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Board Letter ASU Wrigley Institute News

October 10, 2016

Crowds of people moving through a cityAs Earth’s population continues to grow, so does the challenge to meet its increasing needs with finite resources. And as stakes rise higher in the fight against climate change, one wonders about next steps: Can policy solve the problem? Or are we in need of an even greater intervention?

Social norms through observation

A study published in Science and co-authored by Marty Anderies – a professor in the School of Sustainability – indicates that social norms may have a greater effect on individual behavior changes than policy alone.

The authors focused on the effect that perceived social norms have on our actions. In doing so, they discovered a “tipping point” where harmful behaviors may turn into exemplary actions. In other words, the point at which there’s hope.

The next step for researchers was to explore whether policy can help to induce a tipping point. They found that there are, in fact, several ways policy can achieve this.

Making people’s actions visible to their peers is one of them – as in, most of us are more inclined to attend an event if we see that friends are attending. Changing material incentives is another. If a city provides more bike lanes, for example, cycling will be perceived as a more common behavior, social feedback will reinforce this and more people will hop on their bikes.

The bottom line? Perceptions are powerful. The authors point to smoking in public as an illustration of this.

“Even though formal enforcement of Norway’s 1988 anti-smoking laws was limited, smokers began going outside to smoke, even in unregulated areas like their homes,” they write. “Nonsmokers became less accustomed to passive smoking, increasing their negative reactions to it until the new norm of not smoking indoors became nearly universal.”

They conclude by saying that, much like cigarette smoke in public places, we cannot escape pollution in our atmosphere and should not rely on regulations alone to fix the problem.

Social norms on a global scale

Another key finding from Anderies and his colleagues is that a critical mass is needed to reach the tipping point. This means that when more people do something, expectations of that behavior increase. And when enough people do something, we begin to see large-scale change.

A similar scenario is playing out on the world stage, as almost 200 countries come together through the Paris Climate Agreement to address a problem with concentrated costs and diffused, though life-preserving, benefits.

But does a non-legally binding agreement carry much weight in the fight against climate change? This is where the findings from the Science article's authors find significant application, and fellow ASU sustainability experts reinforce them.

Daniel Bodansky, a graduate faculty member in the School of Sustainability, suggests that if countries put enough pressure on one another, a non-legally binding agreement can achieve success.

“The 1975 Helsinki Declaration has been one of the most successful human rights instruments – despite its explicitly non-legal nature – because of its regular review conferences, which focused international scrutiny on the Soviet Bloc’s human rights performance,” Bodansky said.

It follows, then, that the U.S. is essential to the peer-pressure push toward reduced emissions. And as the top contributor to said emissions, one can argue that our participation is a moral obligation.

“One of the most important parts of the Paris Agreement is that every country agreed to do something on climate change, with a few notable exceptions,” says Sonja Klinsky, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability.

Klinsky stresses that it will take every country to reach emissions targets, and that social pressure will grow around the world as more countries make headway.

Climate change policy provides a solid start, but the bright minds at ASU show us that social influence offers the most direct path to the behavioral tipping point that could save our planet.

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