Using Behavioural Psychology Research to inform A CLIMATE CHANGE Communications Strategy

Rhiannon attended the UNFCCC forum. She is studying a Master of Public Policy and Management at Murdoch University. Rhiannon has a background in environmental science and holds a Bachelor of Science degree (with Honours). 


Climate change is one of the pre-eminent issues of our time and lagging acknowledgement, acceptance and action needs to be addressed if climate change is to be combatted. Unconscious processes and adaptations in the human mind can influence the beliefs and behaviours of individuals to a surprising degree and can significantly affect and potentially weaken policy outcomes and the implementation of climate change action. Behavioural psychology research offers insights into target audience identification, tailored message crafting through emotional framing and congruency with audience worldview, and message delivery through trusted authorities and social networks.

This paper will (1) review key institutions in place for communications on climate change originating from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; (2) consider insights from behavioural psychology research including behavioural economics, segmentation and social marketing; and (3) propose a communications strategy informed by behavioural economics, a mechanism for its funding, and a potential dissemination network, using the identified existing institutions.

Behavioural psychology has a lot to offer in informing climate change communications. These insights could inform a strategy that could be incorporated into existing institutions and increase the effectiveness of climate change communications on changing attitudes and behaviours.

Policy Recommendations:

1.     Develop a behaviourally-underpinned multi-pronged communications strategy shared and conveyed through existing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change institutions;

2.     Rearrange funding from across United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change education, training and public awareness initiatives to amalgamate a budget specifically for this strategy; and

3.     Use high-profile figures and climate action dissemination network opinion leaders to disseminate the strategy. 


Climate change is one of the pre-eminent issues of our time. All actions to reduce the effects of climate change on the environment and society are ultimately given social licence by local, regional and global communities (Cullen‐Knox et al. 2017). Unconscious processes and adaptations in the human mind can influence the beliefs and behaviours of individuals to an unexpectedly significant degree. These influences on brain processing and subsequent beliefs and behaviours, studied in behavioural psychology and communication research areas, can significantly affect and potentially weaken policy outcomes and the implementation of climate change action.

Segments of the community with substantially different attitudes towards climate change can be identified; their beliefs surrounding climate change differ, as do their behaviours regarding personal and policy support actions. Behavioural communications research predicts these segments to respond to different campaign messages, methods and trusted authority figures, due to the different biases and shortcuts identified in their mental processing.

This paper will (1) review key institutions in place for communications on climate change originating from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); (2) consider insights from behavioural psychology research including behavioural economics , segmentation and social marketing; and (3) propose a communications strategy informed by behavioural research insights, a mechanism for its funding, and a potential dissemination network, using the identified existing institutions.

Current Communication Institutions

Article 6 of the UNFCCC provides the basis for education, training and public awareness of climate change, and is reinforced by Article 10(e) of the Kyoto Protocol and Article 12 of the Paris Agreement. Article 6 has spawned several communication networks, including an Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) programme and a United Nations Alliance on Climate Change Education, Training and Public Awareness. The UNFCCC offer a variety of digital resources including a platform for sharing of climate change communication information sources, the Climate Change Information Network (CC.iNet), and an ACE guideline document on managing communications in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

There has also been demand for Global Climate Action (GCA).  At COP21, two high-level Climate Champions were appointed to promote actions beyond the formal negotiations between the Parties and non-Party stakeholders. They launched the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action at COP22, with aims to ‘catalyse action… further increase ambition… and support the Paris Agreement’ (UNFCCC 2017). The Partnership is creating new climate action dissemination networks (CADN), including a Climate Action Collaboration Forum (CACF) to ‘align a large broad range of stakeholders efforts … in a model of shared leadership’ (Marrakech Partnership 2017a). The Partnership recognised that ‘we need to do much more to convey the sense of urgency the Global Climate Action Agenda represents’ by ‘[broadening] up public outreach: include media and all the stakeholders linked to the Marrakech Partnership as multipliers’ (Marrakech Partnership 2017a, b).

While the importance of behavioural approaches has been recognised intermittently (UNFCCC 2013, 2016), an underlying behavioural framework does not appear to be present. The networks within the Partnership appear poised to act as broad communicators to the public. Thus, within these institutions there is the opportunity for behavioural research insights to enhance the effectiveness of climate change communications.

Insights from Behavioural Research

Behavioural Economics

Psychological Underpinnings

Behavioural economics is ‘located at the junction of several sciences: philosophy, psychology, economics and marketing’ (Mikhailovna 2016). Its tenets contrast with the traditional rational model of decision-making, proposing a ‘bounded rationality’  (Hafner-Burton et al. 2017) model, wherein individuals make decisions they perceive as rational, but which are based upon inputs and processes systematically skewed by limitations of the human mind (DellaVigna 2009).

It is theorised the human mind uses two systems of decision-making: an automatic, intuitive system that ties emotions to experiences, and a deliberative, analytical system that considers facts and logic (World Bank 2015, Hafner-Burton et al. 2017, Marx et al. 2007). The two systems interact, with a preference for the faster, more vivid automatic system when they produce conflicting conclusions. (Weber 2010). This interplay creates unconscious biases, preferences, and shortcuts known as heuristics (Schwartz 2007).

Behavioural economics helps explain why providing information alone is not enough to change behaviours (Umpfenbach 2014) and that the challenge of climate change action has inherent properties, such as ‘cumulative causes and uncertain impacts’ (Pearson, Schuldt, and Romero-Canyas 2016) that provoke biased responses.  Therefore, using a behavioural-informed framework to underlie policies and communication may improve their effectiveness (Shogren 2012) and indeed has been recommended by the Australian Public Service Commissioner (APSC 2015).

Applications to Climate Change

The linking of experiences and emotions by the automatic thinking system steers individuals to develop strong worldviews. The way information is presented, or framed, can significantly alter its perception by different people (DellaVigna 2009). Biases towards familiarity and salience, and against loss (Hafner-Burton et al. 2017), can lead to rejection or limited consideration of information incongruent with those worldviews (Schwartz 2007).  Using behavioural economics to craft messages that are therefore more congruent with everyday life and experiences could increase positive audience engagement.

Who it is that conveys a message is also important, as identified by the UK Behavioural Insights Unit (UK Government 2014). Perceived trustworthiness, ability to relate, and legitimacy increase the authority a person grants to a leadership figure in the authority theory (APSC 2015). Endorsement of climate change as an issue by celebrities has shown social media reactions several times greater than during previous climate conferences (Leas et al. 2016). Role-based modelling by community leaders has been used to further community involvement, such as religious denominations in the USA (Weber 2013) or political parties in Germany (Metag, Fuchslin, and Schafer 2017). Depending on an individual’s worldview, perceptions of credibility and subsequently who they consider to be an authority can vary wildly. Thus, messages should be ‘tailored to [the] core ideas and values’ of both the authority figure and the target audience (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

The diffusion of innovation theory examines how new ideas and behavioural changes spread via social networks and influential, often informal, opinion leaders within social groups (Dearing 2009, APSC 2015). Identifying and engaging with these ‘change agents’ (Leombruni 2015) may offer a cost-effective method of permeating climate change acceptance and proactive behaviours through a broad range of social groups (Dearing 2009).


Roger Farley, Assistant Director of Strategic Communications at the Western Australian Road Safety Commission, said ‘We can’t just scare them,” in October 2017 at an Australian Association of Social Marketing seminar. Using the right method for the right audience is more likely to achieve the objectives of a behavioural change campaign than a generic approach (Maibach et al. 2011). Segmentation seeks to identify societal groups with alike characteristics in relation to a defined topic, who are likely to respond similarly to campaign messages (Detenber et al. 2016), allowing more responsive groups to be targeted and focused communications to be developed (Metag, Fuchslin, and Schafer 2017).

Segmentation of climate change audiences has been undertaken in multiple countries, including the USA, Australia, Germany and Singapore. The segments were defined by differing levels of acceptance, concern and actions in relation to climate change, as well as cultural differences, and included (but were not limited to) scepticism, indifference, professed concern but lack of consequent action, and alarm (Maibach et al. 2011, Metag, Fuchslin, and Schafer 2017, Morrison et al. 2013, Detenber et al. 2016). They displayed different levels and types of media use and communication approaches, but all communities responded positively to adaptation advice specific to each segment in research by Hine et al. (2013). Consideration of these viewpoints could increase salience and congruence to target audiences by allowing better message framing and delivery.

Social Marketing

Social marketing looks to engender change on social issues that have widespread effects on communities by applying marketing concepts to behavioural change (O'Cass and Griffin 2015). It intertwines with the concepts of behavioural economics, acting as a ‘framework for designing behaviour change programmes’ (Corner and Randall 2011). It incorporates components of segmentation, in that the target audience must be identified. Authority and diffusion of innovation theories are especially pertinent, as social marketing recognises ‘few influences more powerful than an individual’s social network’ (Corner and Randall 2011). It is much easier for the right people in a social network to share a tailored message that is consistent with the worldview of that network than for a ‘positional [authority]’ (Dearing 2009) to attempt to influence a wide audience with a simplistic campaign. 

Proposed Communications Strategy


An ‘explicit behavioural change approach’ (APSC 2015) has been recognised as critically important to achieving behavioural change. It is proposed that a behaviourally-underpinned communications strategy be developed through the existing institutions in the UNFCCC to better target audiences to realise attitudinal and behavioural change around climate change. The CC.iNet, last updated in 2015, could be revitalised as a portal and aligned with the CACF for sharing behavioural change methods and results. A companion document to the ACE guidelines should highlight the behavioural concepts to be used in developing messages. 

Parties and non-Party stakeholders would use segmentation to identify target audiences within their populations and demographics, as well as their motivations and influences (Maibach et al. 2011). This would then allow multiple messages to act as focused interventions on these segments (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009) through a ‘devolved [and] de-centralised approach’ (White and Wall 2008).

Messages should be designed using behavioural insights to frame messages to achieve congruency with the worldview of the target audience (Schwartz 2007).  Positive messages (Weber 2015) that tap into emotions and recall personal experiences can make climate change feel more real to the audience and have a greater likelihood of influencing acceptance and actions around climate change (Marx et al. 2007).


It is proposed that a budget is identified within the CCAA specifically for developing this strategy. To avoid having to define and procure new funding, small amounts should be drawn from across CCAA and funding for Article 6 UNFCCC education, training and public awareness initiatives to amalgamate funding to produce the budget for the strategy.


This strategy should include a dissemination component as the method of communicating these messages is just as important as the content. The dissemination should be based on the authority and diffusion of innovation theories, borrowing heavily from social marketing approaches. High-profile figures, such as celebrities (Duthie et al. 2017), sports stars (APSC 2015), respected political leaders or religious leaders (Weber 2013) should ‘start the conversation’ (Leombruni 2015) and advocate for climate change to increase broad awareness and acceptance within their audiences. The CADN and ACE network will be composed of trusted, highly influential opinion leaders within social networks (Corner and Randall 2011), who should be the ideal conveyors of messages tailored to both themselves and their communities (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

Part of the strategy should involve training and support for these opinion leaders, not only in the messages content but in collaboratively developing methods of communicating them to best evoke positive emotional responses (Schaffner, Demarmels, and Juettner 2015). The results of these campaigns should be evaluated, reviewed and revised regularly to maximise message effectiveness (Nisbet and Kotcher 2009).

Potential Limitations and Barriers

There are several limitations within this strategy that must be recognised to enable solutions to be developed to minimise their impact. There is evidence that social marketing informed by behavioural economics can be insufficient to engender support for the full scope of actions proposed to adequately respond to climate change (Corner and Randall 2011). There can also be perceptions of ‘greenwashing’ (Peattie, Peattie, and Ponting 2009): avoiding negative implications of climate change actions such as increased living costs (Webb 2012). Finally, a ‘value–action gap’ (White and Wall 2008) may find that even greater acceptance of climate change may not result in increased behavioural change.

A potential barrier could be ‘psychological reactance’ (APSC 2015) wherein an audience may distrust an authority figure or the message is incompatible with their worldview, and thus their response may be to take the opposing view, or hold their existing worldview more strongly. Social marketing also tends to have a short-term focus, which can promote behavioural change that may conflict with long-term climate change action requirements (Corner and Randall 2011). Segmentation can also more deeply entrench audience divides (White and Wall 2008).


Behavioural economics, in combination with related social disciplines such as social marketing and segmentation, clearly has a lot to offer to potentially increase acceptance and behavioural changes. It provides insights such as the significance of emotional impact and congruency with audience worldview on creating messages, and the importance of selecting the right authority figure and method to disseminate these messages. These insights could be incorporated into the existing UNFCCC institutions and increase the effectiveness of climate change communications on changing attitudes and behaviours.


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