How observed human behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis can help climate policy

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change share several striking similarities in terms of causes and consequences, and in terms of human behavioural biases towards them. How can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic experience to make better choices for climate policy? This is discussed in an article by Wouter Botzen, Sem Duijndam, and Pieter van Beukering recently published in World Development.

10/06/2020 | 4:01 PM

The COVID-19 and climate crisis share many similarities in terms of causes, such as unsustainable transport and food systems, and consequences, including health risks. By disproportionally affecting deprived communities both problems also intensify existing world inequalities. In addition, both problems can be characterized as low-probability-high consequence risks, which are associated with various behavioural biases that imply that individual behaviour deviates from rational risk assessments by experts and optimal preparedness strategies. In their research, Wouter Botzen and colleagues discuss six important risk-related behavioural biases in the context of individual decision making about these two global challenges to derive lessons for climate policy. 

One of the biases discussed in the article is the availability bias. For both climate change and COVID-19 it is observed that people underestimate the risks until after they experience the consequences of the disaster or learn about people close by who have suffered. For COVID-19, we have seen that a higher sense of urgency and worry often only emerged among people when infections and deaths occurred in their own country. For climate change, empirical studies show that individual concern about climate change and willingness to adopt mitigation measures are positively related to experiences of climate change-related risks such as flood events. The availability bias is especially problematic in the case of climate change, because once large-scale climate risks materialize and risk awareness is high enough to support a transition to a low carbon economy, it may already be too late to reverse unwanted climate trends. The other five biases discussed in the article are the simplification bias, the ‘finite pool of worry’ hypothesis, myopia, the ‘not in my term of office’ bias, and herding.

The article proposes several lessons for climate policy that can help overcome these behavioural biases. Coming back to the example of the availability bias, this bias necessitates the development of communication strategies that stress the consequences of risks associated with climate change and COVID-19 to ensure that individuals start and keep paying attention. One reason for the high public support for the COVID-19 lockdown measures is the reality of immediate health risks, which was also the main rationale for the support of the successful Montreal Protocol against ozone depletion. Therefore, climate communication strategies that emphasize health risks, in particular, may be effective in enhancing support for climate policy. The article also discusses appropriate policy solutions to the other five biases, by focusing on how more sustainable behaviour can be stimulated using communication policies, regulations, and financial incentives that work with, instead of against, these biases. In order to prevent that these policies increase existing world inequalities, securing basis needs and providing financial support for underprivileged people is imperative. 

Covid 19 cartoon

You can download the article here: