How do we shift social norms on climate change?

March 22, 2017 7 By Duncan Green

purpose logoSpent an enjoyable hour discussing strategy with exfamer Kate Norgrove, who now runs the Purpose Climate Lab (see here for the kind of thing they do). Kate wanted to discuss their theory of change (what else?). Purpose has identified what it sees as a gap: while lots of organizations are working on climate change in ways that are oppositional or focussing on laws and policies, Purpose wants to contribute by tackling long term social norms in order to shift what people believe and therefore how they act in ways that support the climate. Interesting.

Purpose Climate Lab (PCL)’s mission statement is ‘We believe that by presenting a positive vision of the future and by mobilizing people where they are – in cities, regions, homes, businesses and through culture – we will change beliefs, behavior, politics and policy to accelerate the adoption and build the ambition of just climate solutions.’ That certainly resonates with Alex Evans’ interesting work on the importance of building positive narratives. It also highlights for me a lack of research on what works in terms of deliberate efforts to change social norms – I’ve seen specific studies on equal marriage and violence against women, but can people recommend anything more systematic?

I got out my favourite 2×2 (see diagram) and asked Kate which quadrant she thought PCL is largely working in. context intervention 2x2She thought bottom right – for example, they’re doing lots of testing of messages with different constituencies like evangelical Christians in the US (they have really got the need to engage with faith groups, which is great). I wasn’t convinced – from what she told me, seems more like a good version of upper right – try something, with the aim of going to scale, but have decent feedback loops in place to see how you are doing and make necessary course corrections.

But what could they be doing in the other quadrants?

Bottom Right: really tackling this would mean coming up with as narrow a problem statement as possible, eg ‘how do we change the attitudes of 14-16 year old boys towards cars’ and then deliberately trying parallel experiments to see which one works. Getting lots of unusual suspects in the room (musicians, gamers, polling companies) might generate a wider and more interesting range of experiments. It could also mean taking a deliberate portfolio approach – seeing your different projects or campaigns as a whole, and seeking a spread of craziness: a mix of solid, traditional campaigns, and then some high risk/high return outliers that are more likely to fail, but if they work, could go large.

Top Left: Cue rant on the need to anticipate and respond to critical junctures. If you are trying to shift the way people feel about climate change and planetary boundaries, the best time to do so is when something awful happens – eg when Manhattan or Somerset are under water. We know this will happen some time (known unknowns) so we evangelical climate changedon’t need to wait – we can put the building blocks in place for a fast and ambitious response when the window of opportunity arises. That could include getting the research 80% written (add the last 20% dependent on the event itself), or setting up the high level network so that within a day of the flood, you have bishops, celebs and Nobel laureates all standing up to their waists in flood water calling on citizens to take action.

Bottom Left: Positive Deviance means that somewhere the system is usually already throwing up solutions (complete or partial) to any given problem. So which communities, sectors, companies are already shifting social norms on climate change and the planet? The first task should surely be to identify those, but activists typically forget to look, perhaps because they are so keen to jump in and start changing the world.

Framing: PCL is determined to present a ‘positive vision of the future’, for example by emphasizing social support for renewables, which is very appealing at first glance, but I wonder if it works (and when)? Oxfam has often struggled to get positive messages across in its fundraising and campaigns – the media aren’t interested; the urgency is lacking. Where have positive vision campaigns on climate or otherwise worked in the past? Perhaps time to consult Friends of the Earth’s work on the history of 19th and 20th Century campaigns in the UK?

Kate said she was happy for me to consult FP2P readers on this, so what advice can you add? If you’re too bashful to hold forth on the blog, please contact Kate via twitter on @katenorgrove (or ask me nicely and I’ll give you her email).