Insights from Early Covid-19 Responses About Promoting Sustainable Action

October 13, 2020

Dr. Tom Dietz, MSU University Distinguished Professor of Sociology, has published an article exploring what we can learn about the public responses to COVID-19 and how those lessons can be applied to global environmental crises.

"Insights from Early COVID-19 Responses About Promoting Sustainable Action" was published in the journal Nature Sustainability. In addition to Dr. Dietz, authors are Thijs Bouman and Linda Steg, both on faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. 

The authors believe that what makes effective public responses for COVID would be the same for environmental issues - strong personal norms. When people feel morally compelled and responsible to act, they are more likely to support actions to mitigate harm to the public.

"Many people feel that primarily others rather than themselves are impacted by global crises, including COVID-19 and global environmental crises like climate change and pollution," the authors wrote. "Hence individual responses to global crises seem to involve prosocial actions, actions that are believed as primarily having benefits for others and society, while having limited personal benefits, and sometimes even having substantial personal costs."

When COVID began to spread across the world, citizens were asked to drastically change their lifestyles. Past experience with climate change seemed to doom these efforts before they even began.

"Yet in multiple instances, public responses to COVID-19 have been remarkably well-coordinated, rapid and forceful, particularly at early state of the crises," the authors found. 

Examples include strict lockdowns in China, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa where schools and businesses were closed and mandatory quarentines in effect.  

One reason for the difference is that the consequences of COVID-19 are "relatively obvious, easy to understand and directly measurable." In places where governments communicated the number of persons infected and died, people were more aware and worried about the virus. People were able to understand how their individual actions had consequences and the results of those actions were almost immediately apparent.

"In contrast, many global environmental crises are associated with more uncertainties and are communicated and managed in less consistent ways," they wrote. 

So what can environmentalists do to increase public awareness and action?

  • Strengthen awareness of consequences and ascription of responsibility to promote personal norms and mitigative actions.
  • Make clear what actions are of greatest consequence and highlight the most critical actions.
  • Give people diverse reasons to act by showing them impacts on social, economic and national security systems.
  • Provide more concrete measures of failure (lives lost, species endangered or natural areas destroyed) instead of abstract measures such as CO2 emissions or temperature increases.

"Focusing on the impacts that individuals can easily relate to, and that affect them personally, may also increase personal relevance of global enviromental crises," they wrote.

In addition, actions by governments and the private sector are essential to create condictions where personal actions are feasible and attractive. With COVID-19, people were encouraged to work from home and compensation was given to those unable to work. 

"Similar measures could be impletmented to compensate those who would suffer from mitigating global environmental crises," they wrote."As was the case for COVID-19, strong, trusted leadership is needed to support mitigative actions at all levels of society."

Dr. Dietz is a human ecologist and environmental sociologist. His research focuses on the drivers of environmental change and human well being, on the social psychology of environmental decision making and on the interplay between science and values in decision making.  He was founding director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at MSU, and remains active there, in the Animal Studies Program and at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability