Back in January, I introduced a post this way:

Shifting to sustainability will involve more than changing laws. Inevitably, it will involve changing behavior: the way people get around, where they live, what they eat, and so on. I was semi-obsessed with this topic for a while — see here, here, and here, for example — and I still think it gets far too little attention from climate wonks and activists.

I’m just going to steal that intro and reuse it (you know you’ve been blogging too long when …) because there’s an interesting article over at The Guardian from Steven Johnson, a sustainability author and consultant, about “costly, time-consuming lessons” on behavior change learned from decades of public health campaigns.

The parallels between climate and public health have long been a subject of interest among climate hawks. Johnson’s article does a great job of showing where those parallels can be helpful and where they break down.

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I won’t recapitulate all of his points. Some are quite familiar: Information without context and motivation is useless; market research and polls tell us very little about what people will actually do; messages based on shock and fear can get attention but rarely change behavior.

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Some others are worth emphasizing, as I don’t think they’ve penetrated as far into the collective climate consciousness.

One is this: Big bursts of inspiration do nothing to foster long-term behavior change.

One off, tactical interventions may trigger temporary, symbolic behaviours — give up X for a day; turning off Y for an hour etc — but sustainable change requires long-term strategic approaches based on robust behavioural theories and models of change.

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Climate communicators often seem to see their job as shocking people into awareness through some dramatic gesture or image — as though the rest will follow naturally from that. But symbolic gestures create the equivalent of sugar highs. They fade. Guiding people into new patterns of behavior (political as well as civic and consumer behavior) requires “clear, actionable steps, combined with practical support to implement them.” It takes a long-term, steady drumbeat with a relentlessly pragmatic focus.

The second point, which I can’t emphasize enough, is that internal attitudes are not the primary driver of most behaviors; context is. If you want to change what people do, it is not enough to make them believe something or feel something or express something to a pollster. You have to change their social and material context, the systems and structures in which they operate. Affordances shape actions. Changing social and material contexts means, among other things, changing public policy.

It’s really important to get that behavior change is not a substitute or an alternative to public policy; indeed, it’s often futile without supportive public policy. You can’t have zoning codes that encourage sprawl and expect people to bike around. The focus cannot be exclusively on individuals.

The third point is that big, broad media campaigns are relatively useless. Remember the We campaign? You probably don’t, which is the point. It’s a classic example of a broad media campaign driven by focus-grouped messages that sounded vaguely nice to everyone but moved almost no one. Worse yet, such campaigns may inadvertently exacerbate inequalities:

The long hard lesson that public health has learned is that one-size-fits all approaches to behaviour change, such as mass-media campaigns, run the risk of actually widening health inequalities. That is, they accelerate change among those who are already considering it or implementing it — almost invariably the whiter, better educated, and more affluent — while ignoring those who could benefit most from intervention.

Sound familiar? The alternative, Johnson says, is to “focus resources on sections of society that are most in need of intervention, rather than those that are easiest to engage” and “facilitate the development of more effective interventions, based on the real needs of real people.” Yup.

The last one, the most important one, is where the parallel breaks down. Public health advocates, Johnson says, used to believe that people would heed their advice because, well, health is really important! Unfortunately:

No it’s not. Work, money and family are important. The rudest of all awakenings for public health was the realisation that it’s not really that important to most people’s lives. Yes, people value “health” in the abstract, but especially when it comes to preventive health and lifestyle-related illness, it’s simply not proximate or relevant enough to influence day-to-day life.

This has led to the recognition that if we are to effectively drive behaviour change, we need to locate our issue within people’s existing value sets and priorities, rather than seek to extend their value sets to encompass our issue. In very basic terms, we make healthy eating about being able to play football with your son, rather than about preventing heart disease; we make being smoke-free about attracting the opposite sex, rather than preventing lung disease.

This approach makes tons of sense for public-health problems. And it’s something climate campaigners have been eager to emulate. But even after all these years, I just don’t see how it works. There’s been a huge push to make extreme weather the equivalent of illness or trauma, the portal through which climate interacts with ordinary people’s lives. But even given the most dire climate forecasts, extreme weather will directly affect a limited subset of Americans, and even them not that often. It’s difficult for me to see how extreme weather will ever rise on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to compete with more immediate concerns. (Though, y’know, I hope it works!)

Here we return, then, to the central dilemma of climate change: It is far away, abstract, rarely directly relevant to the American public’s well-being (yet). Its worst effects are distant in space and time; sacrifices made in its name will not pay dividends for many years. It is a truism that such problems rarely inspire sustained behavior change. And yet, and yet … I just don’t see how we’re going to tackle it at scale without “extending our value sets.”

That’s the rock-and-a-hard-place situation we’re stuck with. What’s your solution?