Fighting climate change: visibility and trust prompt citizens’ commitment

Undertaking actions towards the reduction of gas emissions is more common where such virtuous behaviours are more visible and when we expect our fellow citizens to act similarly – an international study shows.

These bottom-up movements can grow and lead to extensive transformations, up to the point of directly influencing international climate agreements.

It is easier to find solar panels in neighbourhoods where solar-powered houses are more visible. Similarly, hybrid cars are more widespread in areas where they are immediately labelled as “eco-friendly”. These are only two examples of the key role played by visibility when adopting sustainable choices and behaviours. Encouraging visibility may be the winning strategy to finally raise awareness among citizens (and eventually influence policy makers). Indeed, by making our eco-friendly attitudes more evident, we make sure we are not alone in this fight.

In a study published on the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, researchers from the University of Bologna, Georgia State Universuity (USA) and Princeton University (USA) reviewed a number of recent experiments and research papers about cooperation in the field of sustainabile management of common goods locally and globally, focusing, in particular, on climate change mitigation. The results show that citizens feel more encouraged to commit to sustainability when they receive broader local visibility. This triggers a virtuous circle of actions that let good behaviours proliferate to the point of turning them into “social norms”. But, there is more, according to the researchers. These bottom-up actions are able to spread on a wider scale and impact on international climate agreements. 

“Forecasts about our ability of facing climate change are rather pessimistic, if we look at them from the perspective of traditional economic theories”, says one of the authors of this study, Alessandro Tavoni, researcher at the University of Bologna. “However, the fact that grassroots movements fighting green-house gas emissions have increased and spread rapidly in recent years seems to prove those theories wrong. Our study shows the potential effectiveness of local initiatives, and claims that institutions should promote them as role models for policy-making”.

The power of visibility

Prompting common social actions against climate change is anything but easy, as widely demonstrated by the several hurdles arising when policy-makers try to reach an agreement and enforce policies. There are at least two reasons for this: first, everyone enjoys the benefits of an individual’s virtuous behaviour – be it a person or a state -; second, these benefits do not have immediate results, but long-term ones, which will be relevant to future generations.

How do we overcome these hurdles and reach a widespread cooperation in reducing gas emissions? According to the researchers, the potential of local initiatives is still underexplored. As a matter of fact, “Social norms” deeply influence people’s behaviours: how their neighbours and colleagues behave, what happens in their areas and how these are transformed. This logic also underpins social attitudes to climate change, despite the global relevance of this issue.

According to Tavoni, “by taking into consideration two actions aimed at reducing gas emissions, such as installing solar panels and buying a hybrid car, we can observe that people feel more stimulated to choose similar solutions if they see other people in their social circles doing the same”. This imitation mechanism can be actively exploited to prompt virtuous behaviours. For instance, we already know that informing people about their energy consumption rate encourages a reduction in energy waste in case of rates that are higher than average. Moreover, reminding people of the importance of energy waste reduction leads to general increase in energy saving.

The role of trust

The next step would be to scatter positive actions towards gas emission reduction around wider circles. Here, next to visibility, a further element comes into the picture: trust. “In countries characterized by high mutual trust levels, more citizens take up eco-friendly behaviours”, says Tavoni. “This happens because citizens expect from their fellows and perhaps from foreign citizens as well, to have the same level of commitment to the common good”. For instance, some studies show how Swedish and Swiss citizens are inclined to pay a fee in order to contribute to mitigate climate change effects, if they believe a high number of their fellow citizens would do the same.

Trust (or the lack thereof) is undoubtedly fundamental when it comes to take action against climate change especially in international relations and during complex negotiations leading to mutual agreements. In these regards, the researchers’ analysis shows the effectiveness a country or a group of countries can reach by issuing a public statement about actions to be undertaken to reduce gas emission. These political choices end up influencing other countries, which, in turn, adopt similar decisions. By means of example, Ireland announced, a few weeks ago, to be ready to raise its CO2 tax to 80 euro per ton: this specific number had been suggested by Nicolas Stern e Joseph Stiglitz in their report on climate change.

The negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – the researchers imply – may have been driven by this imitation mechanism influencing the countries involved. Indeed, the announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement was not followed by other defections. “On the contrary - clarifies Tavoni -  their choice was criticized and this led to a deeper cohesion among the remaining countries. France, for example, has recently arranged a meeting for those countries willing to make real efforts in fighting climate change, while the EU put forward the suggestion of linking trade agreements with polices about gas emission reduction”.

The main characters of the study

This study was published on the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy with the title “Cooperation in the Climate Commons”. The authors are Stefano Carattini (Georgia State University, USA), Simon Levin (Princeton University, USA) and Alessandro Tavoni (Università di Bologna, Department of Economics).

Published on: 06 September 2019