09/14/2011 11:54 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

Personal Values and Climate Change

I mentioned on a previous post the importance of tailoring a message to the intended audience to achieve rapport and successful communication. In short, people understand messages that make sense to them. I did not mention that people's values and beliefs are critical for perfecting one's message. Factors like background, ethnicity, social and economic status, religion, and political affiliation play a vital role in how people perceive information. So, when a message is perfectly tailored, passed along, and understood, the communicator feels happy and satisfied, and assumes that the message will actually have some influence on someone's behavior. In the case of climate change, we assume that the audience realizes the importance of global warming, and will act accordingly.


What people think is important does not correlate with how they act, or with their level of direct engagement in activities. Talking specifically about climate change, a recent report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that environmental knowledge does not necessarily lead to a pro-environmental behavior. Another study on sustainable practices found that people who have very high levels of commitment to the environment at home are more likely to engage in less sustainable behaviors when vacationing. If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering how that can be (even as you nod to yourself, thinking "I really should be taking public transportation more often...").

So, what gives? A possible explanation in a recent article discusses people's intrinsic and extrinsic values and how they shape people's beliefs and behaviors, especially in relation to climate change. It explains that extrinsic values highlight things such as image and social and financial status, while intrinsic values relate to closeness to friends and family and commitment to the community. The former are associated with lower levels of concern with, and commitment to, issues such as global poverty and biodiversity loss, while the latter are more likely to lead to actively addressing those challenges. It follows logically that if we want people to relate to environmental issues, and act accordingly, we should focus on intrinsic values. However, as the article states, sometimes organizations end up inadvertently appealing to people's extrinsic values, in order to get immediate (and frequently time-sensitive) results. Examples would be saving energy to save money -- an appeal to an extrinsic value, because people are just thinking of the money, not of reducing demand for energy and mitigate greenhouse gases in the long term (an intrinsic value), or protecting a certain habitat to keep the water supply -- an extrinsic value, because people only want to have water, not maintain ecosystem services or simply protect the environment at a larger scale (an intrinsic value).

Excessive focus on extrinsic values is probably behind the disconnect between knowledge and behavior on environmental issues. Very likely, once savings are not realized anymore, people would return to their energy usage ways, and if another source of water comes along, people would not care about that specific habitat anymore. So, the challenge to conservation practitioners is to find and use the right strategy, one that appeals to people's intrinsic values, to ensure success in the long run and show people the big picture. Maybe when we accomplish that, conservation will be easier to achieve.