Effective climate action requires more than just education, says Prof Pete Lunn

Behavioural science can deliver beyond ‘nudges’ in right direction

Education and providing the correct information to the public would be insufficient to prompt the scale of behavioural change required to address the climate crisis, according to Prof Pete Lunn of the ESRI.

He was responding to an experiment conducted by the ESRI which shows public support for climate action could be strengthened by just 10 minutes of exposure to basic science – the findings were outlined in a study published on Tuesday.

“While education might be a very important part of the answer, it’s going to take a lot more communication than education to do this; to solve the [climate] policy problem,” he added.

The challenge related to people’s perception of problems, where they are being asked to make sacrifices and, in particular, raised issues about adoption of technologies and how to support that process, he said.


Further complicating matters, “it also raises issues of fairness” when people are being asked to make fundamental changes in their lifestyle, and are “super conscious of what everybody else is doing”.

Behavioural science could deliver much more than “behavioural nudges”, as was confirmed by their study, he underlined. This was in a high-complex scenario where collective action is needed on many aspects of people’s lives, Prof Lunn added. It also necessitated intergenerational action over a long timescale, “where we are expressing solidarity with people yet to be born”.

He did not believe their findings were an indictment of the State’s failure to run effective public information campaigns on climate mitigation, though there was an implied criticism beyond the Government on the knowledge issue.

Their experiment illustrated how quizzes could engage people rather than them being lectured to, where they could face up to their own lack of information and insecurities arising from that.

While climate action was an incredibly difficult policy challenge, he said there were lessons from the research on engaging people with information, though different ways of connecting with them needed to be tested.

He believed “market mechanisms” had a role to play, rather carbon rationing, though he was sceptical about the effectiveness of pushing targets “down into sectors and down on people”.

While the effectiveness of providing reliable information was proven by the research, and there was a low level of climate denial among 1,000 participants, further research looking at the impact of "counter information" was warranted, said lead author Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI's behavioural research unit.

He confirmed women were found to be most concerned and most likely to change behaviour, though there was no differences on level of knowledge based on gender or age.

“The results show good understanding of some fundamentals of climate change among the public, but there is considerable scope for improving comprehension. In particular, the public struggle with relative influences, such as sectoral contributions to emissions and the relative impact of various behaviours that reduce emissions,” he added.

Dr Timmons confirmed there was least support for “high-impact actions” such as retrofitting houses, changing to a meat-free diet or abandoning car use.

“They rated environmentally harmful but low-impact actions, such as putting recyclable waste in the general waste bin, as more unacceptable for others to continue doing than harmful, high-impact ones, such continuing to drive a car or continuing to eat meat.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times