Reuse cutlery but shun public transport? What’s driving inconsistent behaviour in climate change

Reuse cutlery but shun public transport? What's driving inconsistent behaviour in climate change


In attempting to better understand inconsistent thinking around sustainability issues, a useful model is that of the intention-behaviour gap – or simply put, when intention doesn’t always translate into action.

This gap can go up to 75 per cent, by Dr Chng’s estimate, which means only one in four people who say they will do something actually do it.

But there is another gap, earlier in one’s thought process, where only say 50 per cent of people make the leap from attitude to having intention to act.

Compound this with the intention-behaviour gap and you end up with only a very small percentage of people whose actions align with their attitude, said Dr Chng.

Additionally, people are more likely to act if something is “in their face”, said Dr Dillon.

This phenomenon, known as construal level theory, refers to psychological distance with self as the referral point.

It can be further broken down into temporal distance (whether an event is in the past, present or future); spatial distance (how close a location is); social distance (how well we know people who share perspectives); and hypothetical distance (how likely something is to happen). 

Essentially, if we hear about climate events that occur far away from us or that have affected unknown people, it’s difficult to recognise it as an issue requiring immediate action by ourselves, Dr Dillon noted.

Even if we do recognise the need to take action, it remains too abstract to understand exactly what actions – collectively or individually – are required, to avoid this ambiguous threat.  

People are thus more likely to act if something happens closer to home and which we’re able to witness firsthand, as well as perceive that something could happen to us here and now, she said.

With Singapore, a major indicator that people draw on is the weather – and its relative predictability might mask warning signs. 

“Since our place in the tropics – and close to the equator – has us experiencing hot weather most of the time, that is not a clear enough indication that we need to act,” said Dr Dillon. 

Climate change reports also tend to discuss what will happen to Earth in hundreds of years, Dr Chng pointed out. “That is something that people find very difficult to engage in. And this isn’t just for sustainability – people just find it very difficult to think about the future,” he said. 

“If you’re telling people that (climate change) is going to happen in 50 years time, maybe (they’ll care). If you’re telling someone in their 70s, probably not, but if you’re telling someone in their 20s to 30s, they (will realise) that’s going to happen within their lifetime.”