In 2019, millions of people demonstrated for the climate around the world. In 2020, in the midst of the Covid crisis, the climate emergency remained a major concern for the French. The following year, a study published in the prestigious journal The Lancet showed that more than half of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 – in all regions of the world – suffered from eco-anxiety.
How is it that this widespread awareness, and the genuine desire to preserve our climate future, does not translate into concrete actions, such as becoming a vegetarian or supporting more proactive climate policies? We can say, first of all, that a certain number of structural barriers limit the possibilities of acting for the climate. Many people have no alternative to driving to work, or lack the physical ability to use a bicycle to get around.
On a more psychological level, the lack of information on the most effective solutions for limiting one’s carbon footprint, the perceived difficulty in implementing these solutions, or even the lack of motivation linked to the time lag between the time when the efforts must be granted (today) and the benefits of these efforts (a reduction in global warming over the long term) are all factors that slow down changes in behaviour.
Shared benefits, individual efforts
But beyond these structural and psychological barriers, the climate emergency presents an additional challenge: the benefits are shared while the efforts are individual. For example, giving up flying leads to a reduction in CO emissions2 which benefits everyone, whereas the sacrifice is individual. This collective action problem – also called tragedy of the commons – mobilizes the social brain, and in particular the psychology of cooperation.
At first glance, the extraordinary social capacities of the human species should facilitate the collective fight against climate change. Unfortunately, things are complicated by the fact that the human ability to cooperate depends on a number of conditions that are not necessarily met by actions to combat global warming.
First, citizens are more likely to contribute to the common effort if they have evidence that others are doing the same, and they adjust their behavior to prevailing social norms. If everyone throws their trash on the floor, the likelihood that even more trash will be thrown away increases. If, on the contrary, there are indications that everyone is participating in a collective cleanliness effort, the probability that waste will be thrown away decreases. This is what psychologists call the reciprocity conditionality “.
Make collective behavior visible
In the case of the climate crisis, the conditionality of reciprocity poses a number of problems. First, some social norms are difficult to observe. Has my neighbor upgraded her heating system to make it more efficient? Does my colleague support thermal renovation policies? However, in the absence of information on the behavior of others, we tend to underestimate their level of commitment…
The good news is that social norms change rapidly as virtuous behaviors are made more visible. For example, informing people that they consume more gas or electricity compared to their neighbors reduces energy consumption. The need for reciprocity can also create a priming problem. If standards play such a driving role, how can we go from a minority of actors engaged in virtuous behavior to a majority?
Fortunately, our brain is not only attentive to the percentage of people who take action, but also to the dynamics of collective efforts. In other words, if we observe that behaviors are changing, then we are ready to change too. Here again, this dynamic is facilitated if changes in behavior are made visible.
Communicate about your own habits
Citizens are also more inclined to contribute to the common effort if their own actions are visible. Beyond the sincere gesture, it can motivate you to maintain your garden, decorate your house or even dress elegantly. The same goes for virtuous ecological actions: individuals seem more motivated to perform visible actions, such as cycling, than invisible actions, such as replacing a boiler. This is what psychologists call reputation management, which often operates unconsciously in our behaviors.
Giving the possibility of making virtuous gestures more visible is therefore an interesting lever. In England, the license plates of hybrid and electric cars can thus obtain a green sticker, making their low emission level visible to all.
However, doing an ecological action can sometimes conflict with other desirable actions. For example, it is important not to water your lawn during a drought to preserve water resources. But this sobriety effort can come into conflict with other objectives, such as contributing to the collective effort to maintain the neighborhood.
For a neighborhood to be globally attractive, everyone can indeed feel the duty to maintain their lawn well. There is then a conflict between the motivation to preserve resources and the motivation to appear as a good neighbor. To reconcile these two motivations, some municipalities in the United States distribute signs indicating ” I do my part to preserve the planet that citizens can plant on their drought-yellowed lawns. These signs allow everyone to indicate that they are contributing to the collective effort to preserve water resources: it is therefore not through negligence that the lawn may seem poorly maintained.
Satisfy the sense of fairness
A final factor that conditions the motivation to cooperate is the feeling of fairness. Citizens are ready to make efforts, only if these efforts are proportional to the benefits derived and if they are in line with their share of responsibility. These individual considerations also find their expression in the climate negotiations between States. One of the major challenges of international discussions is to reach an agreement on the share of responsibility that each country has, in order to better distribute the efforts to fight against global warming at the global level.
In these debates, the psychology of fairness is mobilized and is based on what everyone perceives to be the initial situation. However, a disagreement on the starting point necessarily entails a disagreement on the level of responsibility and therefore on the level of effort to be made. If we consider that the starting situation is the pre-industrial world, then the United States and Europe are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions and must provide the largest part of the effort to reduce global emissions.
But if we consider that the starting point is the current situation, then it is China which becomes the world’s largest emitter and which must make the most effort. In other words, the way in which the initial situation is designed, by countries and by individuals, conditions the rights and duties of each and determines whether climate policies coincide with citizens’ need for equity. The fight against global warming requires the rapid deployment of technical devices and new public policies that cannot consider issues of equity as a second-order consideration. Avoiding the tragedy of the commons requires that human psychology, the need for fairness and reciprocity, and reputation management, are truly integrated into the heart of the design of climate policies.