increasing public acceptance of carbon taxes (that didn’t go well in Australia but nevertheless); the impact of civil disobedience by scientists; key lessons on how to help communities determine their own climate change adaptation strategies; decarbonising the global steel industry; designing climate change insurance; assigning rfespoonsbiouity for supply chain emissions;  a case study of the work of young Indian climate change activist Licypriya Kangujam; and, a toolkit for understanding and addressing climate scepticism.

This last one might need some further research on the Dutton tactic of trying to avoid not having a climate strategy by proposing a fairyland nuclear power strategy which, even if implemented, would be too late while stealing funding from more important priorities. Too little, too late, too expensive.

A formula sadly commonly followed in Australia procurement.

Other papers in the collection cover climate change and mental health; how to encourage effective pro-environmental behaviours (it takes more than rallies and demonstrations); carbon labelling; linking human behaviour research with Earth system modelling; and, in the US combatting the false social reality which underestimates popular climate policy support by nearly half.

There is also a paper on extreme weather events and how these raise environmental concerns and can promote Green party voting. In Australia, where the Greens can always be relied on to favour the perfect above the good and even do the seemingly impossible of opposing the perfect because they think it’s not perfect enough for them, may be an exception to what the research indicates.

There are also papers addressing how to incorporate human behaviour in Earth system modelling; the impact of Right-wing ideology on climate change beliefs; using targeted advertising to shift US Republicans views on climate change; the role of Greenland sand extraction on climate adaptation; and, the use of AI to coordinate large-scale text analysis of strategy documents to synthetise and simplify them; promoting the cost savings of renewable energy; analysing the impacts of rising costs on climate action; and, a major meta-analysis of the role of behavioural change in reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions in residential buildings.

The range is amazing – for instance looking at global patterns of daily carbon emission reductions in the first year of COVID-19. It’s not recommending we have regular pandemics but then if we don’t take action on climate change we may well be doing so.

More papers cover combined carbon and health taxes; how small dietary changes can improve human health and the environment; sustainable food systems; eco-conscious food choices and the impact on agricultural land use; why Californians give up on EV’s; incentives for electric vehicles; the impact of extreme weather on learning in schools; and, the impact of heat exposure on school performance in a sample from 58 countries and 12,000 US school districts.

Some strange anomalies also emerge. For instance, a paper using online and field experiments with homeowners in western USA finds that wildfire destruction (we call them bushfires) elicit negative emotions and – among those most at risk from wildfire  – reduces risk information seeking behaviour. In other word, the greater the risk the less likely respondents are to seek to mitigate it. It is difficult to believe there would be a similar finding in Australia – but who knows?

Research in 326 cities in nine countries across Latin America found that the changes in temperature have had a substantial impact on all-cause mortality. Small increases in extreme heat are associate with steep increases in mortality risk. Australia needs to be undertaking similar research now.

AI analysis of background conditions explain most variation in armed conflict risk worldwide. Temperature deviations and precipitation extremes also increase the risk of conflict onset and incidence. Whether this is a greater risk than being selected as evil by a US administration – or just being an inconvenience to companies or a convenient distraction from something or other – was not investigated.

But we also ought not ignore the role of the media. When wildfires spread through Europe and Antarctic Sea ice was historically low the UK Telegraph’s Allison Pearson said “net zero zealots are weapons in the heatwave to stop us going on holiday.”

Whose fault was it? Not decades of fossil fuel pollution – but manipulation from the Cabinet Office’s Nudge Unit now run by the Behavioural Insights Team.

Pearson wrote “it’s the same people who scared the pants off us during the pandemic are at it again.” Their sin – allegedly changing weather maps from pastoral colours to bright reds to terrify readers and further the climate change conspiracy objectives.

The Telegraph’s own weather page uses the same colour but it is understandable if even Telegraph journalists can’t bring themselves to look at anything in their rag.

The Nature feature and research was brought to the blog’s attention by John Spitzer.