The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s the secret to making people care about climate change

Make them think about their legacy.

An environmentalist protests in front of a U. N. conference on climate change. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
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Here’s a depressing statistic if you’re worried about climate change: 63 percent of Americans say they’re concerned about the issue, but only 47 percent think the government should do anything about it.

That divide, known as the “attitude-behavior” gap, isn’t all that uncommon. And activists and politicians have tried all kinds of strategies to address it. They’ve appealed to people’s better nature (“Help save the children!”) and to their self-interest (“You’ll get a tax write-off!”).

Each of these methods can work under certain conditions, but both have their limitations. What if there were a way to combine the best aspects of each — to use an appeal that simultaneously targets self-interest and our desire to help others in need? Our research suggests a promising way to do just that — by encouraging people to consider their own future legacy.

In a series of psychological studies we conducted over the past two years with Americans from across the country, we found that simply asking people to reflect upon how they want to be remembered by future generations can lead them to engage in more “helping behavior” in the present, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment. Whether deciding to make a charitable donation to environmental organizations or choosing environmentally friendly products over cheaper but more damaging ones, participants in our studies who first considered their future legacies consistently made decisions that would leave them looking greener (and more virtuous) in the future.

This may not seem like a surprising result. After all, taking action to protect the environment is generally viewed as socially desirable, morally right and good for one’s reputation, at least in some social circles. But consider this: In response to the question “How do you want to be remembered?,” almost none of our respondents mentioned protecting the environment for future generations. Instead, people consistently touched on two themes: being able to provide for their children and being remembered as good and virtuous. And yet, when we gave people an opportunity to act pro-environmentally after thinking about their legacy, many took full advantage despite the environment not being at the top of their mind.

So what’s going on? Our results suggest that contributing to environmental conservation efforts is seen as one way to build a positive legacy. What’s more, many people seem to make the link between legacy building and environmental conservation quickly and without prompting. Combine these reputational concerns with our much-professed care for the well-being of future generations — including those we will never know personally — and we can unleash a potentially powerful route to motivating individuals to take actions today that will benefit the future.

These motives can be leveraged to promote legacy-building activities big and small. We can’t all sign environmental protections into law or create new regulations on polluters, but there are many small choices that each of us can make every day to help the planet.

Maybe it’s as simple as helping people pay a little bit more attention to their future reputations. Our frenetic, social-media-filled lives are continually being focused and refocused on the here and now in a way that makes it seem as if the future will never arrive. We are constantly being nudged into thinking about our present reputations and status. But these same platforms for self-expression and reflection could, we think, easily be harnessed to help people think more frequently, if only briefly, about their future reputations. For example, what if Facebook asked people what they want their status to be tomorrow or a year from now, rather than what it is right now? Might this small change in mind-set shift at least some people toward making better long-term decisions, including taking action to protect the environment?

Philosophers, religious figures, and others have long recognized the role that a desire to be remembered positively can play in motivating beneficence and kindness toward others. These self-serving desires are often harnessed to great effect in politics; our research suggests that their reach could be much wider with a little creativity and effort.