How to harness human behaviour for climate action

The UNSW Institute for Climate Risk & Response

UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response researchers explain how applying behavioural science can help drive climate action.

What motivates people to act on climate change? A team of researchers at the UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response say behavioural science is pivotal in effectively motivating the public to take meaningful action.

Dr Omid Ghasemi and PhD students Jaimie Lee, Sam Vigouroux, and Sophia Liang recently won the Commonwealth Bank Hackathon on Behavioural Science for Climate Action. Their pitch, “Honesty is the best policy: building client trust through transparency,” delivered a research proposal to assist customers in protecting their homes from increasing climate risks like floods and other extreme weather events.

The team was awarded $5000, which they’ll use to fund an experiment testing the importance of transparent communication that combines altruistic and financial motives to inspire public environmental action. The two-day event was organised by the Commonwealth Bank’s behavioural science team and aimed to brainstorm ways to enhance climate action among the bank’s clients.

“Our proposed intervention was both practical and deeply rooted in recent theories in behavioural science. Its simplicity makes it suitable for immediate testing, offering potential insights for organisations seeking to encourage specific actions related to climate resilience,” said Dr Ghasemi.

“We will continue to investigate building customer trust through transparency and honesty of bank motivations. Initially, we’ll conduct online experiments targeting medium-risk homeowners. If successful, we aim to extend this research to include the bank’s customers,” said Ms Lee.

How behavioural science can help drive climate action

The UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response researchers were tasked with a unique problem: increasing customer awareness of the potential climate risks related to their property.

Passionate about effectively communicating climate information, the team devised a strategy to communicate flood risk with maximum impact, which is the focus area of Dr Ghasemi’s existing research on property risk scores.

The team’s proposed solution was built on two critical behavioural science principles.

First, they drew from a study highlighting the importance of aligning communicated motives with customers’ expectations. For example, a bank with financial motives should emphasise transparency in financial interests alongside environmental (or more altruistic) concerns.

While it may seem counterintuitive, past evidence suggests people appreciate businesses that are honest about their financial priorities, which don’t necessarily detract from their more altruistic motivations (if they are transparent).

Ms Lee explained: “When institutions, like banks, engage in climate action, people have more trust when these institutions are transparent about their economic interests rather than if they were to only focus on communicating exaggerated environmental concerns.”

Second, the team employed an emerging behavioural science framework (choice architecture 2.0), showing that people often consider an organisation’s true motivations.

“For example, individuals may infer why someone would shape a message in a particular way or why a company selected a plan as the default,” explained PhD student Ms Lee.

“Applying this research, we proposed a strategy for the bank to communicate with customers about protecting their property from climate disasters, in which the bank acknowledges both their economic motives to enhance transparency and their altruistic motives to help customers navigate climate risks,” added Ms Lee.

Commenting on the team’s evidence-based intervention and winning pitch, Ben Newell, Professor of Behavioural Science in the School of Psychology at UNSW Sydney and Director of the UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response, said: “The team’s success illustrates how partnerships between academia and business ensure that up to date science and evidence are brought to bear on fundamentally important societal issues like climate risk.

“The experience is invaluable for the young researchers in the team and contributes to one of the ICRR’s key goals of creating the next generation of climate translators.”

Why honesty is the best policy when communicating climate risk information

By integrating insights from behavioural science into policy and communication strategies, the researchers said businesses can effectively engage the public and garner support for initiatives that address climate risks.

This is important because even well-intended and well-designed policies can fail to gain support if they are not seen as genuine. Dr Ghasemi explained that when this happens, policies can backfire and make people even more reluctant to act, which can stall progress.

He said: “Behavioural science equips us with the necessary tools to understand how decision-makers think and how different characteristics of a message can interact with the cognitive and personal characteristics of the audience. Years of research have provided us with tools and suggestions on effectively communicating information to the public to gain their support.”

The researchers will now conduct small-scale experiments targeting medium-risk homeowners online, aiming to effectively communicate climate risk and promote action.

Ms Lee said: “We are focusing on how a bank can effectively communicate risk information to customers so that they will follow the recommended actions (e.g., gutter cleaning and installing hardware flooring).

“We are accomplishing this by aligning participants’ expectations of a bank’s goals (i.e., economic) with the communicated reasons behind the policy. In other words, we are testing whether transparently stating the intention behind a message would increase trust and willingness to act.”

/Public Release.