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A Lesson from London: Should we force people to be Green?

For all the environmental activists out there who dream about forcing people to change their behavior this was the talk for you. Dr. Ockwell, from the University of Sussex, has studied what approaches have been effective for changing people’s behavior towards the environment. England has tried a verity of tactics from grass roots strategies to major ad campaigns, to straight regulation. The answer for what has been the most effective…well that is a little complicated…

The UK launched a very expensive ad campaign with the slogan “Are you doing you bit? The ad was featured on prime-time television and emphasized making small behavior changes, like filling the tea pot with less water, and turning off the lights – the scene panned out from one apartment to a block, etc. While it has educated people (only 1% of people have not heard about climate change) only a minority of people have changed their behavior.

Why have people not changed their behavior? Well that is even more complex. In the UK 52% of people don’t see climate change as something that will affect them. They see it as an issue removed in both time and place. Beyond that people have barriers to shift their behavior. There needs to be substitutes and sometimes substitutes are not readily available. There are also social status symbols, and a free rider effect. The Onion did a lovely article on this effect -- check it out: http://www.theonion.com/content/news/report_98_percent_of_u_s_commuters)http://www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/stpp/events.html#past

And then there is the government. The UK has pasted some environmentally related bills recently, both with different reactions. The past Mayor of London pasted a congestion charge – basically to drive into the center of London you will pay an additional tax. The bill was supported because people were eager to see less congestion in London. But when he proposed raising the tax even more, and turned the focus to the environment, it lost him an election. At the same time the UK has implemented a smoking ban, which received very little opposition. Why….probably because by the time the bill was passed people attitudes towards smoking and the public environmental heath had already shifted.

So the big problem we (and they) have is an election cycle problem. Politicians don’t want to loss their seats, but climate change can’t wait…the answer combined grassroots action with regulation. The job of an activist is to help facilitate public acceptance of regulation. Then balance information will a need for effective emotional engagement on these issues. So -- ok people start communicating effectively…we need to show people that Climate Change is happening locally to them…

And the next time you get discouraged about the pace of policy change just remember people are changing the behavior on their own. For example, people in the UK have started what they call walking buses, where a group of people walk past houses (like a bus drives) to pick up children in the neighborhood. And there are transitional towns that aim to reduce their carbon usage.

So what have you seen here, and what do you think needs to be done?
Dr. Ockwell’s presentation is also on our website at: http://www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/stpp/events.html#past

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
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