Framing Climate Change Action to Develop Policies for People

I’ve always thought that one of the biggest problems with gaining traction in working with environmental issues is the framing of the problem at such a large scale that the concept lies outside of an actionable social reality. It was one of the reasons why I decided to veer away from environmental consulting fresh out of my undergraduate degree in Berkeley – the global enormity of these problems seemed so intangible and unsolvable, and I wasn’t sure that consulting would create the change I wanted to see so badly.

How then, can we enact mass action to change our behavior? Standard economics prescribes three forms of policy designed to affect behavior – through incentives, regulation, and information.

If we look to the political history of climate change action globally, however, it is clear to me that the Paris Agreement was signed precisely because it was not pre-formulated as a policy measure (as opposed to the prior Kyoto Protocol where talks stymied over level of carbon emissions).

Karla Hoff, a Senior Economist at the World Bank, writes that three behavioral considerations that policy makers do not account for because they deviate from standard economic principles are that

  1. people think automatically (but deliberatively)
  2. people think socially
  3. people think with mental models

If people think automatically, prescribing set standards might not be flexible enough to accommodate the mental (or cultural) model used by each country. Additionally, the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and the negotiating of carbon emissions by country, the focus on numbers and emission standards quickly became a debate about industry and the right to produce instead of decreasing global risk.

Whether the Paris Agreement will result in concrete environmental change remains to be seen, but I find the agreement to be a milestone in global culture because it sets the stage for a global political mental model of social responsibility. This agreement to social accountability is the first step needed in any united action and lays the foundation for subsequent progress in making policies.

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