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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has encouraged psychologists to become part of the integrated scientific effort to support the achievement of climate change targets such as keeping within 1.5C or 2C of global warming. To date, the typical psychological approach has been to demonstrate that specific concepts and theories can predict behaviors that contribute to or mitigate climate change. Psychologists need to go further, and in particular to show that integrating psychological concepts into feasible interventions can reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more than would be achieved without such integration. While critiquing some aspects of current approaches, we describe psychological research that is pointing the way by distinguishing different types of behavior, acknowledging sociocultural context, and collaborating with other disciplines. Engaging this challenge offers psychologists new opportunities for promoting mitigation, advancing psychological understanding, and developing better interdisciplinary interactions.
How Psychology Can Help Limit Climate Change
Kristian Steensen Nielsen
University of Cambridge
Susan Clayton
The College of Wooster
Paul C. Stern
Social and Environmental Research Institute
Thomas Dietz
Michigan State University
Stuart Capstick and Lorraine Whitmarsh
Cardiff University
© 2020, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and
may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not
copy or cite without authors' permission. The final article will be available, upon
publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/amp0000624
Please address correspondence concerning this article to:
Kristian Steensen Nielsen
Department of Zoology
University of Cambridge
Pembroke Street
CB2 3EJ Cambridge
United Kingdom
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has encouraged psychologists to become
part of the integrated scientific effort to support the achievement of climate change targets such as
keeping within 1.5C or 2C of global warming. To date, the typical psychological approach has
been to demonstrate that specific concepts and theories can predict behaviors that contribute to or
mitigate climate change. Psychologists need to go further, and in particular to show that integrating
psychological concepts into feasible interventions can reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more
than would be achieved without such integration. While critiquing some aspects of current
approaches, we describe psychological research that is pointing the way by distinguishing different
types of behavior, acknowledging sociocultural context, and collaborating with other disciplines.
Engaging this challenge offers psychologists new opportunities for promoting mitigation,
advancing psychological understanding, and developing better interdisciplinary interactions.
Keywords: climate change, climate change mitigation, interdisciplinarity
Public significance:
Addressing climate change requires unprecedented societal transformations within a short time
frame. Psychological research has the potential to improve current and future initiatives to mitigate
climate change; however, realizing this potential requires heightened attention to the climate impact
of the behaviors we study and greater collaboration and integration across disciplines.
The state of psychological involvement with climate change
The recently published special reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC, 2018, 2019) provide impetus for the unprecedented societal transitions required to limit
global temperature increase to 1.5C, or even 2C, and draw attention to options for lifestyle and
behavioral changes. International attention is turning to the behavioral sciences for insights. This
call for action presents the psychological community with an opportunity to make our research
useful for advancing global, national, and local mitigation efforts. Psychology and the social
sciences are important to addressing climate change: not only will climate change threaten human
health and wellbeing (Manning & Clayton, 2018; Obradovich, Migliorini, Paulus, & Rahwan,
2018), but there is evidence that meaningful action on climate change may be beneficial to
wellbeing (Jackson, 2005; Kasser, 2017). As researchers devoted to understanding human behavior
and practitioners committed to human flourishing, psychologists need to be involved in addressing
the challenges posed by global climate change. We focus on psychology, but the boundaries
between social science disciplines are fluid so the agenda we sketch must engage other social
sciences as well.
In 2008, American Psychological Association (APA) convened a task force on the Interface
between Psychology and Global Climate Change1. The Task Force summarized a significant body
of relevant psychological research, accumulated over decades (see National Research Council,
1984; Stern, 1992), addressing perceptions of climate change and its human causes and
consequences, and called for further work around the topic. A rapid increase in psychological
research on climate change has responded to that challenge (as documented by Clayton & Manning,
2018). Our goal here is to consider how further research can make an even greater difference in
limiting climate change especially, but not exclusively, through reducing consumption of fossil
fuels. Despite the growing body of research, we are concerned that psychology is falling short of its
potential: the discipline has generated extensive knowledge about human behavior, but that
knowledge has not been successfully deployed in programs and policies.
The role of individual and household behavior
Every day we make choices and take actions that influence our climate footprints”– the impact
of their actions on climate through emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”,
changes in land use, and other drivers of climate change. For example, estimates suggest that
behavioral interventions to curtail individuals’ direct energy consumption could lead to about 10%
reduction in household energy use (Capstick, Lorenzoni, Corner, & Whitmarsh, 2014), and if one
includes decisions with longer-term effects on direct consumption (e.g., installing insulation) the
effects can be several times larger (Dietz, Gardner, Gilligan, Stern, & Vandenbergh, 2009). Indirect
effects on emissions through changes in diet and other aspects of lifestyle can have additional and
powerful effects; for example, Green et al. (2015) argue that up to 40% cuts in greenhouse gas
(GHG) emissions from Western diets are reasonably achievable through individual action, primarily
by substituting meat and dairy with plant-based foods (see also IPCC, 2019 and Poore & Nemecek,
2018 for even greater estimated cuts). Thus there is considerable mitigation potential in changing
individuals’ consumption behavior. Individuals can also affect both the supply and demand of
GHG-producing goods and services through their other roles (e.g., as citizens and as members of
Part of the complexity in understanding the effects of individual action on climate change
comes from the multiple time frames over which actions have effects (Stern, Janda, Brown, Steg,
Vine, & Lutzenhiser, 2016). Psychologists’ research efforts have predominantly focused on
behaviors that can have immediate or nearly immediate effects on emissions: adjusting home
thermostats, using public rather than private transportation, etc. These immediate actions often,
however, have relatively small per-capita impacts on the emission of greenhouse gases. On a
longer, decadal time scale, more substantial mitigation potential lies in infrequent or one-off
behaviors that involve maintaining, upgrading, or replacing energy-using household equipment,
such as motor vehicles, furnaces, and home insulation (Dietz et al., 2009) or from more
fundamental lifestyle changes, such as adopting a vegetarian diet (Springmann, Godfray, Rayner, &
Scarborough, 2016). Persistent changes in daily behavior, such as routinely using public
transportation, have short-term effects that aggregate if the changes become habitual. On still longer
time scales, individual choices, such as to initiate or join a community group to take mitigation
action, or to influence public policies and organizational choices, may have even greater mitigation
potential; however, this potential is hard to trace back to individual action and thus hard to quantify.
Importantly, some long-term effects involve feedbacks between individuals’ activities in the near
term (e.g., reducing consumption of GHG-intensive food) and the larger social, political, and
economic forces that set the context for individuals’ consumer behavior in the longer term (e.g., by
shifting social norms about food and the structure of the food system). As such, there is the
possibility that changing individual behavior could contribute to a wider reshaping of social norms
and practices, which could in turn influence others’ behavior. This means that the potential for
individual action to effect meaningful climate change mitigation could be greater and more broad-
based than is often assumed, albeit that the dynamics of such social learning are as yet little
understood (Bury, Bauch, & Anand, 2019; Frank, 2020).
In contrast with the typical research focus on daily behaviors, attending to time frames
highlights connections among behaviors. Actions in one time frame can affect the potential for
action in other time frames. There has been a conjecture about negative spillover from short-term
actions to longer-term actions; for example, short-term reductions in household energy use can
negatively affect longer-term reductions by decreasing the motivation to make them (York, 2017).
However, positive spillover is also possible, for example, if energy reductions in one area lead a
person to look for additional opportunities to conserve, especially when behavior becomes tied to
an underlying identity (Gillingham, Kotchen, Raposn, & Wagner, 2013; Nash et al., 2017). While
research is ongoing, no strong evidence currently exists for substantial negative spillover (Maki et
al., 2019).
In general, limiting climate change requires interventions at multiple levels and time scales:
technology change and policy change are necessary, but do not obviate the importance of individual
and household behavior, especially where these have the potential to push forward such systemic
change; likewise, individual responses to climate change are necessary but must be supported and
enabled by policy and structural change. Moreover, behavioral, cultural, technological, economic,
and policy changes interact: none can be fully assessed without considering the others. For
example, policies shifting energy supply away from fossil fuels to renewables may require changes
in when and how energy is used.
This paper argues for rethinking the approach to research on behavioral change to enhance its
potential for limiting climate change. Distinguishing types of behavior that contribute to
accelerating or mitigating climate change, detailed analyses of their predictors and more careful
evaluations of the climatic effects of behavioral changes on different time scales are all part of this
agenda. In the sections that follow, we describe challenges to psychologists’ study of
environmentally significant behavior and discuss the multiple ways in which individuals and
households can act to limit climate change.
Changing individual and household behavior to limit climate change
Limiting global warming to below 2C will demand profound changes in individual and
household behavior, and other disciplines are increasingly looking toward experts in behavior
change in recognition of this need (e.g., Cinner, 2018; IPCC, 2018). While psychological
approaches already contribute to this effort, we contend that a number of important factors are
currently being overlooked. In the following, we first present two important dimensions that,
together with the already-mentioned dimension of time scale, have so far constrained psychological
research’s contributions to climate change mitigation. Next, we discuss the too-dominant tendency
for psychological researchers to study and develop interventions toward behaviors with limited
potential to reduce GHG emissions. Finally, we discuss research on changing frequently and
infrequently performed behaviors, and offer directions for how such research may become more
relevant for climate change mitigation.
Overlooked dimensions
The current and potential contributions of psychology to limiting climate change can be
usefully considered in terms of two dimensions: (1) individuals’ and households’ roles, and (2)
factors affecting the effectiveness of potential interventions.
Roles. Individuals and households, the primary actors studied using psychological concepts,
can act in many roles to effect change in emissions in any time frame; however, for the most part
psychological research has focused on individuals’ and households’ roles as consumers, neglecting
their other societal roles. Individuals’ actions can not only reduce the demand for GHG-producing
goods and services but also affect the supply of zero-emission technologies and help alter actions
by other people and by larger social entities. An appreciation of roles can also help to bridge the
gaps between psychological approaches and approaches from other disciplines that have been more
attentive to people’s place in society, including their level of agency and power, and to cultural
mores such as consumerism and to the potential to transition towards less destructive social
practices (Brown & Vergragt, 2016). Building on previous work (e.g., Clayton et al., 2015; Stern,
2014; Whitmarsh, O´Neill, & Lorenzoni, 2010), we distinguish five roles: (a) consumers, who meet
their material and social needs by choosing and using fuels, equipment, food products, and other
consumer goods that emit GHGs or reduce emissions, either directly through their end use (e.g.,
automobiles, solar panels, home temperature controls), through disposal of household waste (e.g.
recycling), or via “indirect” emissions across product and service life cycles; (b)
investors/producers, who can reduce GHG emissions by installing low-carbon energy production
systems for their own use (e.g., photovoltaic or heat pump technologies, electric vehicles that run
on renewable energy supplies) or, if they have funds to invest, by investing preferentially in entities
that reduce their own direct and indirect emissions or facilitate others in doing so (e.g., green
investing); (c) participants in organizations that produce or can affect emissions and that may be
subject to the influence of their members or employees (e.g., corporations, universities, government
agencies); (d) members of communities (e.g., social, cultural, religious groups), through which they
may deliberate, co-create and disseminate information about mitigation options, and act collectively
to reduce GHGs directly or indirectly (e.g., community tree planting, giving talks to schools or faith
groups); and (e) citizens, who can influence policies at various levels to reduce emissions from the
activities of public entities, to facilitate lower-emissions choices by organizations and households in
their jurisdictions, and to promote organizational investments in negative-emission technologies.
Notably, some actions can fall into multiple categories, or into different categories for different
people. For example, food choice may be considered a simple consumer decision for some, with
considerations limited to price, quality, the preferences of self and family, etc. For others, these
factors matter but the implications of food choice for animal welfare, the environment, and social
justice, make food choices a political as well as a consumer action; what has been called “political
consumerism” (Boström, Micheletti, & Oosterveer, 2019).
Psychological research with respect to climate change mitigation has focused predominantly on
the consumer role as defined above, treated decisions as if they happen largely in a sociocultural
vacuum, and emphasized changes in frequent behaviors, such as the use of equipment or
management of household waste. Such approaches typically rely upon the short time frame within
which behavioral change is easiest to document. In addition, the emphasis has been on change in a
target behavior, rather than on change in the impact or climate footprint of behavior, as can be seen
by examining literature reviews (e.g., Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). Studies of change in high-
impact household investments are few and theoretically uncoordinated (Kastner & Stern, 2015).
Factors affecting impact (climate footprint). Stern (2011) proposed an equation to quantify
impact: I = tpn (see also Dietz et al., 2009; Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017). I represents impact on
climate footprints. Technical potential (t, here called TP) represents the climate footprint of a target
behavior if universally adopted. Behavioral plasticity (p, here called BP) is the degree to which a
target behavior can be changed by an intervention over the time period studied. This is the aspect of
effectiveness most familiar to psychologists, but we argue here that impact is in fact a function of
BPxTP. As noted, the bulk of the psychological literature examines the plasticity of low-TP
everyday behaviors affecting GHG emissions, although some has examined the plasticity of higher-
TP, longer-acting behaviors such as purchases of energy-efficient or renewable energy-producing
household equipment (Dietz et al., 2009; Kastner & Stern, 2015; Wolske & Stern, 2018). In the
equation, n refers to the number of people whose behavior could possibly be changed. Impact (I),
not behavioral plasticity (BP), is the key indicator for the potential practical value of psychological
research. Interdisciplinary work on climate footprints has also added initiative feasibility (IF): the
degree to which an intervention being considered, such as a financial incentive, a regulation, or an
educational program, can actually be implemented by a change agent such as a government
(Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017).
The implication of this analysis for behavioral scientists is the need to identify ways to achieve
the greatest impact (I) established by previous research, or to find ways to go beyond previously
achieved I, focusing on increasing behavioral plasticity (BP) for high-technical potential (TP)
choices. Promising technologies and policy interventions fall short of expectations when they
implicitly equate TP with impact, thus failing to consider BP. For example, research has long
recognized that financial incentives for residential energy efficiency investments with high TP are
far more effective, sometimes by a factor of ten, when BP is addressed, for instance, by reducing
the cognitive effort required to make the investments (Stern et al., 1986). The hurdles involved in
adoption, however, led to reduced effectiveness of financial incentives in the United States
compared to other high-income countries during the 1980s (Stern et al., 1986). Such issues continue
to be manifest today, for example, in limits to achieving high BP for adoption of photovoltaic
energy production (Kastner & Stern, 2015; Stern, Wittenberg, Wolske, & Kastner, 2017).
Many analyses outside psychology primarily emphasize TP with limited consideration for BP.
For example, Wynes and Nicholas (2017) estimated the TP of different actions and concluded that
decisions relating to reproduction were of highest significance. But this analysis ignored issues of
BP and the time scales on which emissions reductions would occur (Stern & Wolske, 2017; see also
Wynes, Nicholas, Zhao, & Donner, 2018). A narrow focus on TP may skew analyses away from the
highest-impact actions in much the same way as a narrow focus on BP. In our view, more
psychological research should focus on actions with potentially high impact (the product, tpn),
while considering the feasibility of implementing behavior change initiatives (IF) on large scale.
Implementation of feasible initiatives can be critical for increasing BP for actions with high TP that
have not yet been widely adopted (Wolske & Stern, 2018). Understanding the psychological, social,
and policy factors that shape BP and initiative feasibility (IF) is also a worthy topic of research, as
individual behaviors in non-consumer roles might increase IF, for example, by promoting changes
in organizational behavior or public policies.
The challenge of misplaced focus
Because of consumers and many psychological researchers focus on short-term actions with
relatively low TP (Thøgersen & Crompton, 2009), the impact of their efforts has been limited. The
overemphasis on low-impact actions can be partly explained by misperceptions about what actions
effectively reduce GHG emissions, which may, in part, be explained by the limited accessibility of
information about the climate footprint of behaviors, consumer products, and services. For
example, research by Attari and colleagues (2010) illustrates consumers’ limited understanding of
TP, and the difficulty consumers have in identifying effective actions to mitigate GHG emissions
(see also Camilleri, Larrick, Hossain, & Patino-Echeverri, 2019; Whitmarsh, Seyfang, & O´Neill,
2011). Attari et al. found that individuals generally overestimated energy consumption for activities
that use small amounts of energy and underestimated consumption for activities that use large
amounts. This means that even when people intend to engage in mitigating actions, they often do
not make the most effective choices. Oftentimes individuals select actions derived from
observations of other people or from intuitive notions of what constitutes low-emission actions,
based on actions that are salient in memory, considered emblematic of environmentalism, or easy to
implement; these, however, are rarely the most impactful.
Although psychologists study a wide range of behaviors, it appears that they often fail to
consider the TP of target actions: many of the widely studied pro-environmental behaviors’ have
low TP (Capstick et al., 2014; Dietz et al., 2009; Stern, 2014). The dominant focus on frequently
performed behaviors is understandable because they are easily observed or reported; also,
psychological factors have explanatory value for such behaviors (Bamberg & Möser, 2007, Wolske
& Stern, 2018). The broad-brush definition of pro-environmental behaviors licenses psychologists
to avoid undertaking a detailed analysis of a given action’s impact on environmental outcomes,
such as on climate change. When psychologists interested in pro-environmental behaviors neglect
looking in detail at impacts, they risk reinforcing existing popular misperceptions of TP. For
example, a recent review of behavioral interventions that promote pro-environmental behavior was
unable to identify any interventions aiming to reduce air travel despite it being one of the highest
GHG-emitting individual behaviors and one that is rapidly increasing (Wynes et al., 2018).
There are at least three reasons for concern about this overemphasis in psychological research
on a generalized conceptualization of pro-environmental behaviors uninformed by careful
consideration of impact (I = tpn). First, by focusing on demonstrating the fit of particular theoretical
models or the viability of certain interventions, behavioral researchers may ignore behaviors that
matter in terms of climate impact. Second, as discussed below, high-impact behaviors may have
different determinants than low-impact behaviors. Thus, behavioral researchers may be missing
opportunities for their research to have a greater practical impact, to contribute optimally to cross-
disciplinary efforts to inform efforts to limit climate change, and to develop more robust theory.
Third, individuals who become aware of their misplaced focus may conclude that their efforts have
been wasted, leading to reduced motivation to continue performing actions to mitigate climate
change (York, 2017). While this possibility has not received much empirical attention, there is
suggestive evidence for such effects (Hargreaves, Nye, & Burgess, 2013). For example, failure to
adhere to the goal of recycling a water bottle was found to lower commitment towards the higher-
order goal of sustaining the natural environment (Devezer, Sprott, Spangenberg, & Czellar, 2014).
Thus, the failure of actions to have the expected impact might leave individuals discouraged,
disincentivizing engagement in higher-impact actions. The practical importance of such effects is
still under investigation.
Changing frequently performed behaviors
Psychological research on frequently performed pro-environmental behaviors, such as
recycling and switching off appliances, has identified numerous psychological factors relevant for
understanding households’ willingness to perform such behaviors (see Stern, 2000, 2011), and
shown that these psychological factors can indeed be manipulated through behavioral interventions
in order to reduce the GHG emissions from household behavior. For example, inducing goal setting
or providing feedback can lower electricity consumption (Abrahamse, Steg, Vlek, & Rothengatter,
2007; Karlin, Zinger, & Ford, 2015), and injunctive normative messages can produce short-term
household energy savings (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicious, 2007). This
research has greatly improved our understanding of certain mitigation actions, but it neglects many
behaviors with high TP (Stern et al., 2016). In what follows, we identify limitations of inferences
from what is known about the mitigation behaviors psychologists most commonly study and point
to pathways for increasing the contribution of psychological research to climate change mitigation.
Potential impact. Although many frequently performed behaviors have a low climate impact,
even in the aggregate, this is not true for all of them. For instance, dietary decisions have a high TP
if they are maintained over time. There is evidence that switching from a typical meat-intensive diet
to a vegan diet has the TP to cut associated GHG emissions in half (Poore & Nemeck, 2018), and
were it to be adopted by the entire world population, becoming vegan has the TP to reduce global
anthropogenic GHG emissions by approximately 15 per cent of total GHG emissions (IPCC, 2019).
Thus, switching to a vegetarian and particularly a vegan diet would constitute a significant
reduction in the overall climate footprint of an individual, and in aggregate, of the globe (Shepon,
Eshel, Noor, and Milo, 2018).
Another frequently performed and significant behavior is the choice of travel mode for work,
shopping, and leisure. Approximately 30 percent of the direct GHG emissions allocated to the
average European household stems from transportation (Ivanova et al., 2017); thus, expanding the
regular use of low-carbon transportation modes also has high TP (see Möser & Bamberg, 2008, for
meta-analysis of related psychological interventions).
Certain frequently performed behaviors with moderate-TP would also yield consequential
reductions in emissions if they were widely adopted (Carrico, Padgett, Vandenbergh, Gilligan, &
Wallston, 2009). We do not advocate ignoring such behaviors, merely that psychologists should
prioritize behaviors that have high mitigation potential in terms of impact (I = tpn), rather than
merely focusing on those that are easy to study. We would not discourage people from undertaking
these behaviors either, since they can matter in the aggregate (Stack & Vandenbergh, 2011;
Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017).
Impact generalizability. The TP of a behavior does not always generalize across contexts; an
important source of GHG emissions in one location may be relatively insignificant in another. This
can be illustrated by household electricity consumption. Many behavioral interventions have been
studied for reducing households’ electricity consumption (Karlin et al., 2015), yet the importance of
these behaviors is integrally determined by the source(s) of the electricity (Demski et al., 2018), and
can vary by very large amounts even within countries. For example, in 2014 the carbon-intensity of
one kWh of electricity was almost a hundred times greater in Kentucky than in Vermont due to
differences in energy sources (Kennedy, 2017). Behavior change that reduces electricity use
therefore has a highly variable impact on GHG emissions depending on what sources generate the
electricity. A further complication in the analysis of impact (I) or TP is that electricity is moved
across the grid, so that efficiencies in a place where most electricity is from renewable sources may
allow the low-impact electricity to be transmitted to places where it displaces fossil fuels. Other
contextual factors, such as geography and infrastructure, should similarly be considered when
determining the TP of individual and household behaviors.
The factors influencing behavioral plasticity (BP) also vary by context. In particular, what
affects frequently performed behaviors, such as thermostat settings, does not always affect
infrequent, higher-TP behaviors, such as improving home insulation (Black, Stern, Elworth, 1985;
Stern, 2011). Thus, what has been learned about the determinants of one type of behavior may not
generalize to another. Moreover, and as will be elaborated below, even the determinants and the
plasticity of the same behavior may differ between individuals, contexts, and cultures. The BP of a
behavior will be affected by the frequency with which it is performed and the extent to which it is
habitual; by the social norms surrounding the behavior; as well as by the perceived and actual
capabilities of the actor.
Individual differences. People are different and so are the lives they lead. Identifying and
recognizing how individual differences influence people’s capacity for successfully executing
behavioral changes to reduce their climate footprint is essential for more targeted and effective
behavioral interventions. This relates to assessing both people’s current climate footprints and their
BP for change. Although psychological research has typically tried to characterize the behavior of
an average” individual, certain researchers have argued that it is as important to consider the
nature of ‘behavers’ as it is to consider ‘behaviors’ (Galvin, 2013). Failure to consider individual
differences may lead to inaccurate estimates about the potential impact of a particular behavior
change. For instance, great variation exists in householdsclimate footprints across countries and
economic classes (Hubacek, Baiocchi, Feng, & Patwardhan, 2017), so the potential for reducing
emissions will vary too (Whitmarsh, Capstick, & Nash, 2017). Among the most important
predictors of household climate footprint are wealth and income; studies have shown that the top
10% of people are responsible for around 50% of emissions with wide disparities both between and
within countries (Gore, 2015; see also Chakravarty et al., 2009).
People not only differ immensely in their climate footprints but also in the resources they
command and the freedom they have to make changes that reduce GHG emissions. The
economically disadvantaged have limited funds to invest in new equipment, limited access to either
credit or information, and often limited time to attend to energy and other climate salient
consumption (Chen, Xu, & Day, 2017). Successful behavior change is also strongly dependent on
cognitive, affective, and social factors (e.g., executive functions, emotional states, and social
environment; Fitzsimons, Finkel, & van Dellen, 2015; Kotabe & Hofmann, 2015) that often interact
with constraints due to socioeconomic and time-related factors, as further discussed below (e.g.,
Farah, 2017; Shah, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2012). These individual differences may be especially
pronounced when changing behaviors integral to lifestyle, such as adopting a vegetarian/vegan diet
or changing travel modes, because they demand skillful behavioral monitoring and self-regulation
over an extended time period as well as substantial time invested in learning the new practices
(Nielsen, 2017). More research is needed to better identify these cognitive, affective, and social
factors, and estimate their effect sizes across different types of frequently performed behaviors, and
also to identify strategies to overcome the time, informational, and financial barriers faced by the
Changing infrequent, high-impact behaviors
The consumer actions with the greatest TP and often impact potential (I) (Dietz et al., 2009) for
affecting climate change are relatively rare events. These actions include choices of where to live
(Brand, Goodman, Rutter, Song, & Ogilvie, 2013) and in what sort of home; of household size; and
of which equipment to acquire and use for transport, heating, cooling, and other energy-dependent
services. These actions have received far less attention from psychologists than frequently
performed behaviors, perhaps in part because being infrequent, it can be difficult to design studies
of them with adequate sample size. Reviews demonstrate both the limited number of studies of
these behaviors and the lack of consensus among researchers about which determinants of these
behaviors are particularly worthy of examination (Kastner & Stern, 2015; Wolske & Stern, 2018).
Psychological research on environmentally significant behavior has not made strong links to the
traditions of research on transportation decisions, real estate purchases, and other aspects of
consumer choice (e.g., Liao, Molin, & van Wee, 2017; Pettifor, Wilson, Axsen, Abrahamse, &
Anable, 2017). It is not easy to quantify TP in order to select high-TP behaviors to study in
particular contexts, but work in industrial ecology and environmental engineering, involving life
cycle analysis of the climate footprints of goods and services (e.g., Ivanova et al., 2016), can point
behavioral researchers in promising directions. Despite the relative paucity of research, some
tentative conclusions can be drawn about how psychological concepts may be useful for increasing
BP, particularly for high-TP behaviors (Vandenbergh, Stern, Gardner, Dietz, & Gilligan, 2010;
Wolske & Stern, 2018):
1. For some segments of most populations, costs are an absolute barrier. Properly structured
financial incentives can be an important, even if not a sufficient, condition for environmentally
significant choices. However, financial incentives are most effective when integrated with
initiatives that address other barriers to action (see below). Some research suggests that financial
incentives can backfire by undermining intrinsic motivation, or at least minimize the possibility for
positive spillover (Steinhorst & Klockner, 2018).
2. For greatest effect, valid information from credible sources should be available at the time
and place of choice, and marketing efforts should engage with the people who interact directly with
consumers at those times and places (motor vehicle dealers, home improvement contractors,
salespeople in appliance stores, etc.; see Zarazua de Rubens, Noel, & Sovacool, 2018). These
intermediaries may need special training or incentives. Indeed, the large literature on trust and
persuasion shows that information source can be at least as important as information content or
format (e.g., Clayton et al., 2015). Influence through social networks is undoubtedly very important
(Frank, 2020; Henry & Vollan, 2014).
3. Information about the choice should be kept simple and provide a credible description of
benefits associated with different choices on outcomes such as comfort, health, and social status
(whether the benefits presented speak to people’s intrinsic or extrinsic goals may influence
effectiveness; Sheldon, Nichols, & Kasser, 2011). The choice information should appear on well-
designed, easily accessible labels (e.g., Isley, Stern, Carmichael, Joseph, & Arent, 2016) or come as
advice from trusted information sources. One-stop shopping, and minimization of paperwork and
delay in delivering incentives can make a substantial difference.
4. Carefully framing options and utilizing choice-architecture approaches (e.g., default setting)
can simplify decisions and create decision environments that allow consumers to make choices that
are consistent with their preferences while also reducing emissions (Sunstein & Reisch, 2014).
5. Programs should provide credible guarantees of the promised benefits for consumers and
adopters of emission-reducing technologies, for example by offering contractual guarantees of
performance improvements or savings for renewable energy systems.
Understanding context and constraint
The value of psychological research for mitigating climate change can be increased by
considering the dimensions and factors presented in the discussion above. In the following, we
discuss how appreciating and incorporating factors mostly studied outside psychology, such as
power and social structure, can facilitate integration across the social sciences and ultimately
improve the generalizability of our research and the impact on climate change mitigation.
Because the primary focus of psychological research tends to be on individual-level variables
(e.g., values, beliefs, and norms) our theories are developed around these variables and tested with
data on individuals (Steg, 2016). There is a tacit acknowledgment that individuals’ behavior is
influenced by social structural and cultural factors that facilitate some courses of action and
constrain others. We expect that most theory and empirical work by psychologists in support of
climate change mitigation will continue to focus on the individual. But a more robust science may
emerge if our theories and methods are attentive to contextual effects, to behaviors in non-consumer
roles, and to methodological and theoretical frames that emphasize other units than individuals. As
described above, individual and household behaviors depend on structural factors and capabilities
as well as individual factors such as motivations and values (Milfont & Markowitz, 2016). Social
structures, roles and norms, physical infrastructure, and other factors beyond individuals create
patterns of demand for environmental resources and help shape individuals’ decisions and choices
(Shove, 2010). For example, renters who pay utility bills have limited control over the insulation or
heating equipment in their homes. Low-income homeowners often live in energy-inefficient
housing and have limited financial resources for energy-efficiency improvements even if such
investments are fiscally prudent (Chen et al., 2017). In general, the disadvantaged also have less
time and resources to investigate actions that would reduce their energy consumption and GHG
More subtle social and cultural influences also matter. Although individual choices are
involved in transport behavior, which have a major impact on GHG emissions (Ivanova et al., 2017;
Swim, Clayton, & Howard, 2011), the historically recent trend for living in suburban detached
homes which in turn affects households’ travel footprints – constrains individual travel options
and relates to cultural norms around ‘hypermobility’ (Barr, 2018). Current patterns of housing and
transportation infrastructure constrain the development of further infrastructure and influence which
policies are practical or cost-effective. But in turn, the pattern of residence and infrastructure is the
result of a series of decisions both by consumers and by those individuals who in the past had the
power to allocate resources and to develop infrastructure. We need theory and methods that can
incorporate both individual agency and social structure and culture, and the interplay among them.
Although some influences on decision making, such as consumerism, seem to be as widespread
as capitalist market economies, there can also be considerable variation across and within regions,
countries, and cultures. Without a sound understanding of the effects of context, it is not possible to
understand how results of an intervention in one place can be applied somewhere else. In a sense, a
theory of context and structure is a theory of what generalizes and what does not. Thus, developing
a robust and cumulative understanding of what matters in reducing GHG emissions requires a
sound treatment of context. We cannot resolve these problems here, but we can point to some
approaches and perspectives that can complement the typical research approaches in psychology
and thus help embed those results in a broader and more robust understanding. As we emphasize in
the next section, this attention to structure as well as agency will require psychologists to draw on
perspectives that go beyond most work in psychology.
Seeing agency and structure as part of the same process. The conflict between approaches
that emphasize individual agency and those that emphasize structure stretches back to the earliest
thinking about human action. But contemporary efforts to deal with the problem emphasize the sort
of interplay we mentioned above (Dietz & Burns, 1992; McLaughlin & Dietz, 2008). Social
structure and culture constrain what individuals can do or even imagine they can do, both as
consumers and in their other roles. Social structure and culture are influenced by individual action,
though, and while change may take generations, it also can occur very rapidly (Simms & Newell,
2017; Sovacool, 2016). We suggest that those focusing on individual action, structure and culture,
or the dynamics of social structure and culture should be attentive to the fact that they address only
a portion of the larger puzzle. When mindful of this, we can develop truly cumulative and useful
understandings by integrating across studies and fields. This requires a collaborative effort where
the work of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians inform each other.
More attention to social and economic power. We noted above that some of the most
consequential individual actions may lie outside the consumer role and involve influencing
organizational decision making, communities, and politics. These are actions intended to change
culture and social structure, and are currently examined by organizational and political
psychologists, and researchers in other disciplines. They deserve more widespread attention from
psychologists working on climate change mitigation. This will require consideration of the vast
differentials in power that characterize most societies. A citizen of median income and a billionaire
may both decide to engage on climate change policy, but the difficulty in mobilizing sufficient
resources to have political impact is far greater for the typical citizen than for the billionaire (Dietz
& Whitley, 2018).
Complementing analyses based on individuals. While the individual will remain the primary
unit of theory and analysis for most psychological research, this perspective could be
complemented by other approaches. Most notably, this includes the analyses of organizational and
political actions, in which individual actions can be important (e.g., Stern et al., 2016; Vandenbergh
& Gilligan, 2017). Vayda (1988, 2009) has argued that understanding anthropogenic stress on the
environment is best served by a focus on actions or practices. In an action-focused approach, one
identifies an environmentally consequential action and asks why it occurs. Part of the explanation
may reside in variables routinely examined by psychologists. But the explanation may also reside in
routines and habits, and in structural constraints.
Social practice theorists offer a view of human action in which the individual is less an
independent agent and more a ‘carrier’ of practices that reflect social relations and are tied to
physical environments (Shove, 2012). A frequently-used example in relation to sustainability is that
of showering which, social practice theorists contend, is a function of modern infrastructure (e.g.,
water, electricity, dedicated space in the home), daily rituals (e.g., getting ready to go out or
unwinding at the end of the day), and contemporary conventions of cleanliness and propriety
(Shove & Walker, 2010). Similarly, using the car as the dominant method of transportation is
embedded in interconnected patterns of social practices, including working, shopping, visiting
friends and family, and going to school. Social practices are partly constituted by, and always
embedded in, material arrangements. Druckman and Jackson (2008) have shown that households in
prospering suburbs far exceed the climate footprints of city dwellers. This reflects a social practice
that involves large single-family dwellings surrounded by lawns, and the dominance of personal
cars as a mode of transportationa social practice in which any one element is not easily separated
from the others. Thus, for social practice theorists, the appropriate unit of theoretical and empirical
analysis is neither the action nor the individual but the overall practice.
Some researchers view these approaches as oppositional to the typical individual-level study
(Adams, 2014; Batel, Castro, Devine-Wright, & Howarth, 2016; Shove, 2010). However, a focus
on higher-level or emergent phenomena, such as social practices, risks reification and dismissal of
agency; furthermore, this focus often does not suggest points for intervention to effect change.
Progress will be most rapid if various theoretical and methodological stances are seen as
complementary with each approach informing the other (Wilson & Chatterton, 2011). Of course,
our goal in this paper is to consider how psychology can contribute to the mitigation of climate
change, and it is in that context the relative importance of individual agency, social practices, and
structural constraints should be considered. Recent work has attempted such integration by
examining the synergy between findings on habits and routines (Kurz, Gardner, Verplanken, &
Abraham, 2015), and between notions of behavioral spillover and ‘bundles’ of practice (Nash et al.,
Method and Practice. The problem of analyzing these links is also methodological and
practical. Studying actual behavior, and especially via experiments that allow strong causal
inference, comes with appreciable challenges. For practical reasons, this research is typically
conducted with easily accessible populations and in contrived circumstances rather than large
representative and diverse samples, or in ways that accommodate and recognize the complexities of
people’s everyday lives. Consequently, the typical psychological study has limited variation in
terms of the socioeconomic circumstances, and the class and ethnicity of those studied.
Furthermore, studies tend to be restricted by geographic and cultural location (especially to the
United States and Europe, and to ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and
Democratic) samples (Henrich et al., 2010), which limits institutional and cultural generalizability.
Of course, a strong focus on WEIRD samples could be justified on impact grounds, as WEIRD
populations often have disproportionally high climate footprints. Conversely, households in energy
poverty may need to increase their energy consumption, so using more diverse samples helps
psychologists understand and address the range of societal needs and circumstances. In terms of
generalizability, the WEIRDness bias makes it difficult to examine the influences of broader
structural and sociocultural factors on individual behavior. A remedy for this may be to coordinate
studies across multiple local contexts to capture and analyze structural variation, or at least to
systematically accumulate studies for secondary analyses (Marquart-Pyatt, 2013; Morren &
Grinstein, 2016), and to ensure these studies measure actual behavior as far as possible (e.g., using
energy/water meters, weighing waste). Psychologists could also benefit from drawing on qualitative
and cross-cultural methods commonly deployed in other social sciences, particularly sociology and
anthropology, in order to capture more fully the contextual factors shaping behavior. Ultimately,
both theoretical and empirical work at the intersection of these approaches will be needed to
determine the influences of structure and agency on environmentally significant action, and those
influences will of course differ across contexts.
Working toward more interdisciplinary collaboration
We reiterate our theme that while psychologists can do important, indeed crucial, work to
advance climate change mitigation, their success will be limited if they restrict their engagement to
within the discipline. Disciplines are reservoirs of theoretical and methodological traditions, where
decades of careful work have led to the evolution of well-conceptualized theories and well-
established methods. However, the very traditions, methods, and theories that allow for high-quality
research within a discipline can lead to ignoring factors not central to those traditions. In our
discussion of impact, we argue that psychologists will make their greatest contributions to climate
change mitigation by focusing analytic attention on decisions and actions that can substantially
reduce emissions (high technical potential, TP), that people can be effectively encouraged to take
(high behavioral plasticity, BP), and for which effective policies and programs will be encouraged
rather than blocked by political, economic, and cultural forces (high initiative feasibility, IF).
It seems obvious that psychologists should engage with engineers and other applied scientists
in trying to understand the TP of behavioral changes. Understanding the effects of household
choices on the climate footprints of product and service life cycles is a major and challenging field
of research in itself, which implies a need for greater thoughtful engagement with experts on TP. In
turn, those discussions can be fruitful for the engineers and applied scientists since insights from
psychology and the other social sciences can help shape the design of technology (Steg, Shwom, &
Dietz, 2018).
While BP is already a familiar domain of research for psychologists, here too engagement with
other disciplines is often warranted. As we have noted, individuals often face substantial constraints
in being able to carry out high-TP actions, especially if those actions require seeking information
from unfamiliar sources (e.g., contractors) or require non-trivial financial investments.
Psychologists can certainly contribute to understanding financial and cognitive constraints and
limits of expertise and confidence (Attari et al. 2010). But cultural factors may also matter both as a
barrier in access to needed information and other resources, and in patterns of energy use.
Sociologists, anthropologists, and economists have substantial experience studying such structural
effects (e.g., Chen et al., 2017; Kempton, 1986; Lutzenhiser, 1992; Lutzenhiser & Hackett, 1993),
and can facilitate improved treatment of these issues in psychological research.
In understanding IF, insights from other disciplines, including economics, political science,
law, and public administration could be of great value. For example, the literature on how public
policies are shaped by networks of individuals and organizations highlights how individuals can
affect such policies in their roles as citizens and members of organizations. These networks not only
include government officials but also representatives of industry, non-governmental organizations,
and social movements (Frank, 2011; Henry & Vollan, 2014). Such networks can also affect non-
governmental actions that govern GHG emissions (Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017). As we learn
from and contribute to this research, it will be important for psychologists to appreciate approaches
and paradigms that recognize units of analysis at a different level than the individual; for example,
in terms of cultural determinants (Stephenson et al., 2010) and through actors such as civil society
organisations and corporations (Tosun & Schoenefeld, 2017).
The ability of our scholarship to make strong contributions to mitigating climate change is
most likely to develop by building understandings that integrate the strengths of various
disciplinary traditions. Despite the many advantages of engaging with climate change mitigation
researchers from diverse disciplines, doing so requires considerable self-reflection, humility, and a
willingness both to challenge psychology's assumptions and to learn the language and perspectives
of other disciplines. Psychological research can not only contribute important knowledge to
interdisciplinary collaborations (e.g., IPCC), but also represent a useful source of research on such
collaborations (Clayton et al., 2015). Research on organizational and collective behavior is relevant
to understanding and facilitating the complex dynamics that can be found in groups or teams of
differently trained individuals.
Increasing the impact of psychological research
Psychologists are learning to speak about research on climate change to an audience beyond
disciplinary boundaries. The incorporation of psychological research into the IPCC reports provides
increased legitimacy for the field as well as an opportunity to influence national policy and
international discussions, even in countries without a well-developed tradition of psychological
research. However, the continued use of insights from psychology will likely depend on their
applicability to behaviors with large potential for impact. Subdisciplines of psychology that have so
far been relatively disengaged from issues of mitigating climate change, such as organizational,
consumer, and political psychology, may have much to contribute to the consideration of BP and
Earlier papers have described how psychology can contribute to the strategic selection of
behavioral targets, by assessing the likelihood that a behavior can be changed through external
intervention (Clayton et al., 2016; Dietz et al., 2009). This includes high-impact behaviors for
which the best established BP is rarely achieved and ones for which that level of BP could be
exceeded by the use of psychological concepts. In the present paper, we put the selection of
behavioral targets in a broader context that includes an emphasis on TP and IF in addition to BP,
and considers behaviors at multiple scales, including temporal scales. We argue not only for making
psychological research more accessible to other scientists and policymakers, but also for interacting
with other specialists in both problem identification and problem investigation. Mitigating climate
change will require attention to psychological factors; however, psychological research will be most
effective when psychology is only one of the tools in the toolbox.
Organizations such as the APA could enhance the ability of psychology to contribute to
addressing climate change. Previous papers in American Psychologist have made recommendations
to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations (Clayton et al., 2016; Swim et al., 2011), such as
incorporating information about other disciplines into psychological education and training, so that
psychologists know the value of, and have skills for, interdisciplinary collaborations. Psychology
conferences could also feature more interdisciplinary panels. APA journals could encourage more
attention to the practical impact of behavioral interventions. If we want, as a discipline, to have an
impact on mitigating climate change, such considerations should be part of our future.
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... The perceived effectiveness of performing pro-environmental behaviors that promote positive changes may also impact the frequency of performing those activities (Bradley et al. 2020). Given the disconnect between the often-stated importance of climate change and the need to sustain the performance of climate change mitigation behavior, understanding the psychological factors that can encourage or dampen effective action is important for meeting critical targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, a key component of halting climate change (Nielsen et al. 2021). Yet little research with representative samples, particularly in communities at high risk for climate-related impacts, have been conducted on the interrelationships between emotions regarding one's ability to act, preservative cognition (i.e., worry) about climate-related impacts, perceived e cacy of behaviors, and performance of climate change-mitigation behaviors. ...
... Mitigating the existential threat of climate change necessitates that individuals engage in ongoing climate change mitigation activities to thwart the worst effects of the crisis. These behaviors happen at the level of the individual (Bouman et al. 2020) and collective (Nielsen et al. 2021). Individual-level behaviors generally include lifestyle choices and household decisions associated with a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and include lowering meat consumption (Poore and Nemecek 2018) or conserving energy (Bouman et al. 2020;Capstick et al. 2014). ...
... Individual-level behaviors generally include lifestyle choices and household decisions associated with a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and include lowering meat consumption (Poore and Nemecek 2018) or conserving energy (Bouman et al. 2020;Capstick et al. 2014). Estimates of the potential impact of these actions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may be profound (Nielsen et al. 2021). For example, a relatively modest modi cation to the typical United Kingdom (UK) diet that reduces animal product consumption and increases the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and cereals could decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 40% (Green et al. 2015). ...
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Individual (e.g., eating less meat, electric car use) and collective (e.g., petition signing, donating money to environmental causes) climate change mitigation behaviors are necessary to thwart the worst effects of the escalating climate crisis. Psychological factors including positive and negative emotional states, worry, and efficacy have been implicated as key correlates of these behaviors; however, little research has explored these relationships in representative samples at high risk for exposure to climate-related hazards (e.g., hurricanes, heat waves, flooding). We assessed climate-change mitigation behaviors in an ongoing study of a probability-based representative sample of 1,479 Texas and Florida residents repeatedly exposed to climate-related hazards including hurricanes, heat waves, flooding, and tornadoes. Controlling for demographics, behavior-related positive emotions (PA) and negative emotions (NA) correlated with engagement in performing greater number of collective (PA: IRR = 2.06, p < .001; NA: IRR = 1.46, p = .030) climate-change mitigation behaviors; individual-level behaviors were associated with PA (IRR = 1.18, p < .001). However, NA was fully mediated by worry about climate-related hazards, which in turn was mediated by worry about climate change specifically. PA was fully mediated by efficacy. In fully adjusted models examining individual emotions, hope, worry about climate change, and behavioral efficacy remained statistically significant predictors of performing greater individual and collective climate-change mitigation behaviors (all p s < .05). Results suggest worry about the climate crisis may be adaptive and that feelings of hope, relative to other emotions (both positive and negative), may be effective at spurring pro-environmental behaviors. Scalable interventions should explore leveraging these psychological experiences to promote climate-change mitigation behaviors.
... A psychological approach offers valuable insight into typical challenges found with human behaviors, perceptions, and motivations towards our natural environment and how we engage with these spaces [43][44][45]. A distinctive feature of this approach is 'the recognition, even embracing, of the value of multiple perspectives on issues' [46]. ...
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The timely implementation of climate adaptation measures for the urban environment is essential to the creation of robust cities. Within Norway, these adaptation measures are undertaken at the municipal level. Unfortunately, the implementation of adaptation measures has lagged behind expectations, partially due to public resistance to local projects. City planners seek tools to provide insight into the priorities of residents to build consensus and public support. This study follows up on two previous case studies of Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) implementation in Trondheim, Norway, where the prioritization of urban space is often a source of conflict. The Hofstede Cultural Compass is a tool that maps six cultural dimensions used in research and practice to inform users about cultural norms and cross-cultural divergences. This study seeks to test and verify this tool for use in building public consensus and support. Municipal managers responsible for project implementation took the Cultural Compass survey, and the results were collectively mapped and compared to the public at large. The Cultural Compass found notable divergences between the municipality and the Norwegian public within the areas of “Long-term Orientation”, “Uncertainty Avoidance”, and “Masculinity vs. Femininity”. These findings were cross-referenced with thematically analyzed interviews of residents regarding their perceptions of a municipal SUDS project. Together, these case studies give greater insight into the issues of diverging priorities and perspectives experienced in the implementation of SUDS. Recommendations are presented to aid the understanding of intercultural divergences between planning offices and public priorities in an effort to better engage the public and build consensus.
... The goal here is to assist people to better understand climate change and to overcome any psychic mechanisms that prevent them from acting to reduce carbon emissions (Stern, 2011), that is, to develop people's self-efficacy or belief in their ability to reduce carbon emissions (Knight, 2020). Here, different psychological disciplines have been drawn on to alter consumer behaviour, oftentimes by concentrating on people's emotions and feelings (Nielsen et al., 2021). This work coheres with capitalist ideology that places blame for structural issues on individual subjects, concentrating solely on the individual subject's consumption patterns rather than capitalist modes of production, dispossession, and expropriation (Brown, 2007). ...
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The term Anthropocene (Age of Human) implies that the reduction of carbon emissions is a matter of changing human behaviour. This risks depoliticising the climate emergency. Everyone is not equally responsible for climate change, and the consequences of climate change are not distributed equally. Climate change is overwhelmingly the result of extractive and exploitative capitalist production. It is thus more useful to understand the climate crisis in terms of the Capitalocene (Age of Capital), with climate justice being a terrain of anti-capitalist struggle. Mainstream responses to climate change have largely neglected the Capitalocene, focusing instead on consumer behaviour. This individualistic approach has been taken up by several ecologically oriented psychological professions, where the emphasis has been on ‘responsible consumer behaviour’ and/or the psychological effects of climate uncertainty. There is, however, a growing critical tradition within the psychological professions that seeks to advance climate justice by taking seriously the capitalist political economy. Indeed, psychological practitioners are equipped with skills that may be useful for activists involved in psychopolitical efforts to consolidate climate justice movements and build political power. We posit three key areas for psychological practitioners working for climate justice movements: solidarity-making, affective mediation, and resource mobilisation.
... The term high-impact PEB is, however, complex. Nielsen et al. (2021) suggest that PEB impact is determined by four characteristics of the targeted behavior: 1) the effect on carbon footprint (i.e., technical potential), 2) the extent to which the targeted behavior can be changed (i.e., behavioral plasticity), 3) the plausibility of implementing an intervention aimed to change the targeted behavior (i.e., initiative feasibility), and 4) the number of people that an intervention can target. Similar points have been raised by Goldberg and Gustafson (2023), suggesting that the impact of proenvironmental communication campaigns can be understood based on its reach, effect, and durability. ...
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The social norm-based intervention is a frequently used tool for encouraging pro-environmental behavior. In designing effective interventions, however, both practitioners and researchers need more knowledge about the relationships between different norm constructs and pro-environmental behavior. In this study, we meta-analyze the predictive strength of injunctive, descriptive, and personal norms using meta-analytical structural equation modeling (MASEM). Data are extracted from 572 studies reported in 534 articles across 56 countries with a total sample size of N = 312,127. We find that internalized (i.e., personal) norms are consistently the strongest predictor of pro-environmental behavior and that personal norms mediate most of the impacts of injunctive and descriptive norms. Both injunctive and descriptive norms predict pro-environmental behavior, uniquely and with similar strengths. We find no significant moderations of collectivism or behavioral cost on the predictive strength of social norms on pro-environmental behavior.
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Awareness of the threats of climate change is engendering distress in increasingly documented ways, with young people particularly affected. Experiences such as climate distress and eco-anxiety have implications for the health and wellbeing of societies, economies, and for climate action, including mental health, agency to address the crisis, and future planning. While multi-country studies suggest that eco-anxiety and related experiences of distress may vary with context, the hypothesis that exposure to climate-related impacts increases eco-anxiety and associated psychological impacts is underexplored in youth at the individual level. Here we show that in a large sample of US youth (aged 16–24, n = 2834), self-reported direct experience of climate-related events significantly increased eco-anxiety, climate distress and the impact of climate change on future planning, but also psychological adaptation, meaning-focused coping and climate agency. As the climate crisis accelerates and exposure to climate-related hazards increases, these findings have important implications for the mental health of populations, life choices that have socioeconomic impact, and climate behaviours of the growing group of young people experiencing these threats.
Decisions by individuals, organisations, and nations shape the well-being of humans and other species, the environment, and sustainability. Decisions for Sustainability examines how we can make better decisions concerning our future. It incorporates sociological, psychological, and economic perspectives to highlight our strengths and weaknesses in decision-making, and suggest strategies to influence both individual and societal decisions. Sustainability challenges – from local land use and toxic contamination to climate change and biodiversity loss – illustrate how we can improve decision making and what factors lead to conflict. How we use science in the face of uncertainty is also examined, and a range of ethical criteria for good decisions are proposed. Emphasizing the need for diversity in decision making and clarifying the relationship between reform and societal transformation, this book provides a comprehensive view of what we know about decision-making, and how we can do better in the face of sustainability challenges.
Technical Report
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This report highlights the valuable the role of nature in cities. It presents evidence and case studies of the myriad benefits of planning for nature—from health and well-being to community resilience and economic prosperity- to improve the quality of urban life in the face of a changing climate and a post-pandemic era.
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Geophysical models of climate change are becoming increasingly sophisticated, yet less effort is devoted to modelling the human systems causing climate change and how the two systems are coupled. Here, we develop a simple socio-climate model by coupling an Earth system model to a social dynamics model. We treat social processes endogenously-emerging from rules governing how individuals learn socially and how social norms develop-as well as being influenced by climate change and mitigation costs. Our goal is to gain qualitative insights into scenarios of potential socio-climate dynamics and to illustrate how such models can generate new research questions. We find that the social learning rate is strongly influential, to the point that variation of its value within empirically plausible ranges changes the peak global temperature anomaly by more than 1°C. Conversely, social norms reinforce majority behaviour and therefore may not provide help when we most need it because they suppress the early spread of mitigative behaviour. Finally, exploring the model's parameter space for mitigation cost and social learning suggests optimal intervention pathways for climate change mitigation. We find that prioritising an increase in social learning as a first step, followed by a reduction in mitigation costs provides the most efficient route to a reduced peak temperature anomaly. We conclude that socio-climate models should be included in the ensemble of models used to project climate change.
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When people engage in a first pro-environmental behaviour (PEB1; for example, conserving energy at home), are they more or less likely (positive and negative spillover, respectively) to engage in other pro-environmental behaviours (‘PEB2’; for example, conserving water at home)? We examined evidence for spillover using a meta-analysis of interventions. We coded 22 studies and unpublished data that fulfilled the following criteria: used experimental or quasi-experimental design, showed change in a PEB1 and measured at least one PEB2. Analysis of the 77 effect sizes found in these studies showed that the overall spillover from a PEB1 was positive, though small, on the intention to perform a PEB2 (pooled mean effect size estimate d+ = 0.17). However, the spillover effect was negative and small for actual behaviour (d+= −0.03) and policy support (d+ = −0.01) for PEB2. Positive spillover was most likely when interventions targeted intrinsic motivation and when PEB1 and PEB2 were similar. Future research in the area should target and measure spillover processes, collect larger samples and statistically test for spillover in more consistent ways.
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Interventions that promote pro-environmental behaviours are increasingly necessary in reducing use of high-emissions goods and services to meet international climate change targets. Here we assess the greenhouse gas emissions reductions associated with behavioural interventions in three high-emitting domains (personal vehicle use, meat consumption, and household energy use) based on an analysis of the peer-reviewed literature. We examined 40 studies from 1991-2018 involving 886 576 subjects. We found that some of the most robust interventions shown to reduce emissions were financial incentives for personal vehicles, defaults for reduced meat consumption, and feedback for home energy use. We estimate mean annual reductions of 571 kgCO2e per vehicle driver for reduced vehicle use, 51 kgCO2e per individual for reduced meat consumption, and 149 kgCO2e per household for reduced energy use. Despite substantial attention to behavioural interventions in the literature, we find that few studies are suitable for quantifying emissions reductions (N = 6 for diet, N = 5 for personal vehicles) and few (N = 3) are conducted outside OECD countries. Due to this imbalance in the literature, we focus our findings on western economies. We find substantial variation in the emission reductions achieved with different interventions within each domain; interventions in diet ranged from reductions of 231 kgCO2e to increases of 116 kgCO2e per person per year (both statistically significant). Further, emissions reductions are sensitive to external factors, such as the emissions intensity of the electrical grid, which may change over time. Key gaps in the literature include a lack of studies conducted using randomized controlled trials or follow-ups, and in high-impact areas for emissions reductions including air travel. We highlight promising areas of intervention, such as habit changes to promote mode shifts in personal transportation, which would benefit from an analysis of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in future research.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for assessing the science related to climate change. It provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. This IPCC Special Report is a comprehensive assessment of our understanding of global warming of 1.5°C, future climate change, potential impacts and associated risks, emission pathways, and system transitions consistent with 1.5°C global warming, and strengthening the global response to climate change in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. It serves policymakers, decision makers, stakeholders and all interested parties with unbiased, up-to-date, policy-relevant information. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
Leveraging cognitive biases and social influence can make conservation efforts more effective
We argue that sociological analyses of inequality could benefit from engaging the literatures on decision-making. In turn, a sociological focus on how contexts and structural constraints influence the outcomes of decisions and the strategies social groups can use in pursuit of their goals could inform our understanding of decision-making. We consider a simple two-class model of income and the need of capitalists and workers to mobilize resources to influence the adaptive landscape that shapes responses to decisions. We then examine the implications of the rational actor model and the heuristics and biases literature for class-based decision-making. We consider the importance of altruism in mobilizing collective action, and we offer some evidence that altruism is most common in the middle ranges of income and that altruism is a major influence on support for redistributive policies. These results, while tentative, suggest the value of having scholars of development and inequality engage with the literatures on decision-making.
Significance Wellbeing falters without sound mental health. Scholars have recently indicated that the impacts of climate change are likely to undermine mental health through a variety of direct and indirect mechanisms. Using daily meteorological data coupled with information from nearly 2 million randomly sampled US residents across a decade of data collection, we find that experience with hotter temperatures and added precipitation each worsen mental health, that multiyear warming associates with an increased prevalence of mental health issues, and that exposure to tropical cyclones, likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the future, is linked to worsened mental health. These results provide added large-scale evidence to the growing literature linking climate change and mental health.