Willingness to change: The “elephant in the room” for climate mitigation


By Mara Ellis | © Xtremesafari | Dreamstime Stock Photo

I read an inspiring story recently about Dr Donald Berwick, former CEO of the US Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).  His research showed that hospitals were repeatedly making avoidable mistakes that were costing patients’ lives. Although he only had a tiny staff and limited resources, he decided that things needed to change. At a convention of US hospital administrators in 2004, he set out a challenge: saving 100,000 lives in the next 18 months.  He spoke to the heart of why change was needed, identified six clear, manageable interventions and launched a campaign to enrol hospitals in making the necessary changes.  He knew it would be hard for hospitals to admit they were routinely making mistakes and change standard practices, but he made it easy for hospitals to join and provided mentoring, information sharing and feedback.  Eighteen months later, they had prevented an estimated 122,300 avoidable deaths (Heath and Heath 2010).

How does this story relate to climate change?  Collectively our society is repeatedly taking avoidable actions which are changing the climate and causing harm.  Like the hospitals at the beginning of the story, we have practical solutions with valuable benefits at our fingertips but we aren’t using them seriously yet.   Fundamentally, the challenge of climate change is a challenge of people change.  In government departments, businesses and households, our lack of willingness to change is the figurative “elephant in the room.”

In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath identify a simple model for changing behaviour: that of a rider trying to direct an elephant along a pathway.  The rider (representing the analytical mind) needs clear direction, and must work in harmony with the elephant (representing emotional engagement), who must want to head in the right direction.  The shape of the pathway determines where the rider and elephant can travel.  How might we influence the rider, the elephant and the pathway to create climate change action in New Zealand?

The rider needs specific instructions on how to make a difference.  Motu’s research on New Zealanders’ household consumption emissions suggests three priorities for consumers: housing utilities (roughly 25% of total consumption emissions per person), transport (26%) and diet (33%).   Importantly, people can make a difference not just as individuals but also as political and organisational actors.  We can vote for collective changes that we may not be willing to make voluntarily on our own.  The rider will want to know if others are taking action too, or choosing to free-ride.

The elephant needs motivation to act.  Here are three clear motivators we can start with:

  • A positive vision for the future. Research suggests that people are more motivated by hopeful visions than disaster scenarios. Fear appeals cause overwhelm and disengagement. Hope appeals inspire interest and creativity. We can create and communicate a positive, hopeful vision for New Zealand’s future low-emission economy and a manageable transition for getting us there.
  • Personal values. For some people, the “why” for reducing emissions will come from satisfying self-interest. This could mean saving money, gaining status, getting better-quality products and services, being energy-independent or building political leverage. In the long term, for the kind of transformation we are looking for, the “why” may need to come from redefining or transcending self-interest. We will need broad support for change even when the losses to some appear more immediate, more personal and easier to measure than the long-term gains to all. I hope that ultimately we will choose to take action because we understand that we are connected and interdependent, across countries, across ecosystems and across generations. My emission reductions and my votes may not directly help protect my house and my family today, but as part of collective effort they will help protect someone’s house and someone’s family for decades to come and that matters to me.
  • Social networks. We are social creatures and we learn by copying others and seeking their approval. Likewise, when we model effective action, then others can learn from us. Each of us can be a leader, and we need to find ways to make our emission-reduction actions more collaborative and more visible.

Finally, we need to shape New Zealand’s pathway.   Individuals who want to make a difference are constrained by today’s infrastructure, technology and policy.  This is where market-based instruments like the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme, research and development, business initiatives and government policies come into play.  Motu’s programme on Shaping New Zealand’s Low-Emission Future” is working to progress new possibilities through research, dialogue and international engagement.

To avoid dangerous temperature increases, we have to limit cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and move toward a zero-net-emission global economy.  Business as usual won’t deliver an attractive future.  To avoid repeating the mistakes of inaction on climate change, we need to address the head, the heart and the path by providing:

  • clear information about practical solutions and proof of collective, effective action
  • a positive vision and positive values reinforced by strong social networks
  • broad and sustained public and political support for enabling infrastructure, technology, business action and government policy.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room and back on the road.


Reference:  Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. 2010. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.


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