Climate change is predicted to bring us higher sea levels, more extreme weather and a world of other catastrophic consequences - but when it comes making people act, the answer may lie in accentuating the positive rather than the negative.

In a comprehensive study published today in major journal Nature Climate Change, 28 researchers from around the world examined which factors were most likely to result in people taking action.

More than 6000 people across the 24 participating countries were surveyed about their climate change beliefs and pro-environmental actions, and also whether climate change actions would result in co-benefits such as reduced pollution, increased economic development or a more caring and ethical community.

The team found that co-benefits were a powerful motivator for people, even for those unconcerned or unconvinced about climate change.


If people believed that addressing climate change would result in a more caring and moral community, the study found, they were more likely to act.

People were also more motivated to act on climate change if they thought it would produce economic and scientific development, although this was more likely to be true in the case of richer countries taking part in the survey.

However, they also found that some of the most commonly cited co-benefits, such as reducing pollution or disease, had no significant impact.

"While talking about the reality of climate change is important, we want people to act - and by talking about benefits, this might create more engagement," said Victoria University psychologist Dr Taciano Milfont, who co-ordinated the study alongside Dr Paul Bain of the Queensland University of Technology and Professor Yoshihisa Kashima from the University of Melbourne.

"We know that just talking about the negative consequences might not engage people to act, because it becomes such a big problem that people don't feel like it.

"We also knew that a positive message could be much more interesting, but this is the first large scale study looking at the co-benefits."

Dr Bain also said the traditional approach to convince people to care about climate change by emphasising its devastating consequences had so far failed.

"Governments and individuals have not yet taken widespread meaningful action, so we wanted to find alternative ways to encourage people to make a difference."


Dr Milfont believed the findings could have implications not only for communicating climate change initiatives, but also for designing climate change policies.

"It provides guidance for creating policies that not only address climate change, but which also produce the social benefits that people want."

The research team believes the results will be particularly valuable for the upcoming UN climate change summit in Paris.

New Zealand is taking to the Paris talks a new target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.

This commitment has been criticised by some climate scientists and environmental groups, and a recent Oxfam report described it as falling "well short" of a fair contribution towards limiting the global temperature rise to 2C, let alone the 1.5C limit Pacific Island nations were calling for.

Just talking about the bad stuff is not enough: Generation Zero

Paul Young, co-founder of the youth-led organisation Generation Zero, which has been lobbying the Government for action, saw the study as a "very helpful piece of research" for anyone trying to motivate greater action on climate change.


"I do think it's important we keep building understanding of the huge threat climate change poses to our future, but as this study shows, just talking about the bad stuff we need to avoid is not enough," he said.

"We've certainly seen in our work with Generation Zero that there's widespread support for climate change solutions, because of the range of benefits they bring.

"One example where we have seen some good action from the Government is on urban cycleways - as Simon Bridges has said, 'Put simply, cycling is good for our cities, it's good for the environment and it's good for our health'."

The good news, Mr Young said, was that progressive climate change action could build a better, more compassionate society and unleash a new wave of innovation to power our economies.

"This study highlights that more needs to be done to tell this story."

The study findings follow a recent Motu Economic and Public Policy Research survey which found that 87 per cent of New Zealanders are at least somewhat concerned about the effects of climate change on society in general.


Sixty-three per cent were concerned or very concerned about the societal effects of climate change and 58 per cent were concerned or very concerned about the personal effects.

Cost saving was identified as a key action trigger - of those surveyed, 66 per cent said they would use less energy and 59 per cent said they would be motivated to generate their own renewable energy if there was financial support for products that helped them do so.

A strong majority of the survey's 2200 respondents intented to take common household actions that reduce emissions, ranging from installing low-emission household products to conserving water and reducing their home energy use.

Fewer reported intentions to reduce car or air travel or avoid or reduce consumption of meat and dairy products, activities which together account for about 56 per cent of New Zealanders' household consumption emissions.

About 42 per cent agreed their actions could make a difference to reduce climate change, and 37 per cent were undecided.

More women than men are concerned about the impact of climate change on themselves (66 per cent versus 50 per cent) and society (71 per cent versus 55 per cent).


More women believed their actions could make a difference (48 per cent versus 35 per cent of men) and influence others to act (50 per cent versus 39 per cent of men).

People below age 55 generally showed higher levels of concern about climate change and have a greater belief in their ability to help.

What climate change means for New Zealand

• Under present projections, the mean temperature in New Zealand could be 2C higher by the end of the century - and even between 3C and 4C higher if no action is taken to curb the world's carbon emissions.

• Within the same period, sea level is expected to rise between 50cm and 100cm, leaving populations to adapt by either abandoning coasts and islands, changing infrastructure and coastal zones, or protecting areas with barriers or dykes.

• A recent report on sea level rise by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright said the impact of even a small rise in sea level would be significant and very costly for some landowners.

• Large storms occurring on top of a higher sea level - of which an increased number were predicted - would affect public infrastructure such as roads, railways and stormwater systems, as well as private homes and other buildings.


• Horticulture production in some regions may become uneconomic due to a lack of winter chilling, while sub-tropical crops such as avocados and citrus may benefit from a trend towards warmer average conditions.

• Rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification may alter marine life, moving fisheries southward, threatening shell fisheries, and changing life cycles.