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Climate Corner: From the Center for Behavior and Climate

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ABA and Climate Change: the Time to Act is Now

by Rebecca Edgecumbe, MA, BCBA, and Jonathan Kimball, BCBA-D

It is undeniable that climate change is occurring at an accelerating rate.  Every day, unprecedented weather events attributed to climate change occur around the globe.  Our planet’s current climate crisis is a result of human actions, which have contributed increasing amounts of carbon and greenhouse gases into our atmosphere over the past 150 years. And at least half of our emissions have been produced in the last 30-40 years, after we knew of the effect on climate. To mitigate the worst effects of climate change and ensure a habitable planet for future generations, we need to dramatically reduce our emissions – immediately. As stated by the IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Jim Skea, “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F).”

Effectively addressing the current climate crisis requires changing human behavior. One may ask: How do we change human behavior?  What specific behaviors need to change?  What behaviors should we engage in instead?  How do we motivate people to make changes in their behavior? What can we do to ensure lasting behavior change?  What skills do people need to acquire to reduce their carbon footprint? What supports can we put in place to facilitate behavior change and the development of new habits?  These questions may seem daunting considering the enormity and critical importance of this challenge, but they are questions that behavior analysts address daily, applied to a host of behavior in homes, schools, and clinics. 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is “the science in which tactics derived from the principles of behavior are applied to improve socially significant behavior” (Cooper et al., 2020). When it comes to addressing problem behaviors such as environmentally unsustainable behaviors, behavior analysts assess the factors that account for its occurrence. Then they design and implement interventions to reduce the likelihood of that behavior. Throughout the process, behavior analysts are responsive to ongoing measurement: they use data to monitor progress toward goals, and to suggest changes when adjustments may be necessary.

The idea that ABA can address climate change is not a new one.  In 1948 B.F. Skinner discussed sustainable communities and practices in Walden Two. “Either we do nothing and allow a miserable and probably catastrophic future to overtake us, or we use our knowledge about human behavior to create a social environment in which we shall live productive and creative lives and do so without jeopardizing the chances that those who follow us will be able to do the same.”More recently, in the 2010 special section of The Behavior Analyst dedicated to climate change, Heward & Chance stated, “Behavior analysis, the science of behavior change, can and must help society combat climate change. The very purpose of applied behavior analysis is to develop a reliable technology for improving socially significant behavior). Is there any behavior more socially significant than behavior that could save civilization?”  

Certainly, some behavior analysts are actively working on researching and applying strategies to address climate change. Gelino et al. (2021) reviewed publications in peer-reviewed ABA journals and found 50 articles addressing sustainability topics published from 1970 to 2020.  By contrast however, there were over 450 articles related to autism in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis alone over the same period.  Not surprisingly, certificant data collected by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) show that as of January 2022, 72% of all BCBA certificants reported professional emphasis in autism spectrum disorders. Though data were not specifically collected on the percentage of behavior analysts working on climate change, the BACB did report .06% of certificants are working in areas related to public policy & advocacy, and 0.2% in the dissemination of behavior analysis – areas that may include emphasis on issues related to climate change. 

There are other areas where we can apply our science to benefit society besides autism. ABA can rise to this existential crisis facing us all, to effectively address human behaviors underlying the climate crisis.

So what is a behavior analyst to do regarding climate change?  We know how to change behaviors, but when it comes to the climate crisis there are so many behaviors to change.  Where do we start?  We do what we always do when faced with a challenge outside of our scope or area of expertise: consult and collaborate. Seek information from practitioners in other fields.  Within the field of autism behavior analysts know when and how to consult with a speech pathologist, psychiatrist, or physician, for example; we learn from their expertise, and they may benefit from behavioral principles, technology, or research methods.  In the case of climate change, behavior analysts can review existing, available research from climate and behavioral sciences, and participate in trainings, seminars, workshops, and conferences about climate change and human behavior.  One place to learn about empirically supported practices that promote pro-environmental behavior is The Center for Behavior and Climate’s online course Behavior Change for Climate Action 101 for Behavior Analysts. CEU credit for BCBAs is available. 

What behavior should be targeted for intervention if the goal is to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030? Ivanova et al. (2020) identified four primary areas where changes in individual behaviors can have the greatest impact on greenhouse gas emissions: transportation, food, housing (primarily energy-related changes), and other consumer behaviors. 

Behavior analysts can develop or contribute to plans to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, with consideration for both behaviors that will make the biggest impact as well as behaviors that are easier to change. Carbon footprint calculators are available to determine one’s baseline carbon footprint and see how changing specific behaviors will reduce carbon and decrease that footprint.  Behavior analysts may need to shape our own behavior, even as we attempt to influence that of others: start small, then scale up. Develop a plan for yourself, or your household to reduce the carbon footprint and measure the results in meaningful terms (i.e., not just carbon reduction, but lowered utility bills, or increased time with family). Then share your success story with your neighbors, considering results that may be valuable to them. Form a neighborhood or community group to share ideas and support one another with making climate behavior changes. Talk to colleagues about developing sustainable habits in the workplace. Talk to teachers and administrators at schools about implementing sustainability lessons and programs. Scale up to the city, county, and state levels. Anecdotally, we know of two municipal sustainability coordinators who established productive relationships with behavior analysts who work in their respective city's schools. Behavior analysts have campaigned for state licensure and for medical parity laws at state and federal levels. The same skill set can be applied to campaigning for climate policies that substantially influence both producer and consumer behavior. 

Consider sustainable business practices within the provision of ABA services. Determine whether some clients would benefit from a combination of telehealth and direct services, or transition to telehealth all together. Consider limiting staff travel within specific geographic areas, or incentivizing fuel economy, or even purchasing company electric/hybrid vehicles to use for travel to clients’ homes. 

As hopefully more behavior analysts begin to participate in applying ABA to address climate change, it is important to share findings about effective and ineffective interventions both within the field of ABA, as well as in other venues and publications in behavior science, public policy, and climate change. Applied Behavior Analysis need to develop a greater presence alongside the other multiple disciplines already working together to address climate change. For instance, one national conference where behavior analysts have begun to present their work, along with behavioral scientists, is at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference (BECC).

Behavior analysts have an opportunity to make vitally important contributions to the global effort to ensure a habitable planet for all, now and for future generations. This crisis affects all life on Earth. Humans must change their behavior to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. The time for change is now. 

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