Although global warming poses a great risk – a risk, by the way, which has been known and ignored for a long time – past efforts have little contributed to fight climate change. To date, greenhouse gas emissions have barely been reduced by individual or policy actions. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change and increase adaptation capacities of communities, changes in policies, but also in attitudes and behavior are required (Mayer & Smith, 2019).
Thus, public understanding and support for climate change policies are crucial to fight global warming as it allows informed decision-making and helps people to adopt sustainable lifestyles. Public awareness and concern of the risks of climate change vary greatly across the globe. Especially in Western states and Latin America, global climate change perception is very high and many people are aware of the dangers posed by climate change (Lee et al, 2015). But if they are worried and concerned about global warming, then how come people don’t change their behavior and act more environmentally conscious?
It is often said one single person cannot ‘change the world’, cannot ‘make a difference’, cannot ‘stop climate change’. Even among well-informed people and people really concerned about global warming, there remains the belief that individual actions have no consequences (Frank, 2020).
This phenomenon, euphemistically referred to as ‘skepticism’, is called aspiration failure. It occurs when people belief they have little impact and therefore have very low expectations. This feeling of hopelessness prevents them from trying to change something. That is because people need to feel efficacy and that feeling – or lack of it – has a strong impact on behavioral change. Framing global warming as something unstoppable decreases the likelihood of behavioral change as it demotivates people to fight it (Mayer & Smith, 2019): Why should you make an effort if you are convinced your actions won’t make any difference?
Peer pressure to fight climate change
And they are right: A single person’s behavior sure does not stop climate change. A single person buying regional or environmentally friendly products, overthinking their mobility and touristic activities, installing solar panels, adopting plant-based diets, using green energy, … does not make the difference. But it can contribute by inspiring others to do the same.
Humans are social beings and they are influenced by other people’s opinions and behavior (World Bank, 2015). A large number of people behaving climate friendly has indeed the ability to ‘change the world’. The climate crisis is a global crisis and can only be fought collectively. Peer pressure can have huge effects, whether on the country level, as the Paris Climate Agreement has shown (Ivanova, 2015), or at the civil society level. As Ivanova (2015) puts it, “peer pressure has become a powerful force for progress”.
A social scientists’ term to refer to this event is ‘behavioral contagion’. It describes “how ideas and behaviors can spread through populations like infectious diseases” (Frank, 2020). Hence, the direct effect of acting more environmentally conscious is only a small part of its total impact. The total impact would be “the effects of our behavior on our peers, and vice versa” (Frank, 2020). Seemingly insignificant actions can influence how the people around us behave. Additionally, these actions alter ourselves: We might become a lot more supportive of the drastic and far-reaching policy responses required (Frank, 2020). Thus, peer effects are very important for the formation of aspirations. The behavioral contagions may be able to counter the ‘skepticism’ felt by many people. Of course, peer effects are not the only factor influencing behavior and they cannot substitute political action – but they can complement and favor policy measures. Over time, taking even small steps to lower our carbon footprint can start a climate friendly and sustainable revolution.
Frank, R. H. (2020, February 20): How peer pressure can help stop climate change. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/02/20/how-peer-pressure-can-help-save-planet/?arc404=true.
Ivanova, M. (2015, December 16): COP21 proved the power of peer pressure. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/12/16/cop-proved-power-peer-pressure/YDP0scVWHYnum8qFKXigCJ/story.html.
Lee, T. M. et al (2015). Predictors of public climate change awareness and risk perception around the world. Nature Climate Change 5(11): 1014–20.
Mayer, A. & Smith, E. K. (2019). Unstoppable climate change? The influence of fatalistic beliefs about climate change on behavioural change and willingness to pay cross-nationally. Climate Policy 19, 511–523.
World Bank (2015). World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. Washington, DC: World Bank.