Research Summary

Beliefs and Willingness to Act About Global Warming: Where to Focus Science Pedagogy?

Focusing Pro-Climate Behavior Education

Science Education

There is a vast array of pro-environmental behaviors people can adopt to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigate the contribution of human activity to global climate change—from turning off lights, to composting, to biking instead of driving. Few studies have looked at which behaviors are the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of being most likely to be adopted by students after an environmental education experience. In this study, researchers tried to identify pro-environmental behaviors science teachers are most likely to successfully foster—specifically, behaviors that limit students’ contribution to global climate change.

The researchers formulated three research questions to address their overarching questions: (1) What behaviors do students believe will most effectively reduce global warming? (2) What behaviors do students report they are most willing to do? and (3) Is there a connection between students’ perceived effectiveness of behaviors and their willingness to do them? Since the research was conducted in two different countries—England and Australia—the researchers also investigated whether the responses differed between these groups of students from these two countries.

The subjects of this study were secondary students: 785 students from 4 randomly selected public schools in England and 500 students from 3 randomly selected public schools in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. All of the students were given the same questionnaire. Half of the questionnaire items asked about how students’ perceived the effectiveness of different behaviors, while the other half of the items assessed students’ intentions to adopt those behaviors. The questionnaire asked about 20 different behaviors: 12 of these behaviors were actions that directly reduce global warming, such as turning off lights or eating less meat; 4 were indirect behaviors, such as voting for pro-environmental legislation; and 4 were scientifically incorrect “distractor” behaviors (results from these distractor questions were not reported in the paper).

The researchers developed several indices to analyze the data. Their environmental friendliness (EF) coefficient described how a student’s actions compared to his or her perceived usefulness of the behavior. The researchers hypothesized there would be a positive linear relationship between action and belief; in other words, students would be more likely to perform an action they believed to be useful. The EF coefficient measured how much responses differed from that linear norm. A positive value meant a student reported being likely to perform the pro-environmental action even though they perceived the action to be relatively ineffective at reducing climate change. On the other hand, negative EF values were given to students who reported being unlikely to adopt a behavior even though they thought it would significantly help reduce global warming.

Additionally, researchers calculated four indices: (1) potential effectiveness of education, (2) natural willingness to act, (3) natural reluctance to act, and (4) potential usefulness of education. These were based on plots of the responses for each behavior, where the perceived effectiveness of the behavior was on one axis and the willingness to act was on the other. A linear regression was drawn through each resulting plot. The slope of this line was regarded as the potential effectiveness of education, because it indicated the extent to which the willingness to perform an action might be increased by teachers persuading students of the effectiveness of that action. The natural reluctance to act indicated the reluctance to take action even though it is perceived to be highly effective. The natural willingness to act indicated the willingness to do the action even though it is perceived to have little or no effect on reducing climate change. The fourth measure, potential usefulness of education, was developed to further refine the potential effectiveness of education index, by taking into account the proportion of the respondents not already intending to take that action. In other words, this final index was based on the idea that education may be better targeted at actions students are not already willing to do rather than actions most students are already doing or intending to do (e.g., if the majority of students already recycle, it may be less useful to teach about recycling).

Results indicated similar beliefs about the usefulness of actions across the two cohorts from England and Australia. These beliefs generally reflected scientific knowledge, although there were some exceptions. For example, more than 50% of students believed that obtaining more energy from renewable resources would reduce global warming, whereas only 15% to 20% believed that reducing meat consumption would reduce global warming (although scientific studies demonstrate that reduced consumption of meat actually would reduce global warming).

In terms of willingness to take action, there were significant differences between the two cohorts. Generally, Australian students expressed greater willingness to take action and demonstrated higher coefficients of environmental friendliness. The authors posit this finding could be related to the Australian formal school curriculum, which includes environmental education projects and activities.

Both groups of students expressed a lower willingness to act than would be predicted from their believed usefulness of those actions. Essentially, students were not as willing to adopt pro-environmental actions as their environmental awareness might suggest. This finding adds to growing evidence in EE research that there isn’t a direct or linear relationship between knowledge and behavior. In other words, more than simply increasing knowledge is needed to change behaviors.

Analyzing the potential usefulness of education index, the researchers found that eating less meat, utilizing renewable energy resources, and transitioning to artificial fertilizer-free (organic) food ranked as the activities with the highest potential for teachers to positively influence through education. These behaviors had high usefulness indices because large percentages of the students either were not taking these actions or remained unaware of their significant environmental benefit. Additionally, indirect actions, such as support for taxation, legislation, and intergovernmental agreements, all show high potential for being effected through education. Using nuclear energy, however, held lower potential for effectiveness, as students tended to be reluctant in their willingness to support this approach. Other actions, such as recycling and switching off electrical appliances, also had low potential usefulness, since most students were already engaging in these behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Certain pro-environmental behaviors that reduce climate change may be more useful and effective for environmental educators to address than others, because they are at the nexus of what youth perceive to be important and effective. Behaviors that may be most useful to address include eating less meat, using renewable energy resources, and transitioning to artificial fertilizer-free (organic) food, since most of the students in this study were not already doing these behaviors and the students were mostly unaware of the significant environmental benefit of these actions. Indirect pro-climate actions, such as participating in the political process and voting for pro-environmental legislation, may also be important to discuss in environmental education initiatives, although these behaviors may not be as relevant or appropriate for students because of the students’ age and the policy implications and aspects of the behaviors.