WEEKLY DISPATCH: Making Climate Action Happen—Part II, The Behavioural Change Process

Posted on February 9, 2011 by


As anyone knows who has tried to stick to a diet or given smoking, people cannot transform unhealthy behaviours without changing their underlying beliefs.  If you crave that smoko break or can’t resist a Big Mac, you’re probably not well placed to reform these behaviours in the long term.

In 1992, psychologists James Prochaska, Carlo Di Clemente and John Norcross published a five-stage model of behavioural change developed in clinical practice with clients presenting with addictions.  According to this model, behavioural change takes place in five distinct stages—pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance—which people progress through in a cyclical rather than linear fashion.  As you read on, have a think about which stage you find yourself at in relation to your personal response to climate change.

At the initial pre-contemplation stage, the individual is generally unaware of their predicament and has no intention of making behavioural modifications.  Such individuals are trapped in what psychologist Charles Tart describes as a “consensus trance”, in which social groups labour under an agreed notion of how their world should be perceived and train each other to perceive their world in that way.

In relation to climate change action, these are the people who do not believe that climate change is a problem and make no connection between their behaviours and ecological degradation.  For people rooted in this stage, legislative coercion (such as taxes or prohibitions) may be the only means available to reduce their environmental footprint.

The second stage of the process is contemplation, where the individual has become aware that there is a problem that needs to be addressed but are not yet ready to take further action.  A large number of people are dwelling in the contemplation stage as they size up the costs and benefits of behavioural modifications in relation to climate change.  A report from 2007 on climate change and social marketing by English social research firm Ipsos MORI made reference to this phenomenon:

The public want to avert climate change and play their part but at the same time they also want to go on holiday, drive to work, own a second (or third or fourth) home and buy the latest electrical products. This climate change equivalent of Orwellian Doublethink, or cognitive polyphasia, does not mean the public don’t care about the environmental consequences, but rather, for certain behaviours and en masse, they don’t care enough. They hope for technical innovations or efficiency improvements – such as airplanes and cars that don’t emit CO2 – rather than contemplate radical changes in lifestyle.

The individual may remain at the contemplation stage for long intervals while weighing up the pros and cons of the problem and possible solutions.  They may also be thinking about tossing it in the “too-hard basket,” evaluating the size of the problem in relation to the amount of effort associated with addressing it.

Once the contemplative process has been resolved, the individual moves into the preparation phase.  At this stage the person begins to combine their positive intent to change with some tentative behavioural modifications, with a view upping the ante to more concerted action in the near future.  In the realm of climate action, such a person may be taking the first small steps identified by Al Gore in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs in the home, turning off unused appliances or bringing home the shopping in re-usable bags.

With time, these initial actions can become the gateway to more substantive behavioural modifications—action—that occur at the fourth stage of the behavioural change process.  It is at this point that individuals alter their behaviour, lifestyle patterns and even the environment around them in order to alleviate their problems.

The newly climate-conscious individual may have started commuting to work by bicycle, adopted a vegetarian diet, cultivate a backyard garden, or sworn off flying.  At a political level, they may have began to lobby politicians and business people, incorporate sustainable practices at their workplace, joined a community action group, or involved themselves in the political process by running for public office.  For a person at the action stage, ideas and intent have coalesced into concrete behavioural changes.

Can they make these modifications last?  The fifth stage of the behavioural change process, the maintenance stage, is where the individual attempts to consolidate the changes made at the action stage and prevent a relapse into unhelpful behavioural patterns.  Relapse is a condition that most people can relate to.  People often cycle repeatedly through these stages as they attempt to modify destructive behavioural patterns.  For the climate-conscious, the bicycle may sit rusting in the shed, the vegetarian may buckle for a steak, or the backyard gardener neglects the towering weeds in the vegetable patch.  The challenge here is to maintain commitment to new lifestyles over the long term.

Have a good think about this.  Consider where you are at on this behavioural change continuum.  Be honest with yourself.  Think about what you need to do to move the process along.  This level of self-reflection is all about asking yourself the right questions.  In the next part of the Make Climate Action Happen series, I’ll share with you some techniques for asking the right questions using insights from philosophy.  Hey Alice, are you ready to go down the rabbit hole?


Prochaska, J. O., C. C. DiClemente, J. Norcross (1992). ‘In Search of How People Change: Applications to Addictive Behaviors.’ American Psychologist 47(9): 1102-1114.


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.