Environmental Psychology Groningen associate professor Lise Jans explains that small scale collective climate action like a clean up day or a community energy project can be a catalyst for large scale change.

These actions can change people’s identity, specifically their social identity. Seeing such actions by fellow group members, like our neighbours or colleagues, can increase our identification with this group and the perception that this group has pro-environmental norms and values.

When people are aware of the bottom-up formation of pro-environmental initiatives by members of their own group, it enables pro-environmental social identity formation.

This stronger pro-environmental social identity in turn can motivate individual and collective behavior in line with this identity. By changing how we see ourselves, bottom-up pro-environmental initiatives may accelerate the transition towards pro-environmental practices.

By appealing to our desire to belong, pro-environmental initiatives can attract those who are not pro-environmentally motivated yet. Yet members who deviate from current practices and introduce sustainable alternatives to their group, like going vegan, may also face backlash and be seen as kind of annoying. That is not to say that these deviating group members do not have influence, as they signal that norms may change. Pro-environmental minorities may be perceived as frontrunners of future norms.

Particularly when a group values diversity, group members are willing to listen and seek agreement in conversations with deviating group members, and as such create new norms that ultimately promote more sustainable intentions.

System change is undeniably needed to minimize the damage caused by climate change. Any given action itself may be small, but by changing norms and our sense of who we are, the motivating effect it has on those who are not yet behaving pro-environmentally can be the starting point of bigger change.