The psychology that inspires everyday climate action

The common good makes sense: people may reasonably feel more empowered to affect their own health than the health of the planet as a whole.Both self-efficacy (believing that a person can change their behavior) and response efficacy (believing that these changes will have positive consequences) are important Predictors of behavioral change. Boosting self-efficacy may involve asking people to make more modest lifestyle changes, such as avoiding beef and flying less once a year, rather than becoming vegan and no longer flying. “I think it’s very important not to make perfect the enemy of the good,” Nicholas said.

However, response efficiency can be tricky. Compared to the actions of fossil fuel companies and governments around the world, one’s choices seem completely irrelevant.In the past, these companies have tried to Blame the individual for climate change to distract people from their own misconduct. But we don’t have to choose between eating more vegetables and voting for climate-friendly politicians, or driving less and fighting back against the fossil fuel industry, Foley said. Instead, these actions actually go hand in hand. “By switching to electric vehicles, I can give ExxonMobil a middle finger,” he said. “I’m not going to send them money.”

Personal change itself is also important, especially in a country like the United States. Here, almost everyone produces more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, and personal budgets will help keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s why Nicholas turns her communications to the richest 10% of the world’s population, or anyone earning more than $38,000 a year. The average American emits far less than billionaire jet-flying billionaires, and far less than fossil fuel companies — but they still emit way too much. “The problem is, we need everyone to make changes,” Whitmarsh said.

When personal change spreads through social networks, it can also be far more powerful than most people realize. Research consistently shows that social norms play an important role in whether people decide to make climate-friendly choices.For example, when one person puts solar panels on the roof, the odds of others in the zip code installing solar panels obviously increase(In fact, the good behavior of friends is exactly why Nicholas adjusted his travel habits.) By making climate-friendly choices, you can not only reduce your own emissions, but also inspire others to do so. “It’s not just a drop in the bucket for your personal contribution,” Foley said. “Following you are other drops.”

With enough drop, bigger changes start to happen. Buying an electric car will make the next one cheaper and may eventually make them more widely available. Increased demand for meatless options has prompted restaurants to change menus, so people who never considered going completely vegetarian might try plant-based meals. As individuals, we are all participants in a complex, tightly connected system through which our decisions can be propagated, multiplying their power.

“Systems change in interesting ways, often before we see them,” Foley said. “It happened very, very, very slowly — and then all at once.”

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