Dr. Michael Shank

Contributing to the blog this week is Dr. Michael Shank, Communications Director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and Adjunct Faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, EUSEW 2020 Digital Ambassador.

The world is waking up to a new reality. Covid-19 makes clear that our systems aren’t sustainable or resilient and sit precariously on the precipice of another pandemic or planetary crisis. The good news is that nations will spare no effort – including radical behavior change – to respond to and recover from these threats in order to save lives. But will they do the same when it comes to preventive practice?

On the looming prospects for a planetary crisis, for example, we’ve yet to take the threat seriously. We’re using too many fossil fuels and if we want to halve our emissions by 2030 – which is what the scientific community noted is necessary to keep life livable – then we have to ramp up our efforts significantly. The EU’s Green New Deal, as one example, will have to become the new policy norm everywhere. That would give us a good head start, at least, toward meaningful crisis prevention.

The obstacle here, however, isn’t a lack of policy solutions. We have the game changers to transform food, energy, water, waste management, and transportation systems. What we don’t have is the necessary public and political will to make them default policy everywhere. How to fix this? We need better communications and campaigns. It’s not about more data, more documents or more declarations. That won’t win the hearts and minds. Instead, we need to meet people where they’re at.

Cities within the European Union – and members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the EU Covenant of Mayors – are leading the way in bringing along the public. Three examples, below, show what’s possible in the opinion-shaping and behavior-changing space.

In Helsinki, for example, they’re making it easy for residents to be sustainable by launching a new smart phone app – called Think Sustainability – that promotes a more sustainable way of life and makes sustainable lifestyle choices easy to search, purchase and implement. The app helps overcome behavior change obstacles like hassle factors and our status quo bias that keeps us from making the switch.

In Amsterdam, they’re interviewing residents of all ages, and from all neighborhoods, to articulate their vision of a more sustainable city, and they’ve built a user-friendly website that visually maps out the sustainable energy and circular economy solutions throughout the city. This helps residents see that a movement is happening across the city – that solutions are available – and that they’re not alone in the climate fight.

In Stockholm, they’re launching creative challenges to encourage sustainable transportation. One challenge, to encourage biking in the winter, offered cyclists servicing and equipment – positive reinforcement to encourage behavior change – if they cycled at least three kilometers three times weekly. Participants were featured on social media, as were well-known athletes and politicians, in order to influence the effort. This work is essential for social norming the kind of behavior we need at scale.

It’s this kind of work that’ll win the hearts and minds and change behavior. The public, post-Covid-19, will understand that we’ve entered a new normal and that life, as we knew it, is no longer. Regardless, change isn’t easy and requires strategy, long-term commitment and courage. And this focus on behavior change will be essential for enacting systems change. For more ideas on how to build public and political will, check out CNCA’s communications and campaign resources.

Additional information/links:


12 Principles for Climate-Centric Behavior Change Communications


12 Ways to Improve Climate Change Communications and Campaigns



Dr. Michael Shank is the Communications Director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and Adjunct Faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs where he teaches graduate courses on Sustainable Development and Climate Security.