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Climate News - January 2023

Climate Corner: From the Center for Behavior and Climate

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Individual or Collective Climate Action? We Need Both

by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.

When it comes to climate action, we all need to feel that what we do matters.

A sense of agency, or efficacy, is critical for both individual and collective action. Individually, efficacy is strongly correlated with willingness of individuals to take climate action and to support climate change policies. Andcollectively, efficacy, along with social norms, predicts over two-thirds of the variance of collective actions such as voting, contacting government officials, donating, and volunteering, and over one-third of the variance for protesting.

So it's important to feel like you can make a difference. The disinformation groups trying to prevent a transition to a new energy economy know this. If they can convince you that what you do doesn't matter, then you are less likely to act or to push collectively for action. In our October Climate Corner, I had presented the results from Coan et al. showing that the predominant claim from conservative think tanks (CTT) from 2007 on to now is that "solutions won't work." Coan et al. showed that the messages that "solutions won't work" increased over time in alignment with efforts to pass various climate policy bills.

What is the relationship between individual action and collective action? They are intertwined.

Individual action can help propel collective action. A 2019 AP-NORC poll asked Americans who has responsibility for dealing with climate change. The results showed that those who felt their own actions had an effect on climate change had a40% greater response towards all groups (government, business, etc.) playing a role than those who felt their own actions didn't matter.

Collective action increases individual job-satisfaction and well-being. A recent global study of 7000 workers across 15 major industries by Kite Insights showed that collective climate action impacts individuals' well-being. Over 52% of employees linked the company's climate actions to their job satisfaction, while 90% connected the company's initiatives to their own motivation and well-being. The majority of employees believed that businesses had a moral responsibility to act, while eight out of ten employees stated that they were ready and willing to take action in their work. However, the employees felt they needed a mandate from business leaders to do so. Workers in Southern Hemisphere economies already significantly impacted by climate change were more willing to act than elsewhere. Fifteen percent of workers have, in fact, considered leaving their job to work more closely on climate change and sustainability.

Of coursewe also need institutional change in government and in business, particularly structural changes in our economy that limit individual or community options. In the simplest of examples, consider an effort to encourage people to use public transportation instead of a personal car. But in areas without public transportation, those efforts would fail. Or consider areas where utility companies offer natural gas or coal only. In those areas, consumers cannot seek alternative energy options unless they can afford it.  To transform society, we need, as Elzen et al. (2004) has written, “new markets, user practices, regulations, infrastructure, and cultural meaning.”

Together, individual and collective action— can lead to rapid and transformational institutional and structural change. As often seen in wartime, such as we are experiencing now in Ukraine, governments and society can make things happen very quickly when something is seen as a priority. A great white paper, “How did we do that? by Simms and Newell (2017) notes: Our collective capacity, ability, and resourcefulness for change is much higher than is typically recognized.”

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