Where’s the carrot?

When people aim for the positive benefits of improving their lifestyle after a heart attack, then they are more likely to change their lifestyle and so not need future surgery, compared to when they try to change to avoid the risk of dying sooner. Dying is too far away and too frightening and aiming for a better life is easier to strive for. This was one of the conclusions from Dean Ornish’s research in the 1990s on behaviour change of heart attack patients. Basically, the carrot is more of a motivator than the stick.

I first became aware of this research while reading around change management a few years ago. I was reminded of it recently and it got me thinking about how we commonly communicate about climate breakdown and why as a global community we aren’t taking more, faster action.

There are 3 steps at the heart of change management (vastly simplifying a complex topic):

  1. Understand and explain why change is needed and what could happen if we don’t change – the burning platform, the case for change, whatever you want to call it
  2. Create a vision for the future – what is the new, better place that we’re going to get to and what does it mean for “me”
  3. The plan for how to get from where we are now to the new, better place

Looking climate breakdown communications related to these 3 steps, it’s heavily focused on step 1: understanding why change is needed.  We need to explain the ‘why’ first – what’s the problem, why is it happening and what huge, scary problems does it create. The science is clear and has been for years. We’ve got pretty good at explaining step 1 in clear, understandable terms.

Granted not everyone accepts it. I’m going put the deniers in a box for now and focus on the group that do accept it, because we need that group moving first and fastest (and the deniers need a whole separate post to themselves). So, this group, which is made up of all sorts of people – governments, businesses and individuals, get that we have serious problem and that we need to do something about it.

There’s some communication for this group on step 3: how to do it. Individuals can eat less meat, have fewer children, fly less and take public transport. Businesses can set science based targets, transform their business models from linear to circular and insist on sustainable practices from their suppliers. Governments can set ambitious targets to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and set policies and make investments to meet those targets.

And we see some of all of that happening. But not enough, and not quickly enough.

Which takes us to step 2: the new, better place. There is very little communication or discussion about this new place we’re aiming for. The aim is described as avoidance of terrible things: oceans rising and flooding coastal regions, more extreme weather causing death and destruction, mass extinction of species, food shortages. All that is valid but it’s a stick, and as with changing our lifestyle after a heart attack, we don’t respond well to sticks. So where’s the carrot? Where’s the picture of the future that’s positive, aspirational, tells me what’s in it for me and is better than what I have today? It’s largely missing although here are a few examples:

Costa Rica’s aim for their electricity system is to create “a model based on sustainability, equal access, and national security, together with the exploitation of natural resources in full environmental harmony”.

Ikea aim to be people and planet positive. Their ambition is to “inspire and enable more than 1 billion people to live a better everyday life within the limits of the planet”.

Chipotle’s scarecrow animation from 2013 illustrates their vision for a healthier, more humane way of eating although they did get some criticism for it.

Norway talks about the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a “transformative global roadmap for our national and international efforts aimed at eradicating extreme poverty while protecting planetary boundaries and promoting prosperity, peace and justice”

There’s clearly lots of other factors at play and there’s no single solution to making change happen faster but my question is this: would we be taking bolder, faster actions on climate breakdown if people could imagine the carrot rather than just trying to avoid the stick?


  1. I absolutely agree that there should be a greater focus on the carrot. If the carrots can be focused more on local environmental/social benefits that would be even better. I have the assumption that individuals (and governments/businesses) tend to act on self-interests when it comes to these issues (whether they like to admit it or not). Given this, do you think people would care about the carrot which only benefits other people in the world? or

    In the same way, do people care about climate change less because climate impacts are not evenly distributed across the world? Some communities are already being devastated by extreme natural events


  2. Thanks, Meryl. Climate change communication is a hard nut to crack- especially when you have politicians at the highest offices denying it!

    I have been following Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old, Swedish school strike activist since she created ripples at the UN’s climate talks in Poland.

    The below is a short excerpt from her speech given at Davos published in the Guardian paper.

    Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
    I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

    I like Greta’s attitude and her moral courage. She tells it the way it is. Our house is on fire – how much more dire can it get? The Titanic is sinking and there is no time to plug the big hole in the ship. How will we behave if our house is on fire? Call the fireman, disaster agencies and insurance agents, right? How can we get that urgency in our communication? Is there a different mode of communicating major risks and dangers – and how do we use positive communication for that message? Say massive floods, hurricanes or tsunami risks? Am curious what strategies we use – and then perhaps Greta’s house on fire analogy makes sense.


    1. I think there’s loads of cognitive biases at play here that mean no/little action happens. For many people (let’s call him Bob), their own house isn’t on fire yet. There’s a house round the corner on fire and Bob’s house just has a little bit of smoke he hasn’t noticed. The fire will get to Bob’s house but he hasn’t got his head round that yet because he’s too busy worrying about paying the rent. So for me it’s how do we get Bob to act with urgency when his own house isn’t on fire yet. Status quo bias, loss aversion and hyperbolic discounting don’t help here. But I think we each need to understand the impact to us personally and what short term tangible benefits there are to taking action now


  3. Delighted your Kine was delayed, you posted on LinkedIn and I found your blog. Less delighted to be reading it in the airport at 5am.
    In the heating industry we have had carrot for 10years and not used it to drive heat pump uptake above <1%- and the psychology of it has perplexed me. Maybe the answer is in your blog and links which I’ll read some more.

    I had been pondering needing a CARRICK- carrot/Stick hybrid. But I’m wondering if we need CARRICK at the 3 levels you define, whereas we have seen it more technology/deployment based.

    Car- Id suggest a 2nd hand Zoe for a year and patience. Kone looks worth the wait.


    1. I like the “carrick”! I guess we’d actually end up there – we have the stick already so if we could envision a positive future then we’d have your carrick. Then we need governments to incentivise for both sides of the carrick.

      I don’t know much about heating, where’s the best place to read more? And do we have the technology it’s just not getting deployed? That must have been the case with solar PV at some point too. What made that change?


  4. I completely agree Meryl. Great post. We hear the ‘doom and gloom’ so much, but it doesn’t inspire us. How can we make sustainability more aspirational? Just like the vegan movement among millennials… how can we create a mass movement that people want to jump in to?


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