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How you can get others to help climate change, live sustainably

A Sunrun worker in Las Vegas carries a solar panel for installation at a home on Aug. 24. (David Becker for The Washington Post)

Your decision to buy that heat pump or induction stove might feel like it came after much deliberation and research. You might want to thank your friends and family.

Your trusted inner circle is one of the most potent and overlooked weapons to stave off the worst of climate change. Our individual actions appear small, but they act as billboards for others looking for cues on what to do in their own lives. These social comparisons can add up.

The most powerful thing that gets people and politicians to support biking? Seeing other people ride their bikes, says Michael Brownstein, an associate professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. “It’s a shift of perspective to see yourself as a member of the community, as an entrepreneur of norms,” says Brownstein, who studies societal change.

While policy, regulation and clean technology are essential to reduce emissions, they aren’t sufficient. Humans evolved, says Brownstein, to pay incredibly close attention to what others are thinking and doing as models for their own behavior.

If you’re interested in helping curb global warming, that means becoming a mirror for others to see themselves.

Scientists have observed again and again that what we do and don’t do are profoundly influenced by how others act.

Researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this March examined data from 430 individual studies to see what factors influenced people’s environment-related behaviors, from recycling to switching modes of transportation.

Providing data or facts ranked last, persuading an average of 3.5 percent of people to change their behavior compared to a control group. Setting personal goals and appeals to act more sustainably fared better, but were still middling performers. Financial incentives such as subsidies or savings performed relatively well, persuading about 12 percent.

But leading the pack were what scientists called “social comparisons” — people’s ability to observe the behavior of others and compare it with their own.

This persuaded more than 14 percent of people to change their behavior in experiments from around the world. Those comparisons could be as passive as observing a neighbor’s solar panels or receiving notices about household energy use.

It’s about the messenger

There’s an assumption that good data speaks for itself. In reality, it usually whispers. Take vaccines. About 21 percent of eligible Americans say they still haven’t gotten a coronavirus shot. “Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research,” Francis Collins, then leading the National Institutes of Health, said to “NewsHour” on PBS in 2021. “I never imagined a year ago, when those vaccines were just proving to be fantastically safe and effective, that we would still have 60 million people who had not taken advantage of them.”

Sadly, the climate issue is not much different. In 1979, behavioral scientists were invited to share the table with geophysical scientists as the U.S. government began planning a response to global warming, says Baruch Fischhoff, a Carnegie Mellon University social scientist who has worked with multiple government agencies. They helped sketch an ambitious program to inform public messaging, policies and future research. But as funding dried up during the Reagan administration, behavioral science fell off the agenda.

“We basically were no longer at the table for the next quarter-century,” says Fischhoff. “The natural scientists trusted their story would tell [itself]. … We blew it.”

A subsequent misinformation campaign led by fossil fuel companies skewed the public’s perception of climate risks, while programs failed to live up to their potential. Weatherization efforts, even free ones, often faltered because people didn’t want strangers entering their homes, the journal Nature reports. Similarly, owners of office buildings refused to install energy-saving technology because they didn’t want to take on debt to pay for it or fill out extra paperwork, even if doing so would save money in the long run, a second Nature study found in 2016.

Scientists are trying to rectify the situation now. Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly encouraged governments pushing climate change efforts to consider behavioral, social and cultural factors for the first time.

What sells for the climate

Today, many people remain hesitant to make the switch to cleaner tech. Nearly half of U.S. adults say they prefer to own a gas-powered car or truck, and only 19 percent prefer an all-electric vehicle, according to a July Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. The number of people who say they are considering buying EVs and home solar panels in 2023 is lower than in 2021, despite rising rates of adoption, a recent survey of public attitudes by the conservation nonprofit Rare found.

These are warning lights blinking for the future of electrification, argues Erik Thulin, a behavioral scientist and co-author of the Rare research now under peer review. “It’s certainly not going up in the way we had hoped,” he says. “Interest is declining.”

The study found that fewer people perceived personal benefits from these technologies or felt confident they could incorporate them into their lives. Thulin says turning around these perceptions will be essential to persuade most of the public to jettison inefficient or fossil-fuel-driven technology.

For now, unfortunately, we just don’t know what’s going on in people’s heads, says Fischhoff. Few rigorous studies have been done on why people change their climate behaviors. “We don’t know how people are making these decisions,” he says.

How your life influences others

We do know the climate-related actions of trusted friends, relatives and neighbors can have a profound effect on the people around them.

Solar panels are a classic example. In a 2021 paper published in Nature, researchers found the most important factor that determined whether someone installed panels on their roof wasn’t subsidies, geography or policy. It was whether their neighbor had them. A single solar rooftop project increases installations by nearly 50 percent within a half-mile radius, a second study found.

Solar panels, in other words, are contagious.

Various clean technologies share this characteristic, and many of them are cheaper than their fossil-fuel counterparts over a lifetime. The primary barrier in getting a lot of people to make the leap is finding enough of those trusted others to show the way. Organizations are trying to amplify this climate influence.

Solarize Campaigns, a grass-roots effort in Oregon that has become a blueprint in more than two dozen states, signs up “ambassadors” to show neighbors how to go solar. The ambassadors organize barbecues where people can watch live solar panel installations or share years of low electricity bills to entice more customers. In Connecticut, one such campaign tripled solar installations while lowering average costs by 20 percent through bulk discounts and prescreened contractors, a case study published by Yale University found. People can join existing campaigns or start their own.

Similarly, the nonprofit Acterra recruits EV and e-bike owners in the Bay Area to share their experiences, offering “ride and drive” events. These often give people their first taste of such technologies, and it comes from a member of their community who can answer questions and clear some of the hurdles to adoption.

Early adopters, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population, have driven record sales of clean technologies in recent years. It’s a mistake to assume this growth is inevitable. The mainstream market, people who are far less tolerant of the uncertainty and inconveniences of new products, will remain on the sidelines unless these concerns are addressed.

Persuading them will take a different approach, says Brooke Betts, a former marketing executive who now runs Rare’s climate campaigns. “What worked for early adopters,” says Betts, “won’t work for later ones.”

The most persuasive argument might be you.