The Climate Bill is a Major Win. Now, Policy Change Needs Behavior Change.

August 22, 2022

This column was originally posted on LinkedIn.

After a months-long roller coaster ride through Congress, President Joe Biden finally signed into law the most promising package of climate policy investments in history. It’s not perfect, but it is unquestionably significant.

With this climate deal signed into law, we should take a moment to celebrate the milestone. It’s a long time coming and the result of tireless work by so many. But we should also recognize that the work is just beginning. It’s one thing to incentivize electric vehicles and solar panels and energy conservation measures; it’s another to get millions of Americans to act and adopt them.

In America, individual action is the beating heart of collective change. Our democracy is founded on the principle of We the People. The founders wrote it into the Constitution. Lincoln reminded us at Gettysburg. We respect the individual. We empower them with the vote. We put change in their hands.

Similarly, climate policy is not a panacea. To maximize its impact, we need Americans to take action. Greta Thunberg and the youth movement, celebrity Oscar speeches, and Instagram memes aren’t enough. We need a strategy that lowers the barriers of entry for the tens of millions of Americans we need to bring into the movement. We need to make it easy and appealing for Americans to adopt the most impactful climate-friendly behaviors that not only reduce emissions, but pave the way for even bolder, stronger climate policies.

Thankfully, Americans want to do something. More than six in ten Americans believe citizens should do more to address global warming. They just don’t know what they should do. So, we need to tell them. A groundbreaking analysis from my team at Rare, published in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy, identified the six behaviors individual Americans can adopt with the greatest potential to reduce emissions in the United States: eating plant-rich meals, wasting less food, driving an electric vehicle, flying less, installing rooftop solar, and donating to nature through carbon offsets.

We know what people can do to make a difference. Now, we need them to do it. The incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act will certainly help. But there is still an important lever to pull that can realize the potential of individual action and turn it into collective impact: shifting social norms around these climate-friendly behaviors.

Socializing the climate-friendly behaviors is just as important as the individual behavior itself – perhaps even more so. We’re social animals. We thrive in communities. When our community changes, we change with it. In fact, behavioral scientists would tell you there are three key factors to behavior change—a person changes when they see other people changing, when they believe others should change, and when they believe that those around them expect them to change.

One of my favorite examples is from a study conducted by Gregg Sparkman, a social psychologist now at Princeton, whose work has found that “people conform not just to present norms but also to perceived future norms.” While at Stanford, he surveyed cafe-goers ahead of ordering and found that more people ordered a meatless lunch after hearing a message suggesting more Americans “had started to make an effort to limit their meat consumption.” People change when they sense change happening around them.

Some activists abhor the idea of emphasizing individual action. The fear has been that personal virtue does little to change the system and in fact it may create a sense of absolution. What’s funny is that a pinnacle moment for the climate movement was when Greta sat alone on her Friday School strike on the steps of her Swedish capital. One individual act became symbolic. And contagious. The same way parking an electric vehicle in your driveway or sharing your energy bill on Facebook after installing solar panels is contagious.

Another example is voting. An individual vote is a drop in a bucket. But rather than tell people their vote doesn’t matter, we give them a sticker that says, “I voted.” This is behavioral science at play. That sticker is a social cue signaling to others that voting is the norm; it’s what society expects of them. That sticker may inspire two, three or ten others to vote, amplifying the impact of an individual action.

Personal action alone won’t stop climate change. But it is unlikely we’ll be able to without them. Meaningful climate policy is finally a reality. We The People must take it the last mile. A people-centered, behavior-based strategy to normalize climate-friendly behaviors, and build a critical mass of Americans adopting them, can help get us there.