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The Ultimate Wicked Problem: How do you solve a problem like climate change?

melting ice floating in the ocean with snow capped mountains in the background.

A cornerstone objective for the New Zealand government is to reduce carbon emissions.

In a nutshell

  1. A cornerstone objective for the New Zealand government is to reduce carbon emissions and by ratifying the Paris Climate Change agreement, the New Zealand Government committed to having an emissions reduction target and regularly updating it.
  2. EECA needed to understand the problem through strategic insights – to get to know the barriers and levers and to identify where to focus, what could be achieved and how to go about it.
  3. We would love to say we have solved the problem of climate change, but of course we have not. However, we have solved the problem of where and how to focus resources to achieve significant reduction in carbon emissions.

How do you solve a problem like climate change? A cornerstone objective for the New Zealand government is to reduce carbon emissions and by ratifying the Paris Climate Change agreement, the New Zealand Government committed to having an emissions reduction target and regularly updating it. New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels, by 2030. The role of EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) is to improve the energy efficiency of New Zealand homes and businesses thereby reducing carbon emissions, in order to meet New Zealand’s Paris zero emissions agreement commitments. 

It was obvious this was not going to be solved with a quick survey or a few focus groups. Was there even a role for insights? Yes, indeed there was. EECA needed to understand the problem through strategic insights – to get to know the barriers and levers and to identify where to focus, what could be achieved and how to go about it. They partnered with TRA and ClemengerBBDO to develop insight, strategy and communications, working as a collaborative team to achieve their goals. To pull together many angles on the problem into a very clear pathway forward, we took a holistic approach employing semiotics, systems thinking, unstructured and structured data, ethnography and cultural analysis. 

This is not a paper where we can show ROI or meteoric growth in sales figures or NPS. In time, we hope to show behaviour change and shifts in both the hearts and minds of New Zealanders, leading to lower emissions and meeting the nation’s commitments to the global community. What we can also show is the role that thoughtful and expansive insights can play on issues that affect society and the lives of the generations to come.

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels, by 2030.

What was the problem to solve? Yes, climate change - but what was our specific problem?

EECA is the government agency with the remit under the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act to promote energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy. EECA’s goal is to mobilise New Zealanders to be world leaders in clean and clever energy use. The country is currently making progress towards delivering on our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, but there is an appetite from government to accelerate the country’s progress. The figure below shows the “gap” between current performance and New Zealand’s Paris targets.

Figure 1

The clean energy referred to in EECA’s remit is electricity. Approximately 80% of the country’s electricity comes from renewable sources, primarily hydropower and geothermal power sources (New Zealand has had a nuclear free policy since 1984). Encouraging the use of electricity for energy works well, but in parallel, encouraging the efficient use of electricity is necessary to manage supply and to enable cost effective solutions for all New Zealanders, no matter their financial situation. EECA identified five strategic principles that the agency would use to give focus and direction to their work and these formed the starting point for the planning process and programs of work that would follow. Two partners were appointed to support the EECA’s work (TRA, an insights agency, and ClemengerBBDO, a communications agency), as well as to form the collaborative team that would develop the strategy for how EECA would deliver to its overarching remit and strategic pillars.

Figure 2

The second of the strategic pillars “Understand the Customer”, is where insights would have the most to contribute and, beyond that, working in partnership with ClemengerBBDO and the EECA team to define the problem and develop a plan to join the dots. However, first we had to join our own dots – i.e. what pieces of data would we need to bring together to create a comprehensive and useful picture, to serve as a foundation for action?

The insights journey

The approach to this work is based on two core frameworks:

  1. A holistic view of the “whole person”;
  2. The relationship between beliefs, motivations and behaviour (along with the use of applied behavioural science theory to assist in understanding behaviour).

We had a starting point because we knew from other data sources where emissions currently come from, so that helped us prioritise and focus on who mattered and how they mattered.

Graph 2

People do not come in slices – they are not buyers of car brand X, lapsed users of beer brand Y, high value customers of airline Z, early adopters or “potential to churn”customers. They are whole people with whole lives of which all the elements of their lives influence and interact. In the context of behaviour change with regards to carbon emissions, this is equally the case as this is a truly complex issue that impacts on our daily decisions, how we vote, what we teach our children and what we talk to our friends about. It is about the current state and the future state.

graph 3

The framework we use to frame our insights in the context of whole lives looks at individual, social and cultural influence. As individuals, we are all born with some traits that, although nurture modifies how they manifest, are with us all our lives. We might be more optimistic or more fatalistic for example, more risk averse or more of a risk taker. However, nurture plays its part too, so that by the time we are adults we have developed a general orientation toward life. On the other hand, what we have learned from the cognitive sciences is that we do not always behave like the picture of a mature, balanced human being and behaviour around climate change issues and carbon emissions is inevitably heavily influenced by a range of cognitive biases. Climate change feels like a distant thing, so today’s behaviour does not necessarily give us instant gratification. One challenge (of many) is how to create instant or short - term gratification for good behaviour to reduce emissions. 

One  of  the  levers  of  applied  behavioural  science  that  is  well  understood  is  the  power  of  social  influence  and endorsement, so understanding the social context was another important element of the insights work. Not only did it help us to understand people’s behaviour and motivations, but we knew that we might find levers that we could pull to encourage behaviour change. To this end we conducted a series of ethnographic interviews. These entailed spending time in people’s homes with their families and flat - mates, spending time in people’s offices at the water cooler and/or staff kitchen, as well as in management team sessions. 

Additionally, the third element, culture, plays avery significant role in all of our decision - making and behaviour, largely at an unconscious level. Human needs do not change, but the context of people’s lives does and that context is culture. However, culture influences at a largely unconscious level, unless we are actively engaging with a specific cultural movement or current. To address this, we conducted a semiotic analysis of media coverage of the issues around climate change and carbon emissions. We did this by first scraping social media and 60 New Zealand media sites, and then semiotics consultants conducted an analysis of this content. 

It was important to involve the client in this process for two reasons. Firstly, semiotics is not well known as a discipline in New Zealand and secondly, we wanted people at EECA to really understand the landscape that was informing public opinion, albeit unconsciously. We asked the team at EECA to collect items they saw in the media or on social media. They were instructed to exercise no judgement and to use quantity rather than quality as the measure. The output of this stage was a workshop with the EECA and ClemengerBBDO teams where we decorated the wall of the work space with the results of the analysis and they were invited to add their images and cuttings to the fresco. It was clear to all that the material they had gathered reflected the same themes as the semiotic analysis had revealed. Figures 4 and 5 below show some of the themes that emerged. 

These findings set the context stage of the ethnographic research mentioned above. In this stage, we sought to understand the individual, social and cultural elements of people that affected their views on and behaviour as regards to carbon emissions and the broader context of climate change. This was an extensive piece of work, so we will comment on just a few of the outcomes – particularly those that shaped the further stages of research and the final outcomes.

Figure 5

Figure 6

  1. Language: We know that language is a reflection of how we think and what we found here was muddled language, linking different concepts in vague or purely emotional ways. For example, New Zealanders have a very strong connection to nature; it is  hard - wired  in  the  cultural  DNA  of  every  Kiwi, which  meant  that environmental issues were salient and often merged with climate change issues, e.g. use of plastics. Specific language, like  carbon  emissions  and  fossil  fuels, were  confusing  terms  that  caused  people  to  tune  out. Additionally, climate change language globalised the problem to the extent that people felt powerless.
  2. Transport was not even in the picture: Energy and transport are not linked in people’s minds. People struggle to link transport behaviour and home/work energy use together. This is because people are not looking at their lives through an emissions lens and everyone has their own definition of what energy encompasses.
  3. It is not on the conversation agenda: Although people said that they thought their friends and community would be aware of some of the consequences of climate change (e.g. recent flooding, tropical storms reaching as far south as New Zealand due to a recent ocean temperature heat wave, etc.), carbon emissions and behaviour change was not something they heard discussed very often. Also, the New Zealand Values Study (N=35,000 pa) supports this finding, with an increase in people saying they do not think they can personally make a difference with regards to climate change. 
  4. Cultural currents: Every nation is subject to the influence of big global cultural trends. However, these trends mould to the local cultural context and spin off currents and eddies that are in response to the national cultural drivers. There were a number of these currents influencing people at an individual level, but also working through social endorsement of people’s peer groups

Figure 7


Each of these cultural and social values held great learnings for the EECA team and their communication partners, as well as informing the design of the quantitative phase that followed. Below is one example – Kiwi Pride – as this is not perhaps something those not familiar with New Zealand will understand the power of.

Figure 8


5. Beliefs, motivations and behaviour

In order to prioritise plans and allocate effort, energy and investment, there was a need to size the various influences and behavioural patterns that were impacting carbon emissions - related behaviour. To this end we conducted a nationally represented quantitative survey boosted by a sample of business owners and managers (N=1415). The framework we used for this work was the interaction between beliefs, motivations and behaviour. There is a substantial body of work that proves that attitudes do not result in behaviour and that, in fact, the opposite is true: if we change behaviour then attitude change follows. So, our starting point was to use the ethnographic work to measure core beliefs rather than transient attitudes. We then explored people’s motivations and of course these were different between business owners and the general public (we have focused on the latter in this paper)

Figure 9




The next step was to understand what motivates people to behave the way they do and then, of course, to look at what they are currently doing. We wanted to gain insight into what the driver was in this interconnected system – beliefs, motivations or behaviour. It transpired that beliefs were the key driver of differentiation between types of people. Behaviour, however, was not as different as you would expect between these belief segments; pretty much everybody was switching over to LED lights, insulating their home, etc. so behavioural segments did not exist in any meaningful way. Beliefs on the other hand, were what differentiated people. Of course, there were some behavioural differences, but they were small compared to the population - wide actions mentioned above. 

Figure 10

Figure 11

That meant we had to look to how we could use motivational drivers to change behaviour and that changed behaviour would ultimately  influence beliefs.  This was  important because  as  well as changing behaviour  to result in lower emissions, we also wanted to capture hearts as well as minds, because EECA’s remit is to foster a society in which sustainable energy is expected and demanded. All three components of the model are important -each plays a different part. Beliefs helped us segment the population and size the segments so we would know who to target and invest in. Beliefs were linked to motivations (when we looked beyond the common motivations); for example, the “willing”segment were more likely to be motivated by making a difference and helping to protect the future of the planet, while other segments were motivated by environmental issues or waste. These were motivations that could be used to influence behaviour. Moreover, if we could change behaviour, as well as moving toward meeting emissions goals, we would also change beliefs.

Figure 12

Therefore, if the challenge was how to change behaviour, motivations were the key to this - not beliefs. Looking in - depth at the beliefs and motivational drivers for segments allowed us to see beyond the basic drivers of cost, comfort (warm and dry homes) and convenience. For example, the “willing” segment want to see themselves as unique and are motivated by their identity as progressive, forward thinkers as well as behaviour that demonstrates that. They are already doing a lot and are motivated to do more, so we were able to look at how we can help them do that. By comparison, the “complacent” segment are overwhelmed by the issues, but we could see that they were motivated by self - efficacy, Kiwi pride and a moral duty, especially in regards to the environment. Thus, these were the motivations we could leverage to get this group to take action. 

Of course, we also knew how these segments over or under indexed on demographic characteristics and could identify where they lived, down to suburb -level. As a result of some deep dives into the quantitative data and linking that to the cultural and semiotics work, coupled with the data on emissions, we were able to see that we could tailor our approach to different audiences so that we could capture hearts and minds to trigger actions

Figure 13

Speaking to a broader audience: displaying leadership

This work attracted a good deal of interest from the many other government and NGO organisations who have climate change as part of their brief: e.g. environmental agencies, primary industry organisations, transport policy and planning, energy management groups, etc. The work has been presented to cross government groups and used to inform policy recommendations. In light of this broad industry interest, EECA decided to work with TRA to produce a booklet about how we should talk about the issue of climate change. If all organisations talk in the same way, this will amplify the value of the different messages and perspectives and move toward reducing confusion for the general public. The document was to be like a Highway code for the language of climate change. Using applied behavioural science principles, the TRA team devised four key principles about how to talk about the topic. These were tested in a quantitative survey and the booklet was produced and circulated throughout government and other relevant organisations.

Figure 14

The outcomes of the work so far, in summary

  1. Agreement on change of EECA’s organisational focus – from provider of energy efficiency advice, to promoter and advocate for system change via regulation, incentives and marketing activation.
  2. An applied behavioural approach to the role of language to create a leadership role for EECA, with a guide on how to talk to the topic. This guide was launched along with the research insights to a cross - government group.
  3. A strategy for activation that enabled ClemengerBBDO to create a communications plan for:
  • Why (reduction matters to each of us + connect disparate activities and interventions);
  • How (impactful change is possible);
  • What (people can do to create change).

     4. We are monitoring progress across actions through a regular             tracking survey and, of course longer term, the country’s                     carbon emissions. 

We would love to say we have solved the problem of climate change, but of course we have not. However, we have solved the problem of where and how to focus resources to achieve significant reduction in carbon emissions. Furthermore, by using multiple data sources we have given confidence, inspiration and direction to the EECA team.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

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