By Jess Berentson-Shaw

We need to be talking about changing the structure of our systems and built environments so that climate-positive behaviour isn’t a tough personal choice, it’s the easy default

I count myself incredibly privileged each year over summer to be able to spend a couple of weeks living a more simple life camping. This year it was at Mohua/Golden Bay.

Part of the reason I really enjoy our family time living and sleeping under highly tensioned polyester, is that I get to live with the ebbs and flows of our natural systems. Observing the everyday routines of the weka family in our camp site (ever bolder and cheekier), getting up with sunrise and going to bed at sunset, listening to the waves crash near the tent in a full moon tide.

All this reminds me these are all part of a larger and interconnected set of systems that allow us humans to survive and thrive. We walked up into the Cobb Valley and on the mountain tops of the Kahurangi National park.

There I saw something I have never seen – masses of endangered native mistletoe in full flower. Connecting with the natural world, spending time with my kids in a much simpler way of living, grounds me and reminds me of what really matters.

The many juxtapositions of camping also remind me of what matters. The campground is full of double cab utes and fishing boats, nearby jet skis burning up fossil fuels. New tents and gear each year. It becomes even more obvious on these trips that the carbon that is burned and released as part of this lifestyle is overwhelming in size and scale.

There is little conversation in the camp ground about changing that, or at least knowing how to do so. I do know that people feel they are expected to just “choose to live differently”. This makes me feel frustrated and a bit hopeless when I hear it. I think it hardens too many people to the changes we need. Yet public support for climate action is critical to ensuring the natural world that supports us isn’t just protected but is healed from the harm we have already done to it.

So with the release of the Climate Change Commission’s first report this week, how do organisations tasked with helping us respond to climate change build that support? How do they help people to understand the work and support the actions needed to change our behaviour? Because in the most basic analysis, our individual behaviour does indeed need to change.

I suggest that to build public understanding and support, the people and organisations doing this work need to stop talking about behaviour change, and instead talk more about HOW we change the structures and systems that enable specific behaviours (or prevent them) and who has the most power to change them.

Our environment shapes our behaviour, but we don’t see it
While how we act (recycle, ride bikes), what we buy (an EV), how we travel (don’t fly) will be at the heart of an effective climate change response, what shapes that behaviour more powerfully than will power or personal choice is the context we live in.

For example, driving fossil fuel burning cars in towns is less of a rational individual choice and more about a set of constraints and enablers for that behaviour. This includes workplaces and homes that need driving to, town planning that makes streets dangerous to anyone not driving a car, tax breaks for utes, an advertising industry that has become very good at linking cars to our sense of self.

What industries produce and sell, the way our economy is structured, the policies and laws decided decades earlier, how our physical environments are laid out, what our culture tells us matters and who matters – these things are key determinants of our behaviour.

Years of attempting to change individual behaviour with appeals to make different personal choices – to solve the obesity crisis for instance – shows not that we have had a sudden mass failure of willpower, but that our food and exercise context has changed significantly and is shaping us (literally).

Bypassing our fast brains
It is not that changing behaviour doesn’t matter, it matters very deeply. It is ultimately what will ensure we thrive. Rather it is that how people think about behaviour change means when we talk about it people default to hearing the personal choice aspect of it, not the part we want to emphasise – the context shaping part. There are a few reasons for this. Two big ones are our default thinking processes and our information environment.

We have brains that take many mental shortcuts (it’s been called our fast thinking system). Fast thinking makes us susceptible to focusing primarily on the things we can see, hear and observe. The tangible and concrete to explain and solve. And we can see and hear how people behave, how they act, rather than those less visible things that shape our responses.

I see my neighbour getting in a car and driving to work. I don’t see the political, social and economic context that shapes why he does.

The second reason we default to personal choice is people in industry, in advertising, in media fill our information environment with stories of individualism, consumerism, personal choice. Stories that have us thinking about how we can work hard, make better choices, buy happiness, glamour, and status. The personal/ individual choice mantra is everywhere we look and it shapes our thinking.

So when advocates for climate action surface these same themes to argue for climate action, it risks emphasising personal choice, e.g., “we need people to change behaviour, we need people to drive EVs”. It doesn’t get people thinking about the unseen systems and structures.

Research on framing the benefits of shifting out of cars, for example, shows that when we use what we call choice and consumer frames to try and activate change in systems, it doesn’t get the results we want.

We need public education on climate change that helps people see and understand systems and structures and who holds the power

What we need is people to think about and see the systems and structures that need to change and the people who have the power to make those changes. As Dr Rod Carr points out:

“It’s all very well to encourage people to walk and cycle but parents are only going to put their kids on bikes if they’re going to be safe on their ride from home to school. The infrastructure to support that is critical. It’s not just about telling people what they should do, it’s about empowering and enabling them to do those things.”


And part of that empowerment is helping the public understand this relationship between our physical, social and economic contexts and our behaviour. If this connection is clear people are more likely to actively support the kinds of changes that those with the power to do so need to make to ensure climate positive behaviour is the default, the easiest thing to just do, not a “choice”.

Encouraging and supporting the policy makers and politicians to do it on their behalf. How we do this public education work is the focus of research we did in 2019 on how to talk about climate change.

Righting the “public education” imbalance

The time to do public education work was yesterday. The Climate Outreach Organisation in the UK contends there has been a disinvestment by public institutions, including governments, in public education globally in relation to climate change and action. And governments (and their independent legislated bodies) are key. These are some of the few institutions with both the requirement to deliver wellbeing for all citizens (not just the powerful few), and the money available to invest in significant public education campaigns.

Such campaigns are critical to right the imbalance caused by the sheer volume of information produced and paid for by people in status quo industries (much of it clever, appealing and overly simplistic).

Already I am seeing a shift in our climate change stories and the information provided in New Zealand and globally, and that makes me hopeful. There is of course far more work to do.

Getting rid of the term behaviour change from our vocab about climate change will only help.

* Originally published in Newsroom. Republished with permission.

Jess is the co-director of the Wellington think-tank The Workshop, and a Research Associate at the Public Policy Institute.

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