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Tackling Climate Change in Non-WEIRD Nations

Behavior change strategies should be derived from research across the globe.

Key points

  • Climate change is the defining global challenge of our time, disproportionately impacting the non-Western world.
  • Current global behavior change strategies are based on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations, such as the U.S.
  • True global change can only occur if non-WEIRD populations are also included in research efforts.
  • Inclusive research and strategies targeted at specific groups and nations can help more effectively fight climate change on a global scale.

The planet’s climate has been changing rapidly over the past several decades. Impacts of this change are being felt all around the world, albeit to different degrees, across geographical terrains and by varied communities. According to a report by the Center for Behavior and the Environment, this makes climate change the defining global challenge of our time, disproportionately impacting the non-western world.

Mitigating the effect of climate change through rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions requires a global effort and the transformation of economies and systems of production and consumption. Although governmental organizations and multinational corporations must play their part in the movement to limit global temperature changes, individuals and their collective choices can create decisive change.

The mammoth task in front of behavioral scientists is to innovatively learn from, engage with, and motivate individuals to make the necessary lifestyle changes. Changing behavior requires deep investigations to understand the motivations, history, values, and culture of a population and to design solutions that appeal to said population.

However, a majority of behavioral research on climate change has been conducted in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) population demographics. The findings from these studies are effective in elucidating the motivations of WEIRD populations but disregard the cultural, social, affective, and cognitive differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD peoples. This means that a majority of our climate change solutions may not apply to the non-WEIRD world and are not being effectively communicated to the non-WEIRD world.

Mika Baumeister/Unsplash
Efforts to mitigate climate change should be based on local values and beliefs
Source: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Ultimately, we are trying to solve a global issue that disproportionately impacts 85 percent of the population by implementing solutions that apply to just (approximately) 15 percent of the population of the world. True global improvements can only be realized if we draw focus towards non-WEIRD nations—understanding, studying, and communicating problems and solutions.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge recently published a paper presenting case studies that depict how western climate change solutions cannot be generalized to the non-western world.

Example 1: Czech Republic

Problem : Although a majority of Czech citizens believe that climate change exists, most do not feel morally responsible for climate change and do not think their individual actions can mitigate climate change. They believe it is the responsibility of the government to solve this issue.

Solution : After studying the culture of this non-WEIRD nation, researchers found that Czechs hold strong values of protecting and appreciating nature. Presenting climate change mitigation solutions as vital for the protection of nature would be an optimal strategy to prompt behavior change in the Czech Republic. Further, using local environment changes, such as frequent droughts, as examples of the impact of climate change could emphasize the urgency of action against climate change.

Example 2: India

Problem: The citizens of India, from major stakeholders to individuals, have consistently prioritized economic growth over climate change mitigation. The idea that the country is rapidly developing is a source of pride and hence, employment opportunities, poverty eradication, and education are more pressing issues. Climate change mitigation is seen as a problem that already developed countries should tackle.

Changing behaviour in India relies on understanding their local values
Jean Beller/Unsplash
Source: Changing behaviour in India relies on understanding their local values

Solution: Framing climate change mitigation as essential for meeting citizens’ desired economic goals would be an effective strategy in India. This can be achieved by emphasizing the ways in which climate change hampers economic development: reducing agricultural revenue, triggering natural disasters, and burdening the healthcare system.

Overall, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to most global issues. We live in a world that is diverse in terms of people, culture, beliefs, and values. Research that ignores this diversity and tries to generalize findings will never be able to achieve true worldwide change.

A paper by Steg and De Groot (2012) presents a more general framework based on values to address climate change. They found four types of values shown to be particularly important in communicating climate change:

  • biospheric values (caring about nature and environment protection)
  • altruistic values (focusing on the well-being of others)
  • egoistic values (safeguarding and promoting personal resources)
  • hedonic values (focusing on seeking pleasure and reducing effort)

Values are strong drivers of behavior. Therefore, framing climate change solutions by highlighting one of these values is most effective in motivating individuals.

Researchers Anandita Sabherwal and Ondřej Kácha from the University of Cambridge present the INCLUDE framework to effectively identify these values and communicate mechanisms of change. The steps are:

  1. Inclusive research: A diverse and nationally representative sample must be studied to under the values and cultural background of the population. This should allow the researchers to understand public concerns and vocabulary
  2. Design messages based on context-specific insights and evaluate the messages empirically.

Global behavior can only be changed if the global population is included in research efforts to tackle the problem.

This post was written by Riya Sirdeshmukh who recently obtained her bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Behavior from Vassar College, New York, and currently resides in Bangalore, India. Her interests lie in using neuroeconomic insights to develop evidence-based behavioral change strategies.

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