Should we combat climate change using laws and regulations or by trying to inherently change the individual's value-system?
When I review my own behaviour, I notice how part of it is dictated by laws and regulations and part based on my personal value-system. In psychological terms, we often talk about extrinsic motivators versus intrinsic motivators; laws and regulations being extrinsic motivators while my personal values are intrinsic motivators. A large part of my upbringing was focussed on following instructions comparable to laws and regulations e.g. school and church. At the same time, I was trained to be critical of what was asked of me. I would ask myself “how does this serve me?” and “do I agree with the underlying assumptions.''
My level of criticality increased the older and “wiser” I got. For example, as a young teenager I started refusing the socially required dress-code; a pleated dress with a massive bow on the butt, that I absolutely despised. To me, what matters is who you are on the inside, rather than what you look like on the outside. A more important example, is my choice in education. As a young girl from my social class, my parents were expected to enrol me at the Domestic Science School- a school meant to teach young women how to be a proper Dutch housewives. My father told me: “ If you are born for a dime, you will never be a quarter”. Luckily my mother, being a rather rebellious feminist herself, supported me in deciding to educate myself according to my abilities. I ended up getting various University degrees- something I am very proud of.
The point is, when a law or regulation is not in line with a person’s value-system, the person’s value-system is likely to override the law or regulation (dependent on the system of punishment that is in place). If there is alignment between the two, the result will lead to a “positive” change in behaviour. This is easily illustrated by a driver’s behaviour. Say the speed limit on a certain road is decreased from 130km/hr to 100 km/hr. If a driver values safety and the environment over anything else, the change will not affect the driver and therefore be automatically accepted. However, if a driver values efficiency or adrenaline over safety or the environment, they will not like this change. If there is a speed camera present, the driver might change their behaviour and adhere to the new speed limit. However, guaranteed the driver will go back to driving 130km/hr in unguarded parts of the road. As soon as the expectation of punishment is gone the motivation may disappear.
Depending solely on laws and regulations allows people to leave all responsibility with the government. Trust in the expertise of the government is essential for this to work. Depending solely on the individual’s value-system, puts all responsibility on oneself. This requires the individual to be an expert on the matter. Neither one on its own is a perfect method; the first one disregards the individual while the second one is unpredictable and might disregard the common good.
In my opinion, government has two pivotal roles in guiding behavioural change. The first is to implement effective laws and regulations as a method of steering group behaviour. It can result in mass behavioural changes for the benefit of society as a whole. Secondly, government has a responsibility to provide the public with clear and truthful information. Truthful information helps people turn rather abstract values into concrete actions that have a predictable outcome. In this era of false information, we experience the risk that our actions do not lead to the expected results, thereby discouraging people to take further action. In practice, truthful information is communicated through education and public dialogue that aims to empower the people.
When it comes to the climate emergency, laws and regulations are in their infant phase. This means many changes forced upon us are yet to come. Our role, as individuals living under this uncertainty, is to be prepared to change our behaviours- a challenge we will likely have difficulty with. We can do this by being aware of and building up our own individual value-systems. What do I really care about? As a parent, an entrepreneur, a leader, and human living on this Earth.