Science & Technology

Individuals Can Have a Bigger Impact on Slowing Climate Change Than We Thought

By now, even the most ardent skeptics admit that climate change is real, even if some doubt it's caused by humans. (To be clear, at least 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the most likely cause of global warming is human activity.) It's becoming more common to hear people talk about eating less beef and buying electric cars, and more houses are sporting rooftop solar panels. But as an individual, it's easy to feel helpless — in the face of such a huge problem, what can one person do? The answer, according to a study published last month in PLOS, is "plenty." And you can start with some well-meaning peer pressure.

If Your Friends All Warmed the Planet, Would You?

Human behavior influences the planet, and human behavior can be fickle. But for the most part, climate models treat human behavior as steadfast: They assume humans have particular demands on the planet, and researchers use those demands to figure out what they'll do to the climate in the future. But University of Waterloo environmental sciences professor Madhur Anand and his colleagues wanted to find out what would happen in a climate model that took fickle human behavior into account. Specifically, they wanted to incorporate "social learning" — the spread of behavior that happens when one person buying a programmable thermostat or biking to work inspires their friends to do the same. Peer pressure, basically.

Here's what they figured: Just as human behavior influences our warming planet, climate change influences human behavior. People who live in places with rising average temperatures are more likely to notice the effects of climate change and might be more likely to do something about it. As more people do something about it, social norms start to shift, making it more acceptable for even more people to do something about it. If enough people are inspired by others to take action, it's possible that their choices could help slow the warming of the planet.

To know if that's true, the researchers would have to create such a model. And that's exactly what they did.

An Epidemic of Good Behavior

Because this model was the first of its kind, they kept it simple. They started by assuming the world was made up of two types of individuals: "mitigators," who did things to fight climate change, and "non-mitigators," who didn't. They learn their mitigation and non-mitigation behaviors by trying out the behaviors of others and choose to switch to those behaviors based on a precise mix of costs tacked onto mitigation (like installing solar panels), non-mitigation (paying a carbon tax), and temperature fluctuations (having to move inland), along with the social benefits they get by going along with social norms, whatever they may be. To model a variety of scenarios, the researchers could adjust the strength of social norms to make it harder or easier to change behaviors, and the rate of social learning to make people adopt their peers' behaviors faster or slower.

When they combined their social-learning model with an established climate prediction model, they found that peer pressure to mitigate global warming can have a real impact. When they ran a control simulation that took human behavior out of the formula, temperatures rose forever. But with peer pressure involved, the temperatures began to level out. When social learning was slow, the rise in temperature topped out at 3.3 degrees Celsius — a devastating increase. But when social learning was at its fastest, the rise peaked at 2.2 degrees Celsius. That's not great, but it's at least closer to the 2-degree limit set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The effects of social learning were even greater than geophysical factors like surface heat reflectivity or soil or plant respiration.

It's worth noting that the strength of social norms didn't have much of an effect either way. If social learning was a wave tossing our ship this way or that, social norms were an anchor slowing its movement.

It's clear that if peer pressure — that is, social learning — is going to save the world, it has to happen quickly. One way that can happen, the authors say, is by reducing the costs of mitigation through tax breaks and other incentives. "Our socio-climate model indicates that an increase in social media and other campaigns to raise awareness, such as climate marches and international reports, should ideally be followed by governmental and other incentives to reduce carbon emissions," said co-author Thomas Bury in a press release.

Bottom line? Your choices matter. Go ahead and buy those reusable bags, ride that bike, and switch to energy-efficient appliances. Even better, talk to your neighbors and attend town hall meetings. Take to the streets if you like! The only way we can make a difference is if everyone works to make a difference.

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For an optimistic, science-backed take on what we can do to tackle global warming, check out the New York Times bestseller, "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming," edited by Paul Hawken. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer July 3, 2019

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