People march during a rally against climate change in New York, September 21, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

When it comes to encouraging action against climate change, getting the public to care about the issue — or just believe it exists — is a primary preoccupation for scientists and activists. But it turns out that even people who are the most worried about the problem are often not taking much public action about it. 

And that includes mega-climate-worriers in Vermont, the home state of both Bernie Sanders and climate campaigner Bill McKibben.

A new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that even members of the public who are “alarmed” about a warming planet show relatively low levels of public-sphere action, such as volunteering or protesting. The paper then sought to get to the bottom of why that is, investigating “what drives public actions of the certain segment of the population that’s already really concerned about climate change,” said Kathryn Doherty, a research associate at the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) in Massachusetts and lead author of the paper.

She and co-author Thomas Webler, also of SERI, concluded that a person’s sense of how active people around them are being about climate change — as well as how effective they think their own actions are — are some of the most important drivers. In other words, people may be alarmed, but they could also be isolated or feeling despair — and if they don’t think they have the power to do anything, or aren’t in a social network that empowers them, then they simply won’t do something.

The research takes, as its starting point, a 2009 report published by a group of Yale researchers, which divided the American public into six segments based on levels of concern about the threat of climate change. These range from the least concerned, “dismissive” segment to the most concerned, “alarmed” segment.

The new study focuses specifically on the “alarmed” segment. The problem with this group, the researchers explain, is that while they might engage in high levels of private or household activities aimed at combating global warming — things like conserving energy and reducing household carbon footprints — they don’t do much publicly, such as lobbying or advocating.

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies mapped five-year global temperature averages. 2014 now ranks as the warmest year on record since 1880, according to an analysis by NASA scientists. (YouTube/NASA Goddard)

Citing previous research, the study notes that “during a 12-month period, only a third of the alarmed group donated money to organizations working to reduce climate change, and a mere 29 percent contacted government officials about climate change.”  

This has important implications for the future of climate policy, Doherty noted. “Without a concerted national policy effort, private individual behavior can only go so far,” she said in a follow-up email to The Washington Post. “Governments possess greater leverage for mitigation because they can implement policies that restructure choices available to millions of people and organizations, but it is unlikely that the U.S. will adopt future ambitious climate policies without public demand.”

So what’s the problem here? To investigate what factors drive public action, the researchers developed a behavior model that incorporated ideas from several different social theories, including the well-established “value-belief norm theory.” This idea suggests that people’s behavior tends to be driven by values, worldviews and what they perceive to be the consequences of problems like climate change, as well as their feelings of responsibility for these problems.

Building on this theory, the researchers accounted for several additional social and psychological factors in their model. These included people’s beliefs about their capability of taking action and the ability of their actions to effect change — what’s known as “efficacy beliefs” — and their perceptions of what kinds of actions are being taken by the people around them.  

To test the model, the researchers plugged in data from a survey including more than 700 “alarmed” participants, all living in Vermont, an area chosen specifically for its generally high levels of civic engagement. They divided survey respondents into two categories: “more active,” or people who had contacted government officials in the past 12 months, and “less active.” The more active segment was generally more likely to take public action of any type across the board — for instance, 57 percent of them volunteered with climate organizations, as opposed to 27 percent of the less active group.  

It turns out the biggest predictor for climate action involved — that’s right — other people. Significantly more people in the active group reported that their friends and family members were willing to take part in public-sphere climate action. On the other hand, more people in the less active group reported that people who weren’t close to them — groups described as “most Americans,” for instance — were willing to engage in these kinds of actions, but not anyone they actually knew.

In other words, “individuals who are geographically closer and more similar to the respondents were stronger social influences than those who were unfamiliar or distant,” Doherty said. It’s not totally clear why this is the case, but Doherty theorized that the less active group could be suffering from a kind of free-rider effect — “it’s almost like they thought someone else will take care of it,” she said.  

On the other hand, the finding suggests that climate action may be infectious, in a way, if it involves people that an individual knows or relates to. If a person knows that friends and neighbors are participating, they may be more likely to do so as well.

Beliefs about “self-efficacy,” or the effectiveness of taking action, were also important, the researchers found. The active group had higher levels of belief in their own capability of taking action, as well as the impact or effectiveness of their individual actions or the actions of groups they were a part of.  

Based on these results, Doherty said, “the communication efforts targeting alarmed individuals and their public action need to include strategies that foster these beliefs.”  Highlighting positive experiences from similar people could be useful for targeting a given population, for instance, as well as demonstrating ways in which individual or collective efforts helped achieve concrete goals. That said, more research will need to be done to test the actual effectiveness of new communication strategies, Doherty cautioned.  

And she added that other factors not examined in this study may also play a role in motivating public action — such as emotions and personal experiences, or even an individual’s perceptions about the current political climate in the country.

As for the other segments of the population — those less concerned about climate change — efforts to motivate behavior may need to focus first on upping their level of alarm about global warming, a separate challenge altogether. But even these communication efforts could do with some caution, Doherty said.

“An overwhelming amount of concern, without feeling they can do anything about it, is not useful and does not drive behavior,” she said. “One of the important things is that you have to really target your audience and figure out what motivates them, what they need to act, and then come up with messages or experiences designed for that particular segment of the population.”