The psychology of inspiring climate protection in everyday life

And co-benefits make a lot of sense: people may feel more empowered to impact their own health than the health of the entire planet. Self-efficacy (the perception that a person can change their actions) and response efficiency (the perception that those changes will have positive consequences) are both important predictors of behavior change. Improving self-efficacy may mean asking people to make more modest lifestyle changes, such as eating. For example, giving up beef and taking one fewer flight a year instead of going vegan and never flying again. “I think it’s really important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” says Nicholas.

However, the effectiveness of the reaction can be difficult. Compared to the actions of fossil fuel companies and world governments, one person’s decisions can seem utterly irrelevant. And in the past, these companies have tried to shift the blame for climate change entirely onto individuals to divert attention from their own misdeeds. But we don’t have to choose between eating more vegetables and voting for pro-climate politicians, or driving less and fighting back against the fossil-fuel industry, says Foley. On the contrary, these measures actually go hand in hand. “By going electric, I can give ExxonMobil the middle finger,” he says. “I don’t send them my money.”

And the individual changes themselves play a role, especially in a country like the USA. Almost everyone here produces well over 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, the individual budget that would help keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s why Nicholas directs her communications to the richest 10 percent of the world’s population, or anyone making over $38,000 a year. The average American emits far less than a jet set billionaire and far, far less than a fossil fuel company – but they still emit far too much. “The thing is, everyone has to change,” says Whitmarsh.

Individual changes can also be far more powerful than most people realize when they propagate through social networks. Studies repeatedly show that social norms play a major role in whether people make climate-friendly decisions or not. For example, if one person installs a solar panel on their roof, the likelihood that other people in their zip code will install solar panels increases significantly. (In fact, a friend’s good behavior is exactly what prompted Nicholas to adjust her own travel habits.) By making climate-friendly choices, you’re not just reducing your own emissions — you’re inspiring others to reduce theirs. “It’s not just a drop in the ocean that you contributed individually,” says Foley. “It’s the other drops that follow you.”

And with enough drops, bigger changes can happen. Buying one electric vehicle makes the next one cheaper and potentially more widely accessible. The increased demand for meat-free options is encouraging restaurants to change their menus so people who would never consider going fully vegan could try a plant-based meal. As individuals, we are all participants in a complex, interconnected system, and our choices can propagate through that system in ways that increase their power exponentially.

“Systems change in interesting ways, often before we can see them,” says Foley. “Things happen very, very, very slowly – then all at once.”

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