How strong is the connection between climate change beliefs and behavior? According to a bunch of studies: not very. Consider the recently published "Believing in climate change, but not behaving sustainably: Evidence from a one-year longitudinal study" (Hall, Lewis et al, 2018), in which study participants were categorized as 1) skeptics, 2) cautiously worried, or 3) highly concerned, depending on their beliefs about climate change. Over the course of a year, researchers periodically contacted participants to gauge their support for various climate-related policies and to document self-reported pro-environmental behaviors, such as recycling, using public transportation, buying environmentally friendly consumer products, and using reusable shopping bags.
According to the authors, the “highly concerned” were the least likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors while the “skeptics” were the most likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. True, the highly concerned folks were the most supportive of climate-related policies, but support for such policies and pro-environmental behaviors were largely uncorrelated.
The above findings were not a fluke. A 2016 meta-analysis of similar studies (Hornsey et al, 2016) found essentially the same thing. To quote: “…climate change beliefs have only a modest impact on the extent to which people are willing to act in climate friendly ways” (p. 2). Another paper, “Contributions of psychology to limiting climate change” (Stern 2011) concluded that psychological factors like beliefs about climate change have the strongest influence on behavior when external constraints are weak - i.e., when it’s not hard, costly, or inconvenient to act in climate-friendly ways.
It seems to boil down to this: people are willing to “walk the talk” of their climate change beliefs if it doesn’t entail too much sacrifice to do so. So what increases willingness to sacrifice? Perceived behavioral control - at least according to the “theory of planned behavior”, which specifically addresses the belief-behavior link. Perceived behavioral control is the sense that a behavior or task is doable, that the difficulties are surmountable. It’s similar to the concept of self-efficacy, the wonderful confidence that one can do what it takes to achieve a goal. Yes, I can.
And, yes, it does appear that perceived behavioral control increases willingness to sacrifice, which in turn increases pro-environmental behavior. For instance, Oreg and Katz-Gerro (2006) looked at the factors associated with pro-environmental behavior in 27 countries, including environmental concerns, sense of threat, perceived behavioral control, and willingness to sacrifice. This is what they found: “the strongest of our model’s hypothesized relationships turned out between perceived behavioral control and willingness to sacrifice and between willingness to sacrifice and environmental citizenship” (p. 14).
There’s one question that none of this research addressed: why are climate-change skeptics such good environmental citizens, at least when it comes to their personal behavior? I’m going to hazard a guess: skeptics are often sticklers. That is, they insist on certain standards, both for beliefs and behaviors. As sticklers for accuracy, they are less impressed by arguments from authority (the scientific consensus). As sticklers for doing things a certain way, they will do exactly that. Through hell or high water.
Ok, being a “stickler” is kinda hard to operationalize for hypothesis-testing - but I think I’m onto something.
Note: None of this is to suggest that beliefs are merely a reflection of psychology. Regardless of their psychological underpinnings, beliefs can be independently evaluated for their truth-value and usefulness.
Hall, M. P., N. A. Lewis, et al. (2018). "Believing in climate change, but not behaving sustainably: Evidence from a one-year longitudinal study." Journal of Environmental Psychology 56: 55-62. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494418301488
Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G., & Fielding, K. S. (2016). Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, 6, 622e626. https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2943
Oreg, S. and T. Katz-Gerro (2006). "Predicting Pro-environmental Behavior Cross-Nationally: Values, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and Value-Belief-Norm Theory." Environment and Behavior 38(4): 462-483. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916505286012
Stern, P. C. (2011). Contributions of psychology to limiting climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4), 303e314. http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-09485-006