When it comes to climate change, behavioral scientists have primarily focused their research on how the actions of individuals as consumers—such as recycling, food choices or transportation methods—affect the climate. But behavioral scientists haven’t placed much focus on how individuals in other spheres of their lives impact climate change, such as in the workplace, as an investor, or as a community member. A new analysis published in Nature Climate Change offers six recommendations for optimizing the quality and impact of research on climate behavior and mitigation to close this knowledge gap.

“The window for making necessary societal changes to limit climate change is rapidly closing,” says study co-author Kim Wolske, an EPIC scholar and a research associate professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. “Making behavioral science research accessible and useful to citizens and policymakers requires better research coordination and collaboration, targeted funding, and a focus on presenting real-world evidence.”

The paper, led by Kristian Nielsen at Copenhagen Business School, proposes a collaborative, solutions-focused research agenda that integrates behavioral science insights across multiple disciplines. Their recommendations include:

1. Study a wider range of individual climate behaviors. Researchers should study individuals’ work lives, roles in their communities, financial investments, voting preferences, and land ownership as important factors that can impact climate change. Similarly, more research attention should focus on behaviors that undermine climate mitigation: spreading climate change misinformation, opposing climate policies, mobilizing communities to delay the phase-out of greenhouse gas-intensive activities, etc.

2. Address the variety, complexity and interconnectedness of individuals’ behaviors. An individual can impact the climate in many ways. These behaviors are a result of their characteristics (e.g., values, attitudes, knowledge, physical capabilities), as well as a broad set of factors: social (e.g., peer influence, civic action, consumption patterns), physical and socioeconomic (e.g., access to public services, location and/or ownership of residence, affordability of food), and systemic (e.g., law, media, economics). Rather than study these characteristics and factors in isolation, as has been the norm, researchers should explore important interconnections that can explain the most promising ways to promote climate-friendly behaviors.

3. Evaluate initiatives that can change behaviors at scale and that can have the most impact. Initiatives can be piloted to change individuals’ behaviors in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These initiatives should be evaluated based on the degree to which the targeted behavior can be changed, their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the extent to which the initiatives can be adopted, implemented and scaled to achieve their potential.

4. Diversify and augment the methodological toolbox. Much of behavioral science research relies on individuals self-reporting their behaviors, which can be biased and inaccurate compared to measuring actual behavior. Researchers should supplement this self-reporting with more objective tools such as GPS data, water meter readings, or attendance at climate activist events.

5. Increase attention to heterogeneity, generalizability, and robustness in interpreting research findings. Behavioral science research has been constrained by small samples of individuals that lack diversity. To address this, researchers must broaden their scope beyond Western populations and ensure diversity in their samples by better considering factors like gender identity, race/ethnicity, disability, and social class. This necessitates forming partnerships with non-Western researchers and allocating substantial funding for research in diverse settings and across countries.

6. Integrate and theorize. Most behavioral scientists test and apply theories to study individual climate behaviors. But this approach can miss important factors. Researchers should instead begin with a systematic description and characterization of the most impactful target behaviors and the contexts in which they occur (Recommendations 1-4), apply multiple methods (Recommendation 4), and repeat this process in other contexts and populations (Recommendation 5).

“Behavioral science has already generated important insights for taking the necessary actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Nielsen says. “But there is so much opportunity for behavioral science to increase its scientific and practical impact and more substantially contribute to climate change mitigation. Taking hold of these opportunities will require overcoming significant challenges such as limited funding for behavioral and social sciences, as well as bridging structural barriers that have traditionally challenged interdisciplinary and applied research.”

Areas of Focus: Climate Change
Climate Change
Climate change is an urgent global challenge. EPIC research is helping to assess its impacts, quantify its costs, and identify an efficient set of policies to reduce emissions and adapt...