Environmental beliefs and willingness to take action

By Heather King - July 2013


Boyes, E., & Stanisstreet, M. (2012). Environmental education for behaviour change: Which actions should be targeted? International Journal of Science Education, 34(10), 1591–1641.


In this paper, Boyes and Stanisstreet explore the complex relationship between young people’s views on the efficacy of actions related to global climate change and their willingness to act on those views.

Research Design and Findings

The researchers surveyed students aged 11–16, collecting 961 responses to a questionnaire that: 

The researchers plotted students’ degree of willingness to act against the perceived usefulness of the action and were thus able to identify a trend line. When the trend line is steep, students believe that the action is effective. In such instances, the researchers posit that educational messages promoting these actions are likely to be well received and acted upon. If, on the other hand, the line is shallow, education will have less effect. Interpreting their data, the researchers argue that educational messages about, for example, reducing car use and adopting nuclear power will not be effective. Messages that seek to reduce the use of artificial fertilisers and encourage more tree planting, however, are likely to be very effective.

The researchers also analysed the data demographically. More girls than boys were prepared to take action in most instances. In addition, older students were more inclined than younger students to view specific actions as effective. To explain this finding, the researchers postulated that younger students may be less discriminatory and thus have a greater willingness to act regardless of their belief in the efficacy of such an action. Older students, meanwhile, seem to be more willing to act in line with their understanding of the efficacy of a particular action.

In their discussion, Boyes and Stanisstreet note that students aged 11–16 cannot buy cars or vote on use of nuclear power. Furthermore, the authors accept that intending to act is not the same as acting. They also acknowledge that their findings may have been affected by students’ limited knowledge of environmental science. For example, students may not know that artificial fertilisers contribute to increasing levels of the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane. In other instances, young people may be willing to act even if they don’t really believe that an action is effective. “Just in case” actions may seem worthwhile to young people who are seriously worried about global warming.

The students in this study were all from the U.K.; the views of young people in other countries and contexts may be different. However, the same questionnaire has been used in 10 other countries worldwide, and research findings are forthcoming. In the meantime, the implications for educational practice of a mismatch between beliefs and actions apply whatever the context or country.

Implications for Practice

For informal science educators (ISEs), this research offers a wealth of thought-provoking findings. Clearly, affecting behaviour related to the environment is more complicated than simply providing young people with accurate information. In addition, the age at which educators expose children to ideas and potential ameliorating actions appears to be particularly significant.

Although many governments have pledged to act against climate change, individuals must also act. To this end, both formal and informal educators have a key role to play in promoting action for sustainability. This paper offers vital guidance on how educators can target their educational messages to achieve the greatest impact.