Humans are the major driver of climate change, and we’re also the only ones who can stop it. But while purchasing a hybrid or installing solar panels can feel overwhelming, a new study suggests the more a society normalizes these types of behavior, the more people will take action.
This is key to limiting climate change, according to the analysis published Monday in Nature Climate Change.
The study, led by researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Tennessee, is the first to create a climate model that factors in how humans react to climate change. The authors paired a standard climate model with the well-known social psychological theory of planned behavior to explore how individuals would hypothetically respond to their changing climate.
The way the model works is through a feedback loop: Using the greenhouse gas concentration for the model’s current year, a certain number of extreme weather events are kicked out. The social model then uses those events to determine behavior changes that feedback into the greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers conducted 766,656 simulations to effectively test the relationship between behavior and climate.
Instead of the 4.9 degrees Celsius increase the authors expect to see at the end of the century from the climate model alone (assuming business-as-usual carbon emissions), the paper’s so-called Climate Social Model found that, by 2100, temperatures could increase anywhere from 3.8 to 5.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. The range depends on how easy and accepted carbon-reducing behaviors become.
This paper concluded policy that helps people better understand climate change, and makes individual actions easier to implement, is the best way to get the temperature rise on the lower end of that scale.
Through policy, governments can, for example, fund and prioritize attribution studies that show whether an extreme weather event is related to climate change. This, in turn, could increase the public’s “perceived risk of climate change rather quickly,” according to the paper. In theory, this should help make behaviors that work to mitigate climate change more socially acceptable.
Study authors Katherine Lacasse, a social psychology professor from Rhode Island College, and Brian Beckage, a climate change researcher at the University of Vermont, told Earther in an email that community solar programs perfectly demonstrate how making green energy tech more normal and accessible rapidly increases adoption.
“These programs make purchasing solar easier for households by lowering the cost, offering financing options, and directly connecting households with reliable contractors,” the two wrote in a joint email. “They also often host community meetings and encourage neighbors to discuss the process and learn from each other, making switching to solar power a new community social norm.”
In a perfect world where community solar is the norm and it’s easy to implement, the planet would warm by just 3.8 degrees Celsius, according to the new model. In a worst-case scenario, where society has made these behaviors easier but they’re still not socially acceptable, the increase is closer to 6 degrees Celsius. The researchers found that even if environmentally friendly behaviors become normalized, emissions will continue to rise if people perceive these behaviors as hard to implement.
Not all individual climate actions are equal, either: Short-term changes, like driving less or adjusting the thermostat, don’t really decrease greenhouse gas emissions over time unless a person is taking those actions on the regular. Meanwhile, something like insulating a home or changing public policy, that’s done once and lasts, is much more effective at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions overall.
Solving climate change requires policies that make the energy transition easier. In one community, that can look like a community solar program. In another, it could be a tax break for making a home energy-efficient.
The key is to stop making it seem so damn difficult.