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First responses to the coronavirus pandemic are lessons for the second wave and the climate crisis

Research by the UG and Michigan State University
13 October 2020

The sometimes powerful responses of citizens and governments at the start of the coronavirus pandemic could be a good starting point when it comes to battling global crises such as the environmental and climate crisis, and possibly the second wave of the coronavirus. Researchers from the University of Groningen and Michigan State University have argued this in their publication in the academic journal Nature Sustainability.

According to Dr Thijs Bouman and Stevin Prize winner Prof. Linda Steg (both from the UG) and Prof. Thomas Dietz (Michigan State University), personal standards play an important role in displaying prosocial behaviour, which is often desirable in global crises. People with strong personal standards feel morally obligated and personally responsible to take action; they take action because they themselves find it important.

Clear government communication

In regions within which people responded powerfully to the coronavirus pandemic, many factors that fortified such personal standards were often also present. Think about New Zealand. In these regions, for instance, government communication was often clear, consistent and unambiguous. The citizens knew about the dangers of the virus, how it spread, what the consequences of it spreading were and what they themselves could do to stop it. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic was expressed in numbers that were understandable and personally relevant, such as the number of hospitalizations or deaths. These factors reinforce a feeling of personal responsibility and thus a personal standard to take action. This is often lacking when it comes to climate and environmental crises as well as in the current second wave of COVID-19 infections, according to the researchers.

Providing insights

The researchers think that the coronavirus pandemic could form a lesson for climate and environmental policies. First of all, it is very important to provide citizens with a better insight into climate and environmental crises by explaining the broad impact of these crises, the researchers explain. The accompanying numbers should be made more personal as well. It is important to clarify that individual choices can contribute to the crisis but also to solutions. This could stimulate environmentally friendly behaviour.

Collective action

Secondly, the researchers pose that it is important to make it clear that many people are worried about the climate and the environment and support the corresponding policies. This support is currently often underestimated. According to them, this helped during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic to effect stronger and broader collective action. This way, people who are not intrinsically motivated to take action can be won over after all.

Supporting government policy

Thirdly, government policy and companies have to clearly support these actions, according to Steg, Bouman and Dietz. At the start of the pandemic, working from home was often facilitated and individuals and companies received financial support. The same can be done in climate and environmental policies by supporting citizens and companies that make sustainable choices. Finally, the researchers say that it could also help to emphasize win-win situations: working from home could reduce the number of coronavirus infections and ensure that there is less traffic on the roads, which in turn has positive effects for the environment.

Last modified:14 October 2020 09.45 a.m.
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