“Sermons” as a Climate Change Policy Tool: Do They Work? Evidence From the International Community


The United States has now formally acknowledged climate change as a threat, and it appears that our nation is poised to begin the process of formulating a response. Many of our peer nations reached this point years earlier. Their experiences to date may have value in helping us craft a combination of policy mechanisms to achieve carbon emissions reductions.

Communication campaigns that attempt to educate, engage and/or change people’s behavior are one potential element of our national response to climate change. Evert Vedung’s trenchant analysis of governmental policy options provides a valuable perspective on communication campaigns. He theorizes that these instruments can be reduced to three broad categories: carrots, also known as incentives; sticks or regulations; and sermons, in this case communication campaigns.
Indeed, “sermonizing”—or conducting communication campaigns—has been embraced by many nations that are responding to climate change.

To gain perspective on what has been accomplished by national climate change communication initiatives elsewhere, we have been reviewing the formal evaluations of some of those campaigns. Three experiences from the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and Sweden are particularly well documented. We present a brief summary of those efforts below, and close with some preliminary conclusions.

The UK has taken a lead international role in developing climate change policy, particularly within the EU and the Group of Eight nations. It also has a long record of experience with climate change campaigns domestically. Prior to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, the deputy prime minister requested a campaign to promote individuals’ environmentally responsible actions. “Are You Doing Your Bit?” launched in March 1998, emphasized the connection between simple actions at home, while traveling, while shopping, and at work in order to preserve the environment.

In line with recommended best practices for communication campaigns, public opinion research data was used to shape the initiative’s objectives. This research identified four barriers toindividual action: distancing, confusion, helplessness and apathy. The campaign sought to make the environment a mainstream issue, promote awareness of pro-environmental actions, create a strong link between climate change and individual actions, and create a strong brand identity.

The target audience was defined broadly as 87% of the population who were concerned about the environment. The first year of the campaign featured print and radio advertising, free vehicle emissions checks and a series of paid advertorials aimed at women. Television advertising was added the following year. These ads utilized celebrities doing small actions for the environment, combining humor and star power to grab the audience’s interest. The initial budget for the campaign from 1998 to 2002 totaled £28.4 million (about US$45 million).

Approximately six months after the start of the television ads, a survey found that 89% of the target audience recognized the ads, and 66% accepted the premise that “doing my bit” will make a difference. 49% claimed to have learned something new from the campaign, and 38% said it motivated them to try more pro-environmental behaviors.

The impact on people’s actual behavior predictably was less. Approximately 20% of respondents aware of the campaign claimed to have changed their behavior as a result. By March 2000 Members of Parliament were unhappy with the campaign. A House of Commons report stated the effort was “half-hearted and ill-focused,” but concluded with support for follow-on efforts aiming at long-term, specific behavioral changes, instead of general public awareness.

Foot and mouth disease swept through the UK the next spring, and with it the agency that conducted the campaign was re-organized with its environmental duties, transferred to the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The final year of the program (2001-2002), DEFRA allocated most of the campaigns funds to the outbreak, officially ending the initiative in 2003. A new campaign, called “Act on CO2”, was launched in 2007 and plans are underway to expand its size and scope in 2008-2009.

Like the UK, Canada gave voice early on to grave concerns about climate change. Two decades ago Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called climate change a risk “second only to nuclear war.” However, Canada’s ability to build and sustain a national response has been hampered by internal political discord over the country’s emission reduction targets. Canada’s One-Tonne Challenge—an education and outreach program developed and launched during a period while the Liberal Party sat in power in Ottawa, but not renewed once Conservatives gained control—provides a case in point.

The challenge urged Canadians to reduce their carbon emissions by an average of one tonne  of their estimated five-tonne yearly total. Unveiled in March 2004, the campaign engendered controversy from the beginning, particularly for its price tag—$37 million Canadian dollars (about US$32 million) over the course of three years. The One-Tonne Challenge included print and radio ads, with high-visibility television spots featuring a popular comedian (English ads) and an actor (French ads) starting nine months after the initial launch. Before the program ended in March 2006, more than one million print guides were distributed, and a website featuring an emissions calculator, tips, and information on incentives had received 4.2 million hits.

A baseline survey to assess public awareness and energy conservation was conducted in 2003, and tracking surveys followed. During its brief run, the campaign achieved moderately high levels of public awareness (51% by 2005) and understanding of its goal (78% of those aware of the campaign). Moreover, 32% of respondents to the 2005 survey claimed to have participated in the program.

As the Conservative government took office in Ottawa in 2006, the $10 billion (US$8.6 billion) in emission reduction programs created under the opposition party came under scrutiny, and the One-Tonne Challenge’s funding was not renewed. A subsequent review conducted in 2007 by a consulting firm concluded that while the program should have been improved, it merited continued funding.

As early as 1991, Sweden began implementing policies to reduce carbon emissions, becoming one of the first nations to initiate a CO2 tax. Today it remains an international leader on climate, declaring last year that it would focus its upcoming EU presidency on the issue. Sweden has also used communication campaigns as a component of its national climate program. One short-term campaign led by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—“Something strange is happening to the weather”—ran between 2002 and 2003. Aimed at increasing awareness of causes and impacts of climate change and shaping positive attitudes about individual behavior change, the campaign targeted the 5 million Swedes who were deemed “dozing community activists.” The national effort—designed on the basis of extensive audience research—featured two famous Swedish weathermen who appeared at local events across the country. Ads were also run on television, billboards and in newspapers.

A survey of Swedish public attitudes conducted before the campaign and again a year later found a six percentage point increase—from 68% to 74%—in the number of people who believed they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There was also a 10 percentage point gain—from 57% to 67%—in understanding that climate change is caused by emissions from fossil fuels.

The campaign was originally budgeted for 90 million kronor (approximately US$9 million) and was supposed to run from 2002 to 2004. The campaign was terminated early because “the
overall budget in Sweden was tight,” according to Sweden’s current EPA climate project leader.

When evaluating climate sermons as a policy option, estimating their potential impact on national energy consumption and establishing the conditions under which they can be expected to be most effective are both crucial components. In developed nations, personal transportation and household energy use constitute a sizable portion of overall carbon emissions—roughly 25-50% in the case of those discussed here. In an article currently in press in the UCLA Law Review, Vanderbilt University’s Michael Vandenbergh and colleagues claim that energy efficiency campaigns aimed at individuals when combined with incentive programs may be less expensive than other policy options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and could result in substantial emission reductions.

The experiences of the UK, Canada and Sweden demonstrate that climate change communication campaigns appear to influence large numbers of people in relatively short periods of time. As to be expected based on past pro-social behavioral campaigns, these initiatives were more effective at influencing people’s knowledge and beliefs than their behaviors, but there is evidence of behavioral shifts.

The successes of these campaigns are especially noteworthy given the factors that may have compromised their impact:

  • All three campaigns had a relatively short run. The academic literature on pro-social communication campaigns indicates that longer campaigns with higher message reach and frequency typically achieve stronger behavior change outcomes. The relative brevity of the UK, Canadian and Swedish climate campaigns appear not to be the exception, but the norm. Although the recommended minimum campaign length under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is five years, the average program length of forty-one EU nation campaigns was two years and eleven months, according to the EU’s Evaluation of Behavior Change Programmes.
  • Recommended best practice for campaign design entails segmenting the audience and targeting different audience segments with different approaches. However, these threecampaigns all targeted the majority of the population, largely in an undifferentiated manner.
  • Most importantly, none of these three campaigns offered carrots or used sticks to support the recommendations in their sermons. Again, this appears to be the norm rather than the exception, at least in the EU. The EU’s climate campaign analysis group found that among forty-one national campaigns, regulatory (15% of cases) and economic policy instruments (23%) were rarely used to support the goals of the climate campaign.

The effectiveness of these climate campaigns is largely consistent with decades of evidence from public health. A meta-analysis of public health campaigns led by University of Connecticut’s Leslie Snyder demonstrated that on average 9% of the targeted campaign audience changed their behaviors. Higher average gains were achieved when the promoted behaviors were legally enforceable, when the campaigns achieved higher rates of message reach and frequency, and when the information presented was new to members of the target audience.

These cases also demonstrate the vulnerability of climate campaigns to changing political winds. All three campaigns lost funding. This is at odds with the sustained commitments these nations have shown in using campaigns to pursue important social goals such as reducing smoking and promoting road safety. We see important opportunities for communication campaigns to help achieve energy conservation as a component of future climate policy in the US. However, the US would be wise to heed the lessons learned from recent experiences in the UK, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere as we pursue this path.

Karen Akerlof (kakerlof@gmu.edu) is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Policy program at George Mason University (GMU)and a research assistant with Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C, http://www.climatechangecommunication.org). Edward W. Maibach (emaibach@gmu.edu) is Professor in the Department of Communication and Director of 4C at GMU.



Print This Post Print This Post

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 12:53 pm and is filed under Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Environmental Degradation, Europe, Globalization, Regulation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


Leave a Reply