Approaching climate action with a healthy dose of positivity

The only way to effectively tackle climate change and create lasting, sustainable outcomes, is to make sure people feel happy about the actions they are taking says behavioral scientist Jiaying Zhao, PhD, associate professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Canada Research Chair.

Eventually, everyone will experience the effects of climate change wherever in the world they live, so she wants to show that climate action and happiness can easily coexist.

Much of the current information around climate change is very sensationalist and focuses on catastrophizing the issue, which ultimately could be doing more harm than good.

Learning to tackle climate change with a positive attitude

“This is such counter-productive way of portraying climate change,” explains Zhao. “While it’s true, it is not conducive to behaviour change.”

Negative news sells, travels, and spreads faster than positive news. As a result, all this doom and gloom, ‘dread narrative’ is spreading the message fast. However, it is not eliciting action. It is making people feel depressed and helpless, which is not conducive to behaviour change or helping people to act.

“My goal is to get people to behave in a sustainable way,” says Zhao.

The Happy Climate project

Zhao and fellow collaborator, professor Elizabeth Dunn, believe that currently there is a missing narrative. It is unfortunate that people have not talked about ‘happiness’ in relation to climate change. She believes that this is the only way to get people on board and not only ideologically. Shaming, guilt-tripping, and scaring people into action is not going to work. Beyond gaining engagement online, this approach delivers minimal, and even negative effects on behavioural change, and is stopping people from acting.

For Zhao, it is important to find a way to make people feel good while they are addressing these significant environmental problems. “This is the only way that can sustain behaviour change,” she argues.

Zhao believes everyone needs to get other on board so that people feel like they are making a difference and their small actions are having an effect. That means getting friends and family involved and not just making changes in one’s own life, but also calling for system change.

“Each of us, on an individual basis, can only do so much,” she says. “If we put pressure on politicians, by reaching out and voicing our support for climate policy, that will carry more weight and in turn, can start system change.”

How to reenforce climate action on a larger scale

The toughest challenge facing climate change currently is behavioural, specifically the failure to act. Zhao and her colleagues argue for the need for a complete reversal of the current incentive structure, because current infrastructure and polices are set up for failure.

Jiaying Zhao, PhD, associate professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Canada Research Chair. | Photo courtesy of Jiaying Zhao

“We need to reward low-emission behaviours and punish high-emission behaviours,” says Zhao.

In a recent paper, Zhao and colleagues argue that behavioral interventions have largely neglected the basic principles of ‘operant conditioning’ as a possible set of tools to promote collective climate action. The basic concept behind ‘operant conditioning’, Zhao argued, is that a stimulus leads to a behavior, which then leads to a consequence.

This type of behaviour conditioning can have both positive and negative reinforcers. Zhao and her team believe that positive reinforcers should be used to encourage low-emission behaviors and negative reinforcers should be used to discourage high-emission behaviors across transportation, food, waste, housing, and civic actions.

The Happy Climate Approach encourages politicians to reframe the narrative around climate action. Politicians can advocate for climate policies more effectively by showing that they will benefit the wellbeing of people, make them feel happier, create a better society, and help fight climate change. That must be the new narrative.

Zhao’s TED talk How to feng shui your fridge is available online as well as other happy climate hacks.

Zhao has also launched an online Happy Climate workshop. It’s easy to do and free to everyone around the world, and can be done individually, or in groups.

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