Thursday, 23 October 2014

From fact to act: Shifting individual behaviour on climate change

By Scott White and Catherine Leining, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research

Individuals can make a difference on climate change through their actions as citizens, consumers, organisational members and activists. In New Zealand’s context, how can we motivate more people to take the more effective types of mitigation actions? Why are some people willing to mitigate beyond their self-interest, while others fail to mitigate even when that should be in their self-interest? We will be exploring these issues in a series of posts on shifting New Zealanders’ behaviour to lower emissions.

The story of New Zealand’s increasing greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 is not just about increasing exports and population growth. According to one international study, from 1990 to 2010, New Zealanders’ personal consumption emissions per capita increased 21%, from 7.6 to 9.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (t CO2e) per year. This has occurred despite substantial increases in both the evidence base for human-induced climate change and media coverage of climate change science and impacts. Among individuals we can observe two clear disconnections that create significant barriers to effective action.

The first disconnection is between the facts and personal beliefs on climate change causes and outcomes. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms unequivocal warming of the atmosphere and ocean, and that humans are ‘extremely likely’ to be the dominant cause of change since the mid-20th century. However, an overwhelming scientific consensus substantiating climate change has not yet translated into a comparable public agreement.

Surveys of public views from industrialised countries such as Australia, Denmark, Great Britain and the United States, along with selective global surveys from AXA/Ipsos in 2012 and 2014, show that a significant (and in some cases increasing) minority still does not believe that climate change is both real and human induced. According to the Axa/Ipsos polling, Americans show a lower level of belief than most; this is problematic for global progress given the United States is the world’s second largest emitter and has a powerful international influence.

As in other countries, the New Zealand public shows clear disagreement around climate change beliefs. A 2012 Horizon Research poll found that 52.4% of New Zealanders see climate change as an urgent or immediate problem compared to 75.4% in 2008, a concerning trend. Even more worryingly, the number of New Zealanders who believe that climate change is not really a problem rose from 13% to 19%.

What is encouraging from Horizon’s survey, however, is that more than 60% of New Zealanders say the Prime Minister, Parliament, officials, businesses and citizens themselves should all be taking more action on climate change. Incentives to reduce agricultural emissions, develop wave and tidal power, and increase investment in alternative fuels all received strong majority support. This is great news for the development of green technologies and shows public willingness for actions that could also generate broader benefits for New Zealand.

However, at this point we hit the second disconnection, where a belief that action is needed does not translate into actual action.

It is clear that while many New Zealanders want action and have the capacity to make a difference on climate issues, we are not yet seeing a collective and effective response. One reason may be how individuals perceive their personal efficacy in taking action. They may view themselves as limited actors on climate change, bound by political, economic and environmental forces outside of their control. Instead of taking personal responsibility for action, they may be tempted to shift blame onto government, big business, and emitters in other countries. Another reason may be a lack of information, skills and financing to make effective changes. A third reason may be the ease of focusing on token actions that are more convenient and save money but have low impacts, instead of making more challenging changes that produce larger emission reductions over time.

Individuals have important opportunities to act on climate change both quickly and directly. If we consider that household consumption by each New Zealander is responsible for about 9 t CO2e per person year, then our households influence a collective annual emissions pool of roughly 40 million tonnes (Mt) CO2e per year. Although different methodologies prevent direct comparison, in 2012 New Zealand’s national emissions excluding forestry totalled around 76 Mt CO2e (measured on a production basis following IPCC methods); this gives us a sense of the significance of New Zealand’s household contributions. Much of this involves day-to-day activities which can be adapted without forcing major economic sacrifices or large policy or infrastructure changes. Individuals can also produce significant change through their influence on government policy as voters, and their influence on business practice as informed consumers.

To help empower individuals to take effective action, we need to better understand and address both attitudinal and structural barriers to change. Our future posts will explore new research findings on climate change beliefs and actions by New Zealanders.


  1. Hello Scott and Catherine,
    Very interesting thoughts!
    I have studied in New Zealand (the place I now call home), but currently I am in a short fellowship in Germany. Here in Germany I have been studying urban planning and design related to climate (microclimate improvement, climate change mitigation and resilience, adaptation and so forth). This week I interviewed a couple of urban planners and to my surprise I heard that in most German cities climate change is not a priority anymore. There is a belief - including from authorities - that there is nothing to do to stop climate change and therefore the focus has shifted to other "more important"and immediate issues. I confess I am still confused about what to take from it, besides disappointment!
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Silvia,

      Thanks very much for sharing your insight. I do hope those planners' views are the exception and not the rule; in many respects Germany has been a leader in taking ambitious action on climate change. The conversation you describe gets to the heart of the "personal efficacy" challenge of mitigating climate change. For people to want to engage in solutions, they need to believe that the problem can be solved and their actions can help. It can be hard for people to understand that climate change is not an all-or-nothing, fix-it-or-ignore-it kind of problem - it is, quite literally, a problem of degrees. Given the inertia in the climate system, we have already committed ourselves to a warmer future. But by taking the right kind of actions starting now, we can avoid even more serious consequences of climate change. We each need to own our power to make things better - and avoid making things worse - by joining in collective action. Perhaps you could refer those planners to the New Climate Economy report (, which has a whole chapter devoted to cities and identifies effective urban planning as one of the keys to mitigating climate change. Let's keep the conversation going about solutions! Best regards, Catherine

  2. The constantly changing fashionable take on reduce emissions demonstrates the depth of the subject. Indispensable to homosapians today, there are just not enough blues songs written about reduce emissions. Often it is seen as both a help and a hindrance to the easily lead, trapped by their infamous history. With the primary aim of demonstrating my considerable intellect I will now demonstrate the complexity of the many faceted issue that is reduce emissions.

  3. So what is New Zealand doing to stop these carbon emissions?