Climate change, pollution and overfishing are just a few issues that need to be addressed to maintain a healthy blue planet. Everyone has to participate, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not sure where to start.
Of course we can start with the obvious – making sure we reduce, reuse and recycle. But given the scale of the challenge, these small, relatively simple steps are not enough. So, how can we encourage people to do more?
There is controversy over the best approach. Some argue that focusing on simple actions is distracting and can lead people to overestimate their positive impact, making them less likely to do more.
However, our new research found that promoting small and relatively easy actions, such as reducing plastic use, can be a useful starting point for taking other, potentially more effective, actions around climate change.
Read more: 6 reasons why 2023 could be a very good year for climate action
The plastic distraction debate
Marine plastic pollution is set quadruple by 2050 and efforts to reduce it have received significant attention. Australia is making significant progress in this area.
Last year, for example, scientists found that the amount of plastic litter found on Australian shores had decreased by 30% since 2012-2013. Seven out of eight Australian states and territories have also committed to ban single-use plastics.
Read more: Why bioplastics don’t solve our plastic problems
Still, some scientists are concerned that all this plastic fuss is distracting us from tackling the more pressing issue of climate change, which deteriorating marine ecosystems at an alarming rate and creating oceans hotter than ever before.
For example, without an urgent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, coral reefs could lose more than 90% coral cover in the next decade. This includes our own Great Barrier Reef.
When it comes to climate action, Australia is behind. Many Australians also do not know what measures to take. For example a 2020 study asked more than 4,000 Australians what actions were needed to help the Great Barrier Reef. The most common response (25.6%) was to reduce plastic pollution. Only 4.1% of people mentioned a specific action to combat climate change.
We ran an experiment to test whether we can translate this preference for action against plastic into action against climate change.
Our experiment was based on a theory known as “behavioral spillover”. This theory assumes that the actions we take in the present influence the actions we take in the future.
For example, deciding to go to the gym in the morning can affect what you decide to eat in the afternoon.
Some experts argue focusing on reducing plastic use – a relatively simple action – can help build momentum and open the door for other environmental actions in the future. This is known as positive spillover.
Conversely, those in theplastic distractioncamp argues that if people reduce their plastic use, they may feel they have done enough and be less inclined to take additional actions. This is known as negative overflow.
Experimenting with spillover from plastic to climate
To test whether we could encourage overflow behavior in the context of the Great Barrier Reef, we conducted an online experiment with a representative sample of 581 Australians.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups or a control group. The first group received information about plastic pollution on the reef, along with clues to remind them of their efforts to tackle the problem over the past week (a “behavioral primer”). The second group only received the information about reef plastic. The third group received information about the reef and climate change. The control group received general information about World Heritage sites, with no call to action or mention of the Great Barrier Reef.
Next, participants were asked if they were likely to take a range of climate actions, such as reducing personal greenhouse gas emissions and talking to others about climate change. They also had the option to “click” on some of the actions included in the survey, such as signing an online climate action petition.
Compared to the control group, those who received information about plastic pollution were more willing to participate in climate action, especially when reminded of positive past behaviors. While those who received information about climate change showed no significant difference.
Plastic posts also had a stronger positive effect on climate action for those who were politically conservative, compared to those who were more politically progressive.
But the approach didn’t work for everyone. We repeated the experiment with 572 self-proclaimed ocean advocates, many of whom were already engaged in marine conservation issues. For this audience, talking about plastic and their past efforts has made them less likely to participate in climate action compared to the control group.
So what does all this mean?
Our results suggest that it is possible to motivate climate action for the reef without falling back into conversations about plastic. Here are four ways to achieve this:
Remind people of the small actions they are already taking: reminding people of their positive contributions and making them feel capable of more can open the doorway to further action.
Connect the dots between plastic and climate: plastics mainly come from fossil fuels and production alone accounts for billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. By making it clear that a fight against fossil fuels is a fight against both plastic and the climate, people can be guided towards those extra climate actions.
Provide clear calls for (climate) action: research shows most people are unable to identify climate actions on their own. As a result, they often get stuck in common behaviors such as recycling. It is crucial to give people clear advice on how they can contribute to combating climate change.
Know your audience: Plastic spillover to climate is more likely with a general public. If your network is full of ocean advocates, it might be better to skip the talk about plastics and go straight into the conversation about climate change actions.
It’s important to remember that people’s first steps don’t have to be their only steps. Sometimes they just need a little guidance for the journey ahead.
Read more: Households find low-waste living a challenge. This is what needs to change