If you go food shopping in a hurry, you make choices that can affect fish populations in the ocean. Illustration: Thinkstock

Why we struggle to change our climate habits

Overfishing is part of the climate problem. There is little doubt that we need to change our habits, but what exactly do we need to do, and why is it so difficult?

CLIMATE AND FOOD: Technology that is bad for the environment, natural disasters and overfishing the oceans — without question, the world is facing major challenges. Although a broad consensus exists among scientists that humankind is guilty, and that we should take responsibility, efforts to prevent calamitous climate change are moving slowly.Why is that?

To answer that, we took a trip to see Christian Klöckner and Isabel Richter.

Klöckner is a professor in Social Psychology and quantitative methods at NTNU, and Richter is a PhD candidate in NTNU’s Department of Psychology. They study environmental behaviour and how people relate to the growing challenges of climate change — from a psychological perspective.

Emptying the oceans of fish

Richter’s doctoral thesis deals with how to motivate people to eat seafood in a more sustainable way. Today, overfishing of certain species has significantly affected many fisheries worldwide.

Vi varierer for lite. Kanskje du skulle prøve en annen fisk neste gang? Foto: Thinkstock

We don’t change our eating choices very much. Perhaps we should choose a different type of fish next time? Photo: Thinkstock

It’s not just that we fish too much. A considerable part of the problem is also that people, Norwegians included, are eating too much of the same fish. Too many people limit themselves to only 2-4 different species rather than varying them more.

“The World Health Organization says it’s healthy to eat fish once or twice a week. That’s true as far as it goes, but if everyone did this, it wouldn’t be a sustainable model. There’s not enough seafood for that. Although fish is a renewable resource, it’s important to balance the information we get — fish are a renewable resource only if we allow it to be renewable,” Richter says.

Food is identity

Richter is looking at factors such as norms, habits, attitudes, feelings and identity in her research. She is currently in the data collection phase, but already she and Klöckner have a great deal to say on the topic.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that food is not just food. It’s more than that — it’s connected to our identity. And we don’t like our identity to be challenged.

Vi er vanedyr som spiser det vi er vant til. Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

We are creatures of habit who eat what we are used to eating. Illustration: Thinkstock

“Everything that has to do with food is strongly linked to our identity. When our identity is challenged, often our behaviour remains unchanged. This is a traditional defence mechanism,” says Klöckner.

Change triggers our defence mechanisms

That begs the question: why is food so strongly linked to our identity?

Food is one of the most central aspects of our identity as humans. Norway’s traditions revolve around fish and meat, which are more accessible than vegetables. These strongly held food traditions make the topic an emotionally loaded one, according to Richter.

“People can get very aggressive when they talk about these issues. It’s an emotional conflict that is tied to many feelings,” she says.

She mentions a number of common defence mechanisms that come up when topics such as sustainable food and vegetarian food are discussed: “We can’t grow vegetables”; “we need protein”; or “it doesn’t make any difference if we change our habits when China and the United States keep on doing the same as before”.

But are these excuses really what’s stopping us from saving the climate? Or at least contributing to a change? The problem may lie even deeper, in a part of our brain that is linked to our habits.

Force of habit

Let’s just admit it right away: human beings are pretty lazy by nature.

We are simply creatures of habit, and that is something we can actually be happy about.

Our ability to store new habits is essential when it comes to our evolution as a human species. A simple example that illustrates this is your ability to back the car out of the garage — while simultaneously thinking about something else entirely. You’ve done it so many times that it has become an automatic process. The brain frees up capacity that can be used on other things.

But habits can work against us, too.

According to the researchers, the problem with habits is that they are automated, and they cut out other information that recommends a habit change. You disregard this information because you are apparently “rewarded” for following the old habit.

However, this reward isn’t always that constructive or appropriate for us. And what we think of as a reward can quickly turn out to be something completely different in the long run.

Choose another store

Klöckner and Richter believe that habit change is a key piece of the climate puzzle.

“Deactivating negative habits first to provide room for change, and then to establish new positive habits, is quite important for everyday behaviour,” they say.

Isabel Richter. Foto: NTNU

Isabel Richter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at NTNU.

“A good way to change habits is to change the context. Your eating habits especially are affected by what’s around you, so one thing you can do is consciously choose another store the next time you shop.”

Klöckner says it’s much easier to change a habit when the brain is challenged more than usual. By shopping at a new store you have to actively seek out the groceries you want, and the brain has to shift out of the automatic shopping pattern it usually follows.

According to Klöckner, time pressure is our worst enemy. “If you want to change your habits, you need time, even when you’re shopping. Don’t put yourself under time pressure, because then you’ll take the food you’re familiar with. If you decide to buy fish, it pays to stay curious. Taste several varieties, check the label or use a food guide to help you,” he suggests.

“Making a change requires effort, but if you as an individual change your habits, the demand for different foods can also change,” he adds.

Need a feeling reaction

Klöckner has a dream. A dream about having a traffic light system in the shopping cart. A device that lights up as green, yellow or red when an item is scanned. The light would indicate how environmentally friendly or healthy a product is.

“But I’m not entirely sure that supermarket chains would welcome a system like this,” says Klöckner and chuckles.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Klöckner is on to something. If we’re going to get anywhere, we have to put this new knowledge we have to work.

But to use it, an emotional reaction may be necessary first. Feelings can be catalysts for change, as most of us know.

Anger, guilt and joy are a few key words.

He explains that in climate communication, a lot of the information is factual, which is easy to distance oneself from. Feelings you experience physically. This means that the climate isn’t just a problem for a random polar bear or someone who lives in Bangladesh any longer. Climate change suddenly becomes personal.

Keyhole labelling for sustainable seafood

But that doesn’t do much good if we don’t change our behaviour.

“We need to create a situation where people are able to use the information that’s available. Product labelling is one way to do this,” says Richter.

MSC labelling is an established identification method on fish products, which can be compared with the keyhole label. It is an environmental standard for sustainable fishing, developed collaboratively by the fishing industry, scientists and environmental organizations.

Finding an MSC label on a product can give you greater confidence that you are contributing to sustainable fisheries. But surprisingly few people know about this labelling scheme, according to Richter.

“These labels are everywhere, certainly on more than half of the seafood found in the freezer section, but many people that I’ve talked to don’t know what they are,” she says.

“People know that they need to eat better, but few know that a seafood problem exists. Many people are still just focusing on eating more fish,” she adds.