“I think individual behavioral change is really hard.”

That’s a quote from Hannah Ritchie, who was a guest on an episode of The New York Times Opinion podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show”, in late April. The episode, titled “Is Green Growth Possible?”, made an inspiring case for technology in mitigating the worst case scenarios of climate change, and highlighted how tech has already helped to keep global temperatures more in check.

Technological developments as a source of hope for combating climate change are the focus of Ritchie’s book, “Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet”. Ritchie is also the lead researcher at Our World in Data.

Through the lens of environmental psychology, any conversation about limiting climate change that dismisses the contribution of behavior change is incomplete (not to mention that it overlooks adopting and accepting those technologies as a form of behavior change).

Ritchie is right that getting people to behave pro-environmentally in systems that make it hard to do so is difficult. But the opposite is also true: in systems that make it easy, more people behave in an environmentally-friendly way.

Changing standards

Our research shows that most people are intrinsically motivated to behave more pro-environmentally, but they don’t always follow through because of barriers, like financial and systemic limitations. Improving access, alternatives and systems results in higher levels of going green.

Changing standards by replacing default options with more sustainable alternatives is effective, as the IPCC points out: “Default options, where a preset choice is implemented if users do not select another option, can promote mitigation actions such as energy savings, green electricity uptake, and meat-free options.”

To name a few concrete examples, companies that make vegan foods the default catering option see an increase in sales of plant-based dishes, and in Germany, green defaults for energy providers have been found to stick, with relatively few people opting for gray energy sources instead.

Cycling paths

Deliberate infrastructure changes cannot be underestimated, either. Cities with better cycling paths see more citizens choosing to bike, like the city our university calls home, Groningen. The lay out of the city centre was completely changed in the 1970s to make biking the easiest way to get around. Cities worldwide are investing in cycling infrastruture, and it is paying off: in fact, twice as many trips are made in Paris now by bike than by car, and Vancouver has found that rebates for e-bikes leads to decreased car use.

Increasing access and making it more attractive to choose a greener alternative results in more green behavior. Shoppers at grocery stores that stock more organic options are likelier to buy organic, as evidenced by the German market, and more electric vehicles are on the roads in nations that incentivize citizens to buy EVs, like in Norway.

Degrowth not merely sacrifice

Klein, the host, set up the conversation in fairly stark terms: decoupling material prosperity from the environment (i.e. degrowth) involves sacrifice.

“…we’re asking residents of rich countries to give up what they have. We’re asking residents of poor and middle income countries to give up what they want.”

This statement overlooks the fact that such changes also bring many benefits, such as a more pleasant living environment and better health outcomes. Our research has also found that behaving pro-environmentally (i.e. consuming less) is not merely experienced as a form of sacrifice. It’s actually often perceived as gaining something: taking action that is good for the environment enhances our sense of well-being because it feels meaningful.

Top-down acceptance

Klein goes on to describe how top down measures like a global carbon tax or energy redistribution are hard to enact and enforce.

Yet a recent study published in Energy Research and Social Science found that participants in European citizen assemblies often want regulations and policies that reduce demand to go even further than they currently do, suggesting that citizens would support legislation that tackles behavior change.

While resistance may occur in the initial stages of a new policy or behavior, our studies have shown that acceptance can increase following implementation of pro-environmental policy. And recent research from our colleagues has also found that resistance may just be a routine element of social change involving sustainable behaviours and gradually distancing ourselves from unsustainable ways. Pushback can be seen as a phase along the path to reaching a social tipping point.

On the other end of the spectrum, bottom-up environmental initiatives (like litter pick up days or an energy co-op) initiated by our friends, neighbors or co-workers are likelier to be accepted than top-down changes. Such small-scale actions can be effective in normalising that environmentalism is something our social circle cares about.

Only half the story

The IPCC states that it will be much more difficult to achieve our climate goals without behavior change, and we would need a massive amount of negative emission technologies and practices (NETP) to have any hope of reaching those goals. Most forms of NETP are still in development and, as such, their scalability is uncertain .

Having a sense of hope and agency in the face of the climate crisis matters, and it is important to share the message that technological innovations can help prevent climate change from getting dramatically worse. But focusing exclusively on the potential of technology while dismissing the necessity and impact of behavior change is only half the story.

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