Behaviour, the pandemic, and climate change

Jun 13, 2021

Implementation of carbon reduction and other global warming-related policies will be an inordinately difficult challenge. The inability of governments to effect widespread, sustained behavioural change has been an outstanding feature of the past eighteen months of the pandemic. In preparation for the transition to a zero-carbon, climate-adapted future, the past assumptions underlying policy implementation need to be urgently reassessed.

Across most democracies, compliance with public health advice has been resisted. A refusal to wear masks, an insistence on public gatherings that ignore social distancing and vaccine resistance has been prominent. A multitude of epidemiologists, virologists and health officials have stressed the importance of compliance for saving lives, protecting health systems, easing lockdowns, restoring economies and the eventual defeat of the virus.

Some people were just prepared to accept the risks because of their age, others detected dark conspiracies behind government actions, and yet others responded adversely to mixed messaging and politicisation of the pandemic. Some, over time, just became fatigued with the duration of the pandemic restrictions and wanted to return to normal. However, there are social, psychological and cognitive issues underlying these responses.

The administration of public policy has been heavily influenced by economic theory and under rational choice theory it has been presumed individuals will act in their own best interests based on their limited options and available information. Nevertheless, in practice individuals frequently fail to act rationally and this has seen the emergence of behavioural economics, most famously through so-called ‘nudge’ techniques.

Behavioural economics relies on structuring the choices available in order to lead people towards particular outcomes, rather than increasing public information and creating markets. In contrast to rational choice theory’s emphasis on the agency of individuals, behavioural economics exhibits a degree of “libertarian paternalism” on the part of governments. Neither of these approaches has been wholly successful in making people to adopt behaviours that minimised the spread of COVID-19.

As a result, in the absence of the widespread inoculation with an effective vaccine, governments have been left with coercion through legislation, penalties, and policing. Border closures, travel bans, mandatory quarantine, lockdowns, and curfews were resorted to. Even as vaccinations became available many governments have had to resort to give-aways and lotteries to get people to participate. Admissions that standard approaches to modifying behaviour have been less than adequate.

Few academic activities have generated as many diagrams and tables as the problems of public policy design and implementation. And rightly so, as without effective implementation the setting of policy goals and objectives is a fruitless exercise. Some of the pandemic policy failure can be attributed to the hollowing out of public sector organisations, qualitatively and quantitatively, because of neoliberal preferences for market-based solutions, privatisation, deregulation, outsourcing, and austerity; all leading to smaller, less capable government. But that is not the complete answer.

The problems created by neoliberalism’s legacy could have been mitigated to a great extent by stricter adherence by the public to public health advice on behaviour change. There was sufficient expert advice available that mask wearing, social distancing, and some basic hygiene steps—common sense precautions—would alleviate the pressures on health systems, reduce transmission, and save lives. The grisly details of the impact of the virus—the painful deaths, long term health effects, and sudden tragedies for families was widely publicised. But still many people gathered at religious, political, and social-sporting events, and even protested in numbers over government attempts to enforce sensible protections.

Getting populations to change behaviours, accept expert advice, and put the public good ahead of personal considerations has been difficult. The scale of the pandemic was unprecedented in recent times as were the efforts to change public behaviour. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the most intellectually complex of problems; the virus was the cause and control of its transmission, until vaccines were available, was the solution. Even as more information on the virus became available the required behaviours remained mostly unchanged. If the public were unable to be persuaded in the pandemic, then the vastly more complex policy issues of zero carbon and adaptation present seemingly insurmountable tasks.

Countries all confronted different initial conditions in the pandemic which presented structural constraints, or religious, cultural, or political obstacles to changing public behaviour. However, the bottom line is that it has been beyond the capacity of governments to get large numbers of people to make obvious, science-based modifications of their behaviour. If this observation is translated into the challenge of getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050, with significant reductions by 2030, the implications are serious.

The behavioural changes necessary to bring about the transition to a zero carbon economy are far more complex, and bear on what people eat, how they work, how they travel, the recreations they pursue, and where they live. Strong resistance in various settings and situations is to be expected. Given the probability that the world will fail to hold warming below 2.0oC, or even 4.0oC, people may have to make even more dramatic changes to how they live and behave as life adapts to a warmer world.

The current effort is going into understanding the scale of the zero carbon transition—the transformation required in the industrial, energy, settlement, and agricultural sectors. This work amounts to identifying the policy problem and the policy outcomes. Implementation remains largely unaddressed. Sustainable behaviour change will be crucial to these outcomes as people adjust to working and living differently.

The pandemic experience has provided a window into the obstacles confronting policy makers in achieving the behavioural changes that will be instrumental bringing about the climate transition. The old paradigms of public policy, still taught to budding public servants, will not hold up in the coming uncertain environment. A coherent, multidisciplinary, focussed effort on planning for the implementation, situated in a well-funded government institution, is already long overdue.

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