After decades of trying to engage people with solutions to climate change, it’s time to go beyond behaviour change and recognize people as agents of change, rather than objects to be changed.

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Researchers remind us almost daily that time is running out – they warn us that we have only a few years to “bend the curves” of greenhouse gas emissions. The world is warming, and the consequences are increasingly visible – more rapidly than many scientists expected. Scientists are increasingly concerned that we will at some point reach tipping points where it becomes difficult to avoid a “hothouse Earth”.

But just as there are physical tipping points that can irreversibly change the Earth system dynamics, there are social tipping points that can move us towards a sustainable world. But how do we transform at the rate, scale, magnitude and depth called for by the research, in an equitable, ethical and sustainable way?

My research at the University of Oslo focuses on the change part of climate change, and especially the social and human dimensions of sustainability transformations and the relationship between individual change, collective change, and systems change. While we recognize that technology and measurement are important, we know that people are truly the solutions to climate change, and at the moment they are underutilized.

Part of the reason for this may be how we perceive the problem itself.

How we think about change: What's missing?

In their book on Adaptive Leadership, Ron Heifetz and colleagues distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges.

A technical problem is one that can be diagnosed and solved by applying or improving established knowledge, know-how and expertise. In the context of addressing climate change, this includes developing renewable energy, building higher sea walls, breeding drought-tolerant crops, more elaborate measurement systems, improving early warning systems, designing new international agreements, etc.

There is absolutely no doubt that these are important, but climate change is more than a technical problem. It is an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges draw attention to mindsets and ways of making meaning. They focus on the diverse beliefs, values, and worldviews that we hold, individually and collectively, which influence our identities, interests and loyalties. Adaptive challenges almost always have important technical dimensions, but unless the adaptive elements are addressed, technical responses alone are likely to fail. While knowledge and expertise are key to managing technical problems, beliefs, assumptions, values and even emotions are key to addressing adaptive challenges.

Adaptive challenges are personal because although our beliefs and assumptions are often invisible to reflection and introspection, they influence how we perceive and frame problems and solutions.

Confronting adaptive challenges can be uncomfortable, because they often threaten our identities and interests, and bring up emotions we would rather avoid. They are also political. They involve challenging the given – what we take for granted and assume “just is”.

Climate change is not a post-political issue where we just need to look beyond our differences and cooperate; instead we need to make differences in beliefs and values clear, then use both personal and political transformations to promote systemic change. Approaching our work as an adaptive challenge means taking humans and human interactions seriously.

Diving deeper

The Three Spheres Framework (Figure 1) draws attention to the interacting domains where transformations to sustainability can occur. These domains are referred to as the practical, political and personal spheres of transformation.

 Figure 1: The Three Spheres of Transformation: Transformations to sustainability occur in three interacting domains — the practical, political and personal spheres.   K O’Brien and L Sygna, 2013; M Sharma, 2009


Figure 1: The Three Spheres of Transformation: Transformations to sustainability occur in three interacting domains — the practical, political and personal spheres. K O’Brien and L Sygna, 2013; M Sharma, 2009

The practical sphere often receives the most attention in corporate sustainability. This is where progress towards goals can be observed and measured. Transformations in this sphere often involve promoting innovation, improving management, enhancing knowledge and expertise, and changing people’s behaviour. These are largely “technical responses” — challenging, but not impossible.  

The political sphere includes the social systems and structures that create the conditions for transformations in the practical sphere. It is where problems and solutions are identified, defined, and delimited, and power imbalances and conflicts of interest must be resolved.

The personal sphere includes the individual and shared beliefs, values, worldviews and paradigms that influence attitudes and actions. These shape individual and collective “views” of the system.

Transformations in the personal sphere can be very powerful, often leading to new perspectives and narratives which influence the way we frame issues, the questions we ask or don’t ask, and the solutions we prioritize. The leading systems thinker, Donella Meadows, believed that the most powerful and rapid levers for systems change lie in this sphere – in changing the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Meadow’s leverage points for systems change and their relationship to the practical, political and personal spheres of transformation. D H Meadows; 1999

Beyond behavioural change

Our current focus on behaviour change through communication, measurement, and more information is unlikely to lead to long-lasting sustainable change because nobody wants to be changed, period.

We are each much more than our individual carbon footprints, and we are more than what we eat or whether we recycle. Of course, these things matter, but it is only when we engage with larger systems and structures and activate individual and collective agency that we will really get the rapid, large-scale system changes we need.

Trying to change people's behaviour ignores the norms, rules, regulations, incentives, and interests that strive to maintain “behaviour as usual,” or even work to actively promote lifestyles that are anything but sustainable.

While our actions and words do influence others around us, creating ripple effects that can cascade through our networks, a broader notion of agency gives individuals an important role in collective change because we can extend our influence past our immediate sphere of influence, for example through conversations and collaborations.

An even deeper sense of agency draws attention to the personal and shared beliefs and assumptions that maintain the status quo e.g. the idea that high material consumption is essential to a healthy global economy; that individuals cannot influence systems; or that inequality and poverty are a given.

In practical terms, this means that significant power lies in our capacity for critical reflection and our ability to distinguish the beliefs that serve us well from those that threaten ecological systems and human security.

So, what’s really missing from our current approaches are the strategies and stories that connect with people and make them the heroes. The stories that allow people to be the protagonists, rather than merely objects that need to be changed. After decades of trying to engage people with solutions to climate change, it is time to engage people as the solutions to climate change. In other words, to recognize people as agents of change, rather than objects to be changed. Humans are not just the problem; they are the solution to climate change!

Karen O'Brien is a Professor at the  Department of Sociology and Human Geography, at the University of Oslo, and a co-founder of cCHANGE. She is a world-leading researcher on climate change, adaptation and transformations to sustainability. She has been an IPCC lead author and is a shared Nobel Prize recipient. O'Brien co-founded the Oslo-based consultancy cCHANGE, to offer insights and tools for sustainability leaders to engage people as the solution to climate change and sustainability challenges.

A representative from cCHANGE will be present at the upcoming Corporate Responsibility Reporting and Communications Summit in London. To get in touch, contact:


Image: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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